Mon, Nov 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The US presidential candidates and the European question

President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq caused deep division between the US and its European allies. But could Kerry-led US get a fresh start in Europe?

By Aleksander Smolar

Those whom the gods would destroy, they grant their wishes. Those in Europe and around the world who yearn for a victory by Senator John Kerry in the US presidential election ought to keep that bit of ancient Greek wisdom in mind.

During the Cold War, the US was the natural leader of the Atlantic community, but the price of this leadership was that the US had to accept the autonomy and influence of its European allies.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush embarked on a unilateral foreign policy. The traditional Atlantic alliance was replaced by what the US called "coalitions of the willing," where "the mission determines the coalition," not historic alliances.

This policy divided Europe. It has also fueled deep divisions in the US presidential campaign, with one of the most potent arguments used by Kerry being that he will restore trust between America and its allies; that as president he will recruit international help in Iraq.

America undoubtedly needs more allies to bring Iraq's chaos under control and to build an Iraqi state that is seen as legitimate both by Iraqis and the world. Allies are seen as an answer to America's twin credibility and legitimacy deficits in its occupation of Iraq. But can a Kerry-led US get a fresh start in Europe? Will a President Kerry really be able to rally allies to America's side?

Iraq's mayhem has hardened the antagonism of countries like France and Germany, which led the opposition to the war in the first place. Even countries that rallied to Bush's call for help, like my homeland, Poland, are now wary of their involvement.

Consider the attitudes of France and Germany. Their leaders can scarcely hold their tongues, so badly do they want a Kerry victory. But they are not going to change their policy to help Kerry win, and they won't change even if he does.

As a gesture intending to boost Kerry's chances, German Defense Minister Peter Struck suggested that his country might reconsider its position on troops in Iraq. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder instantly shot down that trial balloon, declaring: "To be clear, we will send no troops to Iraq."

Actually, Germany, like most European countries, is politically and logistically unable to send meaningful military forces to Iraq. France, which did ponder sending 15 000 soldiers to Iraq had the UN given its blessing to the war, is as clear as Schroeder. According to French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, "Neither today, nor tomorrow," will French troops be sent. Both countries firmly believe that military success in Iraq is impossible.

So will transatlantic relations remain as poisoned as they are now if Kerry wins? Is Texas swagger merely to be replaced by the distinguished disdain of a Boston Brahmin?

This is probably too pessimistic. Europe cannot give an openly negative answer to Kerry's request for help, because that would be a slap in the face to the most pro-European American likely to be elected president anytime soon.

Such a rejection would not only put transatlantic relations even more at risk than they are today; it would also put relations between European countries in peril.

So some compromise must be found should Kerry win. Fortunately, one is possible. The first part is purely face-saving: Both parties must simply declare their good will. Today, European leaders are unlikely to throw even that slender lifeline to Bush. The reality behind such a declaration is that Europe would deliver low-level military and economic involvement in Iraq.

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