Unease in Europe

Print edition : October 11, 2002

THE trans-Atlantic rift between the United States and its European allies over Iraq could not have been more bitter, and public. It has even turned rude at times with a German Minister comparing the U.S. President George W. Bush with Hitler, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder himself mincing no words in denouncing the U.S.' war aims in Iraq. Schroeder has made clear that being an ally of the U.S. does not mean accepting Washington's diktat and has ruled out any support in cash or kind - to a military intervention in Baghdad.

During a protest in Cologne, western Germany, on September 14.-HERMANN J.KNIPPERTZ/AP

France has been equally forthright. Although it has softened its tone after the U.S. agreed to approach the U.N., Paris insists that it would not be a party to any attack on Iraq without a fresh U.N. mandate. It also wants all diplomatic channels to be exhausted before considering military means. There is unease in other European capitals as well, despite signals of support from Italy and Spain, both led by right-wing regimes.

Among the major European powers, Britain is the odd man out with Prime Minister Tony Blair willing to pay even "blood price'', as he said in a BBC interview, for his friendship with Bush. But within Britain, there is huge opposition to Blair's gung-ho stance, and cartoonists and satirists are having a field day lampooning him for his "poodle-like'' approach. Some of his own senior Cabinet colleagues are not convinced that there is sufficient justification for attacking Iraq.

Few people here, it would seem, have any love lost for President Saddam Hussein, but nobody believes that a gun-toting approach to bring him to heel is either morally right or in accordance with international law. Even the aggressively anti-Saddam Tories are queasy about invading a sovereign country without a U.N. mandate. But more about Britain later.

Europe-wide, the mood on the ground is palpably against joining in a war, whose one-point objective is widely seen to be Bush's personal agenda to complete the "unfinished business'' left behind by his father. There is widespread fear over the political implications of such a war for the entire West Asian region. It is a measure of the anti-war sentiment that the recent German election campaign was entirely shaped by the two main contenders' response to U.S. sabre-rattling over Iraq.

Schroeder, who had been trailing behind his rival Edmund Stoiber, was dramatically thrust into the lead the minute he made an uncompromisingly hostile statement denouncing U.S. moves on Iraq. It had such a huge impact on voters that even that most emotive of issues, immigration/race, did not work when Stoiber tried to raise it in a desperate bid to counter Schroeder's anti-war campaign. At the time of writing, a diplomatic row was brewing with Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice speaking of a "poisoned'' atmosphere in Germany. Schroeder's willingness to risk damaging Germany's relations with the U.S. is seen as an indication of the depth of public mood on the issue.

In France, the anti-war sentiment is equally widespread and it looks extremely doubtful if President Jacques Chirac would be easily persuaded to go along with any Anglo-U.S. attempt to push through a U.N. "mandate'' for military action. There have been intermittent anti-war protests across Europe and although these have not been on a dramatic scale or coordinated, it is significant that the opponents are not the "usual suspects''.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tonyn Blair at Camp David on September 7.-WIN McNAMEE/REUTERS

The unease over Iraq is not restricted to ideological pacifists but spills across the spectrum and draws on fears that an attack on Baghdad simply because the world's only super power wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein would open the floodgates for similar interventions in other countries. These fears have intensified after the announcement of the U.S.' new security doctrine of pre-emptive action to defend itself. There has been widespread criticism in Europe, including in Britain, of what is seen as a declaration of open season on any nation that America perceives as an "enemy''.

The insistence of the U.S. hawks on a "regime change'' in Baghdad irrespective of whether the weapons inspectors are allowed back into the country, has alienated even those who support the idea of dealing firmly with Saddam. The outrage, caused by the remarks of senior U.S. policy-makers on the issue, forced even Blair and his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to make clear that a change of regime in Iraq per se was not the goal. The goal, Blair repeatedly stressed, was restricted to removing the threat posed by Saddam's alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, despite a slight shift in public opinion following the U.N. intervention, Blair has his work cut out as he tries to persuade his critics within the party and the government that eventually Britain must back Washington in whatever way it chooses to deal with Saddam. At least two senior Cabinet Ministers, the leader of the Commons and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the International Development Secretary Clare Short, have come out against military action. Cook insists that any such decision should have Parliament's approval, a course not favoured by Blair although he has reluctantly agreed to have a debate on the issue in Parliament. Short, who was at one stage rumoured to be inclined to resign, has again warned of the "disastrous'' consequences of a war.

There are reports of a rebellion brewing among Labour Members of Parliament ahead of the party's annual conference, and by all accounts, Blair is in for a rough ride. But few have any doubts that once the summons come from Washington, he would be there, hat in hand, even at the risk of alienating his own people and his European allies.

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