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America, Europe and the Crisis Over Iraq

Philip Gordon
The Brookings Institution
Monday, April 19, 2004; 2:00 PM

What has brought about the strained alliance between Europe and America? Was the international split over the war in Iraq inevitable? Is the Atlantic Alliance necessary for America's well being or simply a Cold War relic that is not viable in today's climate?

Philip Gordon, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe, dicussed his new book "Allies At War: America, Europe, and the Crisis Over Iraq."

The transcript follows.

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Philip Gordon: Allies at War is the story of the worst crisis in US relations with Europe for at least fifty years. Jeremy Shapiro and I wrote the book for three reasons: to show that dismissing the Atlantic Alliance as dead could become a self-fulfilling prophesy; to tell the story of the diplomacy over Iraq as honestly and accurately as possible; and to put forward our own ideas on how to salvage this important alliance. I look forward to your questions and will do my best to answer them.


Wheaton, Md.: What is the real reason so many in Europe opposed the U.S. removing a brutal dictator, who massacred several hundred thousand innocent civilians and attacked four different nations? For France, Belgium and others who opposed the U.S., was it really about peace or lucrative oil contracts?

Philip Gordon: A lot of Americans--particularly hawks on the Iraq war--claimed that European opposition to the war was based on nothing but anti-Americanism or a desire for oil contracts with Saddam. I think that's not only wrong but was mostly a willful distortion of the facts in order to win the debate. It's true that there's a lot of anti-Americanism is Europe, but it doesn't automatically lead to opposition to our policies. Remember in Afghanistan there was broad European support for the war--both in public opinion and among governments. Ironically there the Europeans wanted to send more forces than we were willing to use, and today there are as many European forces--including French and German--as American. On the oil contracts, the fact is that the French and Germans were by the early 2000s doing very little business with Iraq (the US imported a lot more Iraqi oil than the Europeans) and if they had wanted to be cynical the best thing to do would have been to support the war and demand contracts in return. The fact is that there were other, non-cynical, reasons to be skeptical about the war. And now that we're seeing such violence in Iraq and political difficulties, I think we have to admit that the European critics were not completely wrong. Yes, Saddam was a monster and they knew that--but they also knew that it would be very hard to make Iraq stable after he was removed.


Nederland, Colo.: How relevant is Europe's long experience with war among its members, as well as with peaceful resolutions of conflict? How much appall is there, for the increasing U.S. tendency to (support the) resort to violence first? Does Europe fear and oppose proliferating the U.S. de facto "might makes right" policies? That is, the more states refuse to submit to international law, and "defensively" arm themselves, does that eventually diminish the safety of the whole world? Thank you.

Philip Gordon: I think there were a lot of reasons why Americans tended to support the war whereas most Europeans opposed it. As I mentioned in my last answer, I don't think it was knee-jerk anti-Americanism or desire for oil that led to European opposition (and by the way I also don't think the US invaded for political reasons or for oil). The most important factor was that after 9/11, the US felt more vulnerable than ever before, and it also felt it had the power to do something about it. That combination of vulnerability and power--along with a very American confidence in our ability to "change the world" (a phrase Bush used in his press conference the other night) really contrasted with a European view that no matter how bad Saddam was, we couldn't necessarily "fix" Iraq. Our respective histories also made a big difference. US power and confidence led Americans to believe that they could be successful in "transforming" the Middle East. European powers--who had a bit of a track record in the region--knew how difficult it is to import democracy and stability from abroad. Compare the British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s (or the French occupation of Syria) to today and you'll see what I mean.


Lakeland, Fla.: John Kerry has stated that several foreign leaders have told him that they hope he is elected President, and will replace the current administration. Do you find that statement credible? Also, do you think that many of our traditional European allies will refrain from providing substantial help with Iraq as long as George W. Bush is President?

Philip Gordon: I find Kerry's claim not only credible, but obvious. I have no idea what specific leaders may have told John Kerry in private, but I do know that many leaders around the world--and certainly in Europe--would prefer not to see a second Bush administration. Look at the polling data done by the Pew forum about a month ago--there is more hostility to the United States today around the world than there has ever been before, and that is deeply disconcerting. When asked, many of these poll respondents specfically say that "the problem with America" is not "America in general" but "the Bush administration". This is true even for our traditional allies like Great Britain. I have no illusions that US-European relations would suddenly be all sweetness and light were Kerry to be elected (remember the disputes o the late 1990s under Clinton), but the fact is that the gaps between Europe and Bush are greater than with the Democrats on a whole range of issues, well beyond Iraq. And the baggage Bush carries into this relationship after all that went on during the Iraq crisis (the WMD issue, the arrogant diplomacy, etc.) makes it hard for European leaders (especially in democracies where he's so unpopular) to support him even when he needs it (like in Iraq today). So in short, yes, I doubt Europeans will do much in Iraq so long as Bush is President, at least before the election. If Bush is reelected--I think he'll need to seriously reach out to Europe to put things back on track.


