Charm and Legacies Are Republican centrists usurping the neocon agenda-setters? By Elizabeth Pond One of the more pungent American cartoons shows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sitting at a table, graciously explaining to her German, French, and Russian listeners, “The president has decided to forgive you for being right about weapons of mass destruction.” Ouch. In fact, though, it turned out that Rice’s and George W. Bush’s tours of old Europe were not just exercises in charm to persuade allies of the righteousness of past presidential actions. Significant policy and consultative changes were embedded in the American sweet talk that transpired at the Berlaymont headquarters at the very heart of the European Union beast. The first shift was the administration’s conversion from suspicion to support of European integration, as both Rice and Bush stressed again and again in Brussels, Mainz, and Paris. Gone was the old contempt for Europe that radiated out of Washington in 2002 and 2003, whether from the acid invective of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or the silver pen of Robert Kagan—who has in the meantime become one of the more unlikely admirers of Venusian Europeans. The second change was and is the administration rethink of its policy toward Iran’s efforts to master the full uranium fuel cycle that is the prerequisite for producing nuclear weapons. As of this writing it is not yet clear whether revision will go so far as to nudge America’s “skeptical neutrality” into “passive support” for the ongoing British-German-French attempt to win Tehran’s voluntary renunciation of nuclear-arms aspirations, as a senior European diplomat puts it. But Washington is seriously considering just such an evolution. The third, procedural shift actually predated Bush’s European visit in February. The kind of constant senior-level soundings with key European allies that the United States broke off at the height of its unilateral hubris before the Iraq war—which might have mitigated some of the worst clashes of recent years—quietly resumed a few months ago. They are bearing fruit today in the joint US-French demand for Syrian withdrawal from Beirut. Even earlier, the greater second-term tolerance of old Europe’s idiosyncrasies was signaled in the administration’s grudging acceptance last fall that France and Germany would train Iraqi troops only outside of Iraq, and only in small numbers. In this particular, ironically, even though an improved European relationship was the centerpiece of the Democratic challenge to Bush in the 2004 elections, John Kerry was tougher than Bush in insisting that the French and Germans show their solidarity by sending at least some troops to Iraq proper. In a further irony, even as they mocked Kerry’s softness toward the Europeans in the campaign, the Republicans were already plotting their own half-year charm offensive to restore transatlantic comity by summer of 2005. In fact, the shrewdest question about Bush’s European swing may be not whether the president’s new style has any substance behind it, but rather, cui bono in Washington infighting? Are the Republican realists and moderates finally wresting the initiative back from neoconservative ideologues in the administration? The charm of the charm offensive—to use an analogy that might appeal to football fan Rice—is that it moves the goalposts only imperceptibly and unthreateningly. Presumably Bush himself—and Rice herself—could be sold on the virtue of a softer approach to Europe because it’s nicer to have friends than enemies and because such an approach would not commit them to any specific course of action. Yet in that classical bureaucratic game of maneuvering for the ear (and tongue) of a president by writing his public speeches, Bush’s cordiality toward Europe is now policy. In the new atmosphere any neocon Eurobasher, rather than setting the agenda, becomes a dissenter from the president’s own line—an uncomfortable position in an administration that prizes loyalty. If this reading of Washington tea leaves is correct, the follow-up question is why an administration that so brusquely dismissed Europe as “irrelevant” in its first term even bothers to court Europe in its second. Certainly all the president’s rhetoric and body language convey his own conviction that he was right and old Europe was wrong about the Iraq war, and it‘s still the Europeans who need to adjust. The answer may lie in the assessments by Bush policy advisers who implemented the president’s first-term foreign policy and still maintain that its creative destruction successfully cracked open the ossified Mideast—but who worry more than their boss does about the consequences. At the practitioners’ level the desire for close relations with European allies seems to go well beyond some feel-good mood to sense that the natural transatlantic allies can manage the new crises in a destabilized Mideast only if they play the whole policy spectrum together. If Americans continue to eschew the kind of soft power they themselves once invented, while Europeans continue to eschew the kind of military coercion they themselves championed until the mid-20th century, they increase the risk of failure. Today, to the relief of the old Europeans, Condoleezza Rice—who once famously scorned sissy nation-building as no job for the 82nd Airborne—sounds more like the professional diplomats serving under her. They appreciate this in a Secretary of State who has far better access to the president than her predecessor ever had. In these transitional days enough ambiguity remains in U.S. foreign policy for Europeans to be unsure where Bush II will finally come down. They encounter American surprise at the increasing European willingness to take policy initiatives without first getting Washington’s assent, in such matters as the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gases, which has just entered into force without American participation; European mediation to keep Ukraine’s Orange Revolution bloodless and successful (thanks to the adept playing of the EU machinery by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski); and especially the “EU-3” approach to Iran. They detect as well some American wonder that Bush’s special friend Tony Blair is acting in all of these initiatives—and in shepherding attempts to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace process—as a full European and not a half-American. Yet even so, they are not running into the kind of American hostility that such European freelancing would have elicited even a year ago. Positively, too, Bush’s new paradigm of spreading democracy and freedom—it’s been many months since the president’s main organizing theme was the war on terror—suits them very nicely. Last summer the Europeans added an emphasis on long-term, bottom-up, local-ownership, capacity- and democracy-building to Washington’s grand idea of a Broader Middle