It is exceedingly difficult to know what to make of and how to react to European misgivings about the American approach to Iraq. Germany and France, dismissed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as history, have made clear their opposition to Washington’s insistence on regime change in Iraq and the Bush administration’s readiness to act unilaterally if its traditional allies stand aside. For those of us who oppose the war with which the American administration seems obsessed, the European opposition is welcome. But the problem is that Europe’s track record on such matters is, to put it mildly, pathetic. We need only recall how Germany and France and the other European powers stood idly by as Dubrovnik was shelled, Sarajevo besieged, Bosnia “cleansed.” Here was a test of will and morality and Europe failed, miserably.
As it had before. Last month, at a European-Israeli dialogue in Berlin, Israel’s most distinguished political scientist, Shlomo Avineri, an Israel Prize laureate and former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, reminded the audience of the bankruptcy of British and French policy in 1936, when there was still time to stop Hitler and Nazi Germany. “Imagine,” he said, “how different would the world be if Britain and France would have used force against the Third Reich in 1936 –— when it was still not the military power it was to become three years later.”
And then Avineri’s zinger: “Saddam today has committed acts much worse than those of Hitler in 1936. In retrospect, this may sound incongruous — but it is a fact that Saddam’s treatment of his Kurdish minority population has been much worse than Hitler’s treatment of the German Jews in 1936; he has invaded two counties — Iran and Kuwait — and attacked two others — Israel and Saudi Arabia — with missiles; he has used poison gas against internal and external enemies; his regime is much more oppressive than Nazi Germany was in 1936; and he has developed non-conventional weapons, and defied for 10 years all norms of international law and the U.N. And yet Europe hesitates. Hesitation before going to war is understandable, but this, after all, was the motivation of the 1930s appeasers. If one thinks [now] that Hitler should have been stopped by force in 1936, what are the moral and strategic arguments against doing the same to Saddam today?”
Avineri’s indictment of Europe’s behavior then and thereafter is fundamentally unrebuttable. But that does not mean that the question he raises is thereby rendered rhetorical. There are, indeed, moral and strategic arguments “against doing the same to Saddam today,” and the fact that Europe has so regularly been wrong before does not necessarily mean that the Europeans are wrong this time.
The moral argument is by now familiar. War, its current high-tech incarnation notwithstanding, is invariably messier than its planners intend. In the case at hand, beyond the United Nations estimates of up to 500,000 Iraqi casualties and widespread famine and disease, there is the very real prospect of a bloody battle in the streets of Baghdad that will claim large numbers of American lives as well. Most of all, there is the stark possibility that an attack against Iraq will prove merely the opening battle in a 100-year war of the West against Islam. In short, the downside possibilities of the war that looms are so serious as to raise quite dramatically the level of threat that must be shown to exist if war is somehow avoided.
Now comes the tricky part: The only way this war can be won in any meaningful sense is if what appear to be the fantasies of its planners become the postwar reality. If we permit ourselves to imagine a transformed Iraq becoming the first genuine democracy among the Arab states — and thereby a model for the others — then the prize becomes tantalizing. For now we are talking not merely about regime change; we are talking about a political and cultural revolution in the entire region, a revolution to be enthusiastically welcomed in its own terms, as well as for its contribution to ending the scourge of terrorism. Bear in mind that Iraq is not Afghanistan. It is potentially a rich nation, and its levels of education, public health and other indices of social health are — or were, before the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed — impressive.
What makes this a tricky prospect is that such a reality is impossible to imagine without the full-bore cooperation of — the European powers. As Thomas Friedman deftly argued in his January 26 column in The New York Times, the effort to make of Iraq what the allies so brilliantly helped make of Germany after 1945 will not be a sprint; it will be a marathon. The United States cannot and surely will not be either willing or able to run that marathon by itself. It will require the active involvement of precisely those nations Rumsfeld has so cavalierly dismissed and that Avineri has so somberly critiqued, the very nations that we have managed, time and again, to offend during the two short years of the Bush administration.
We plainly do not yet know quite what it means to be the world’s only superpower. No surprise there; we are new to the role. But the clock is ticking, and we don’t have the luxury of time for reflection. A touch of humility to temper our arrogance, however, seems more a necessity than a luxury.