Washington D.C.: Dear Mr. Gordon

Is the differences in opinion on Iraq only the tip of the iceberg in transatlantic disagreements?

Thank you.

Philip Gordon: No, I think Iraq IS the iceberg, if I can use that metaphor. Iraq was the "perfect storm" for America and Europe, and (fortunately) there aren't too many issues likely to generate the degree of divergence that we saw there. If we could find a way to move forward together on Iraq, I think there is hope for cooperation on other issues as well. In Afghanistan, for example, we actually are working well together, to the common good. Judicial and intelligence cooperation in the war on terrorism is also excellent. There is scope for cooperation on Iran. And there has been hope for agreement on how to promote political transformation of the greater middle east. But the Iraq iceberg--especially after the violence of the past weeks--will pose a problem so long as the United States, for whatever reasons, is bearing the burden of this crisis without broad alliance support.


New Rochelle, N.Y.: I am a dual citizen. I don't remember relations ever being this one sided in the press against Western Europe. Is this the worst, thanks to the media that acts like a public relations firm for the Bush White House?

Philip Gordon: Things have been pretty bad before--remember people pouring French wine in the streets after France pulled out of NATO's military command structure in 1966. But probably not this bad, and we no longer have the common interest of fighting the Cold War to keep things from getting out of hand. I don't think the media in general acts like a public relations firm for the Bush White House, but I do think all too many people and pundits use deliberately misleading arguments and accusations in order to try to win the debate. This took place from both sides (Europe and the US) during the Iraq debate, and it was disturbing. Again, another reason we wrote the book--which I think you'll find is very critical of both sides--was to try to separate fact from fiction.


Oxford, Ohio: What is your position on the points brought out by James Rubin in his recent Foreign Affairs article on pre-Iraq war diplomacy? Do the administation's choices seem to mesh with a coherent and predictable political philosophy? It would seem as if the U.S. is randomly picking aspects of different paradigms that are based on incompatable assumptions.

washingtonpost.com: Stumbling Into War (Foreign Affairs, Oct. 2003)

Philip Gordon: I think the Bush administration was made up of what you call "different paradigms" from the start. Many people seem to believe (and there have been a lot of assertions lately, from Paul O'Neill to Richard Clark) that Bush came to power determined to overthrow Saddam and "transform the Middle East" from the start. The truth is that the administration was divided from the start, with some traditional "realists" like Secretary of State Powell and National Security Advisor Rice, and some who supported a more radical "neo-conservative" agenda like Vice President Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz. (Powell and Rice both came to office talking about Iraq as a weak, broken regime that should be contained, rather than invaded.) But 9/11 tipped the balance between these forces within the administration, and led President Bush himself to side with the neo-conservatives. After 9/11, Bush was sold on the notion that the US had to use its power to change the world. We'll have to see if the difficulties in Iraq lead to a sort of comeback by the "realists."


Boston, Mass.: What does the Spanish decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq say about U.S.-European relations and about the diplomacy that led up to the Iraq war?

Philip Gordon: The Spanish decision is another setback to transatlantic relations and also a reminder of the price we're paying for having had to go to war without broad international support. It was certainly a setback to the Bush administration, which had been hoping to use Spain as an example of how a foreign leader can back the United States in an unpopular cause like Iraq, and yet still get reelected. Instead, Spanish anger about Iraq (and at the former government for its handling of the March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid), led to a change of government and a new policy much less favorable to the United States. The worry is that this could be repeated elsewhere, if leaders who backed Bush and the war even though they were unpopular are replaced by angry voters. The lesson--which I think the Bush administration failed to acknowledg--is that power and strong and decisive leadership alone are not enough to win over allies. You need their hearts and minds as well. By the way, I think the Spanish decision yesterday was unfortunate (Prime Minister Zapatero didn't even wait to see if the UN was going to play a greater role in Iraq which had been his condition for staying)--but it's also a legitimate democratic choice.


Arlington, Va.: Your thoughts on Robert Kagan's book on European-American relations?

