If ever there was the illusion in Europe that Islamist terrorism would never cross into European territory, the March bombings in Madrid forever put an end to this way of thinking.
The very existence of Western democracies — never mind participation in the American alliance in Iraq — is reason enough for Islamist extremism to pursue its campaign of terror. Terrorism is not a response to specific policies or concrete circumstances, but rather a means of propaganda and self-affirmation utilized by a totalitarian movement. For this reason, the battle against terrorism was and remains the task of the entire international community and, in particular, of all democracies.
At the same time, an initiative promoting modernization and democracy in the Middle East, such as President Bush’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, does not require any specific justification defining it as a course of action to be taken in the battle against terrorism — although such an initiative would certainly be capable of depriving terrorism of its breeding ground in the long term.
Already before the outbreak of war in Iraq, Washington came to the conclusion that the “strategic bargain” that had long formed the basis of American policy in the Middle East was no longer tenable. This strategic bargain entailed supporting regimes — regardless of how dictatorial, illegitimate or corrupt — in the interest of stability, so long as the foreign and energy policies of the regimes continued to coincide with America’s needs. As ideological polarization lessened the utility of this type of partnership, an oversimplified neoconservative model calling for a general transformation of the entire region by means of a streamlined democratization came to the fore. The American effort to transform Iraq is guided by this missionizing reverse domino theory.
As the difficulties mount in Iraq and threaten to spread across the region, however, it is time for the European Union to come into its own in the Middle East.
Europeans, who greatly pride themselves on their proven, long-running approach of dialogue and cooperation toward partners in the Middle East, are now caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, staying the course on a purely economic and technological modernization of the region calls into question Europeans’ claim to champion human rights and democracy. On the other hand, Europeans know all too well the impossibility of imposing democratic order by decree — here in Germany, democratic order developed only slowly and with periodic setbacks. While Brussels would love nothing more than to see the effectiveness of European initiatives — the Barcelona process, for one — increased by coordination with American efforts, Europeans fear losing their credibility in the Middle East if they are viewed as being American lackeys.
As it works to extract itself from this dilemma, Brussels must be careful to avoid the E.U.’s disappearance in and behind organizations whose scope extends beyond that of European territory, but whose attractive force within the Middle East remains weak. If the E.U. is not visible politically as a distinct figure in the efforts of the international community, it will end up losing its significance to its own member states — and may see its prospects as a supranational body diminish.
In the near term, Brussels can maximize its impact by staking clear positions regarding the three non-Arab states in the region: Israel, Turkey and Iran.
While the predominant view in the United States is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has little if any effect on the general plight in the region, many Europeans tend to regard this conflict as holding the key to solving (almost) all other conflicts. Even if it is true that there is no cure-all solution to the problems in the region, it is difficult to deny that blocking the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has the effect of contributing to the ideological intensification of all conflicts with the West. For far too many regimes in the Middle East, the Palestinian cause has served as a suitable pretext for avoiding having to face internal difficulties. For this reason, the E.U. has to stick to its “peace process first” line, without postponing every intelligent regional strategy ad calendas graecas.
Beyond pushing forward on the Israel-Palestinian front, the E.U. can engender progress by tailoring its policies toward the bookends of the Middle East, Turkey and Iran.
As a secular nation, Turkey stands face to face with both pan-Arab and pan-Islamic expansionism. In Arab nationalist circles, the Turkish state is seen as a vestige of Ottoman rule, while among Islamists, Ankara is perceived as a manifestation of enduring betrayal.
If successfully integrated into the E.U., Turkey would round off the European political project while enhancing its regional and international significance. That being said, expectations of Turkey serving as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East should not be too high.
Iran also exhibits a limiting function with respect to the pan-Arab tendencies that can dwell within Islamism. At the same time, Iranian Islamism is using common Shiite identity to extend its propagandistic influence beyond its own borders.
A specific policy toward Iran will be a crucial element of any viable strategy for the Middle East. While applying the necessary pressure to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear armaments, it is important not to lose sight of the Islamic Republic’s security interests. Only within the framework of a regional security architecture and process of general disarmament will it be possible to obtain lasting, voluntary and credible commitment by Iran to abandon atomic weapons. Iran is already a loner in the region; it is important not to isolate the country even more.
Both Washington and Brussels need to come to terms with the reality that Western policy for the Middle East will not be cast from a single mold. There are simply too many differences and contradictions of the region — not to mention different political traditions, views, connections and bonds present in the West — for it to be otherwise.
Nevertheless, regardless of how much the trans-Atlantic dispute over Iraq may have been justified, the division that has arisen has come at a price that no one can afford to pay — not in today’s fight against terrorism, nor in connection with a compassionate and brave political initiative in the Middle East.
Georg Dick is director of policy planning at the German Foreign Ministry. Martin Eberts and Joscha Schmierer are members of the Policy Planning Staff. The views expressed are the authors’ own.