East initiative centered on regime change, by force if necessary. They were pleased that their contribution was received by the administration (if not by neoconservative commentators) even then as an enrichment rather than sabotage. To be sure, the old war-on-terror paradigm did not trouble the Europeans in content; indeed, even during the worst feuds over the Iraq war, transatlantic cooperation in this field was exemplary. But Europeans felt profoundly uneasy with the kind of rigid Manichaean, with-us-or-against-us American policies that paradigm produced. By contrast, Bush’s new emphasis on democracy plays to demonstrable European strengths. There are few countries that have done more to nurture democracy than the Europeans now gathered in the EU. These skills are badly needed in a world of numerous failed or failing states that are potential havens for al Qaeda-like extremists. Europe’s transformative record is impressive in helping Spain, Portugal, and Greece to consolidate post- dictatorship democracy in the 1970s, and helping the Central European states to modernize and open up their post-communist societies in the 1990s. In this context the current op-ed skirmishes in the American media are instructive. As America’s monolithic 9/11 superpatriotism melts into the more usual U.S. cacophony, a foreign policy debate has resumed for the first time since 2001. And this means that there finally is a real American domestic dialog that Europeans can join as insiders rather than as aliens from another planet. The most revealing single exchange is the one in the premier journal Foreign Affairs at the turn of the year 2004/05. European readers at first had no clue who the unknown lawyer Jeffrey Cimbalo was who vilified the draft EU constitution as a threat to American interests in the magazine; they wondered if he might be launching some neoconservative probe to deter any European opposition to an American military strike on Iran. The rebuttal in defense of Europe by Democratic thinktankers in a later issue of Foreign Affairs was gratifying to Europeans—but nowhere near as gratifying as the subsequent charm offensive of Bush himself that rendered such assaults on Europe politically incorrect. Now Washington’s subterranean tests of strength have shifted to Iran policy. Emblematically, the American Enterprise Institute’s Reuel Marc Gerecht is speculating, even as the Bush administration is leaking its own review of policy, that the EU-3 mission to Tehran is so outrageous that it is pushing the administration in the opposite direction, toward a unilateral hard line on Iran. (Europe says “engagement” and means “appeasement,” Gerecht muses.) If a President Kerry had thought of leaning in the direction Bush is now thinking of leaning, neocon loyalists would presumably have reviled him. It’s not so long ago, after all, that Pentagon adviser Richard Perle demanded that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder resign immediately after he was reelected in 2002 and chastised European External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten for lacking authority because he had been appointed rather than elected to his post. President Bush—shades of Nixon- to-China—runs no such risk. Whether or not Bush does “engage” in the EU-3 attempt at persuasion, Europeans anticipate no Iraq-style dust-up with Washington over Tehran. They believe Iran is far too strong militarily, the post-Iraq U.S. military too overstretched, and Iran’s nuclear processes too rudimentary and dispersed for Washington to contemplate a new war of choice, or for Israel to consider a repeat of its Osirak airstrike a quarter century ago. “How do you bomb intentions?” asks a European diplomat. Nor does any fundamental transatlantic row loom over dealing with Bush’s third “axis of evil,” a North Korea that now proclaims that it possesses the atom bomb. Europeans continue to believe, as they predicted from the beginning, that the war in Iraq has not helped, but has hindered the effort to halt nuclear proliferation by increasing incentives to go nuclear fast to gain immunity to U.S. bombing (like Pyongyang). But they have no desire to magnify differences in evaluations that for now have little operational relevance. The Europeans are glad to leave the North Korean dilemma for Washington to solve. The relative U.S.-European calm at present over the aftermath of the Iraq war is thus a transatlantic plus. Given the facts on the ground at this point, the Europeans desperately want the U.S. to succeed in turning Iraq over to the Iraqis, while keeping troops there as long as needed to maintain security during the transition and help avert civil war. The French and Germans will not contribute their own combat troops to this effort (not out of Schadenfreude, but out of fear that more Western military forces in the country would fuel rather than quench the insurgency). Berlin has, though, finally won Washington’s tolerance of its long-time thesis that Germany’s limited forces can contribute more to the general good by preventing Afghan recidivism to a failed state and al Qaeda host, than they could as additional firepower in Iraq. Nation- and capacity- building are no longer dirty words in the Rice and Bush lexicon. A cloud overshadows all the semi-rosy transatlantic scenarios, however—the nagging psychological legacy left by the fierce rows over the Iraq war. Two years of bitter dispute seriously eroded the trust built up over half a century. In the United States a wide political spectrum that goes well beyond just neoconservatives now suspects darkly that when Americans have their backs to the wall, the Europeans might not come to their aid. Reciprocally, in old Europe many in the political class now doubt both the honesty and the judgment of the world’s only possible democratic leader. At issue here is less the overt question of whether Washington hyped faulty evidence of Iraqi possession of WMD in 2002 and 2003 than the administration’s pained insistence to allies that it had not reached any decisions about invading Iraq long after this decision had in fact been made. Such pretense went beyond tactical white lies to constitute fundamental deception, some European officials hold. Restoring the bedrock transatlantic trust that used to be taken for granted, even during the worst policy quarrels, will thus be the allies’ hardest task of all. Mutual charm, good will, and listening to partners are all to be welcomed, and are certainly better than the alternatives. But they do not yet suffice. This article previously appeared in Internationale Politik - Transatlantic Edition, v. 1, no. 1, Spring Issue 2005, pp. 24-27 in March/April 2005. It appeared in the April 21, 2005, AICGS Advisor. Elizabeth Pond is Transatlantic Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK International Edition (www.internationalepolitik.de) and a former AICGS Fellow.
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