Philip Gordon: I'm tempted to say "read my book" because Jeremy Shapiro and I talk a lot about Kagan's thesis in "Allies at War." Indeed, one of the reasons for writing our book was to refute the notion, than many of Kagan's readers accepted, that the US and Europe had grown so far apart that alliance was no longer possible, and moreover that it was not necessary. Kagan, mind you, didn't actually say that, and the new afterword to his book is a brilliant essay on the importance of legitimacy, which is one of our themes as well. But we worried and still worry that a simplistic reading of Kagan would lead people to conclude--as many did last year, alas--that there was no need to deal with Europe since they had little to offer and we could never agree. Thus the self-fulfilling prophesy: We fail to win European hearts and minds because we assume from the start that doing so is impossible...


Washington, D.C.: What is your view of the impact of the war on terror on transatlantic relations? What impact do you think enlargement of the EU on May 1 will have on U.S.-European relations and what are the main implications of EU enlargement for the U.S.?

Philip Gordon: The war on terror itself should bring Americans and Europeans together--we face very similar threats and need each other to deal with them. Remember the solidarity that people felt just after 9/11, and the European support in Afghanistan, where these supposed pacifists backed our action not only against Al Qaeda but also against their Taliban hosts, and where the Europeans today have some 12,000 troops under NATO. My worry, though, is that an American attitude that seems to be that we can do whatever we want internationally because of the terrorist threat will prove highly counter-productive. President Bush's statement (and apparent attitude) that you are either "with us or with the terrorists" if far too simple. We do not have the monopoly of wisdom on how to deal with this huge issue and a bit more humility would do us well. In trying to win the war on terrorism we may both fail to do so and lose our greatest strength--American credibility, trust and respect. Bottom line: the war on terrorism is analagous to the Cold War--we didn't agree with the Europeans on all aspects of that, but our postwar leaders like Harry Truman and Dean Acheson knew that they needed Europeans on our side to win, and that all the power in the world wouldn't work if we didn't win the battle of ideas.
On EU enlargement, the new EU members are mostly pro-American. Let's not squander that.


Annandale, Va.: Well I haven't heard the terms "freedom fries" or "Old Europe" recently, so it must be getting better. There must be some Spanish things we can rename, just can't think of any right now?

Philip Gordon: Yes, I think the mocking of the French for doubting the existence of large WMD programs and worrying about the difficulties of postwar Iraq are dying down a bit...not too surprising under current circumstances. But even before that, initiatives like changing the name of French fries on Air Force One to "freedom fries" were embarassing. The arrogance of assuming that we're always right and that the arguments of our democratic allies can only be based on venal motives is counterproductive. As noted earlier I'm not thrilled about the Spanish decision and worry that it will only encourage those who want us to fail in Iraq, but let's be grown up about these serious issues.


Washington, D.C.: Has the disagreement on Iraq had an impact on the transatlantic trade relations?

Pascal Niedermann, U.S. Senate Finance Committee

Philip Gordon: Not too much yet, but it could if things continue to deteriorate politically. During the Cold War we worried that transatlantic trade spats would spill over and undermine the political alliance. Now the greater worry is that the political spats will spill over into the economic...


Nederland, Colo.: You said "The most important factor [for the US to invade Iraq] was that after 9/11, the U.S. felt more vulnerable than ever before, and it also felt it had the power to do something about it". So do you think the Administration REALLY believed Iraq was a threat to the US? Did it REALLY believe it would be safer to occupy Iraq than to continue to conatin it? Or was it partially motivated by other "political" (not "oil") goals and willing to take the risks? Thank you.

Philip Gordon: Let me explain this. The argument that Iraq was a direct threat to us was always bogus, and war proponents should not have exaggerated that threat. Similarly I think some hawks vastly exaggerated (or even made up) the links between Saddam and al Qaeda in order to scare up support for the war. But that does not mean there was nothing to worry about (or that Americans didn't genuinely worry). We all thought Saddam had at least chemical and biological weapons programs, and some of that stuff could slip into the wrong hands. (Remember not only 9/11 but the anthrax attacks that followed along the East coast. During those weeks when we were nervous about opening our mail, news that Saddam was over there producing mass quantities of the stuff were not encouraging.) And there was also the fact that with Saddam in power we had to maintain crippling sanctions on Iraq and troops in Saudi Arabia, all of which exacerbated the terrorist problem. So yes, I do think Americans really did feel a threat, even if it was often (deliberately) exaggerated.


Philip Gordon: Thanks for all these questions and my apologies to those whose questions I didn't get to. I appreciate your interest and your thoughts and hope we'll have another opportunity to do this soon.
Phil Gordno


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