Finding Unity On Terrorism

By Wolfgang Ischinger
Saturday, March 11, 2006

When I presented my credentials to President Bush in the summer of 2001, the Atlantic was quiet. The risks confronting the transatlantic community appeared to be few, well defined and manageable. As a new ambassador in Washington, I expected to find enough time to refresh my pilot's license.

Then came Sept. 11. At first the traumatic events of that day appeared to bring the West together. NATO took the initiative to invoke Article 5, the defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty, for the first time in the 50-year history of the alliance. Shortly thereafter, the German government took a step unprecedented in postwar history by dispatching troops abroad, to Afghanistan. The transatlantic community defined our shared objectives as pursuing international terrorism, and denying terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Today, as we continue to pursue these objectives, an even more complex challenge confronts us: radical Islam and the likelihood of even greater terrorist threats and a potential for escalating political, cultural and religious tension between the West on the one hand and the Muslim world on the other.

The situation is particularly serious because security threats and instability in the greater Middle East have continued to grow. In Iraq, terrorist violence remains widespread, along with civil strife and sectarian political division, with no good end in sight. In Iran, hope for a negotiated settlement regarding that country's nuclear ambitions has become uncertain. The future of the international nonproliferation regime is at risk; a Shiite nuclear capability might lead to Sunni nuclear ambitions. At the same time, Iran appears to be the principal beneficiary of growing Shiite influence in the region, adding a new element of regional instability.

The dream of transforming the entire region by getting rid of Saddam Hussein and creating democracy through elections has turned out to be elusive. In Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the Palestinian territories, recent elections have actually tended to strengthen radical political groups. While the very holding of elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories is a success, these developments have so far not contributed to regional stability -- on the contrary.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is difficult, after the Hamas victory, to imagine how a negotiating process leading to the proposed two-state solution can be conducted and concluded in the near term.

In short, there is more than enough fuel available in the region to further stoke the radical fire. What is new is that the battleground of this emerging larger conflict will most likely not be in the continental United States, as was the case on Sept. 11, but rather in the European-Mediterranean space: Europe, or Europe's back yard.

What is also new is the element of personal fear beginning to descend upon Europeans -- as it descended upon Americans on Sept. 11. This is the fear inspired not only by terrorist train bombings in London and Madrid but by political assassinations in the Netherlands and, more recently, the dramatic escalation of the cartoon controversy in Denmark. It is the fear of being personally threatened. Europe would cease to be the Europe we know, love and admire, if its people came to fear that insisting on their values and their way of life might put their safety and lives at risk.

Will Europeans and Americans find a common answer to this challenge? Some appear all too willing to speak of the "clash of civilizations" as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some in Europe might wish to go so far as to identify America's war in Iraq as the source of all problems, and some might prefer to dissociate themselves from a common transatlantic position, believing that the battlefield would then shift away from Europe. In America, the old prejudice against a weak Europe with inefficient leadership, unable or unwilling to defend itself and to deal with the issue of Muslim integration, might be reinforced.

How, then, should we move forward? Here are three simple thoughts:

· First, no serious effort has been undertaken to create a security structure for the Middle East -- the most volatile and, because of its oil resources, most important of all regions. Incorporating Israel into NATO, as has recently been proposed, would satisfy neither Israel's security needs nor those of the West. It would only exacerbate tension between NATO and the Arab world. Instead, an effective regional security arrangement would need to take into account the interests of Israel as well as those of Iran and the Arab countries, and it would need to be led and supported by the United States, Europe and Russia. As has recently been suggested, the U.N. Security Council might provide a framework for the elaboration of such an arrangement.

· Second, as repeatedly suggested by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO's role as the central forum for discussing and deciding transatlantic security issues should be strengthened. Europeans should make clear their desire for America to remain a European power. Those in Europe who believe that the European Union would be in a better position to develop its own defense policy if it were weaned from American military support are unwittingly playing into the hands of American isolationists -- to the detriment of European security. And those in Europe who continue to believe Europe should define its security policy independently from the United States have failed to understand that such an approach would inevitably divide the European Union.

· Third, the West -- as a political and moral concept -- must remain united. This is about more than just NATO, the European Union and free trade -- it is about the legacy of the European Enlightenment. Opposing absolutism, and believing in people's ability to create self-balancing and self-regulating, just, relativist and secular political systems: That is the Enlightenment's gift to the world, and it continues to be the West's promise.

But the West can lead only if it in turn is led responsibly by the United States as the only superpower, and if it can reoccupy the moral high ground, which has, in the eyes of many, largely been lost in the course of post-Sept. 11 events. One reason for this may be that we are not united on the issue of war and peace. Are we at war, as the United States claims, or are we just fighting terrorism, as Europeans believe? This is a fundamental political issue with the potential to either unite or split the West.

Many people in other parts of the world doubt whether our struggle against terrorism and for freedom, democracy and human rights is a struggle worth joining, a struggle with which they can or should identify. If we, the Western countries, are being measured by a higher standard than others, we should accept that and lead by example.

This is therefore the central challenge for the West in 2006: how to regain the moral high ground. The pursuit of post-Enlightenment ideals requires us to demonstrate that even as we fight terrorism we are prepared to take into account the interests of the global community, of all those whose cooperation we seek, whose values and culture we respect, and whose development and prosperity we support.

We must refuse to see that as a false choice; we must refuse to pit one religion against another. The choice is between absolutism and relativism, between totalitarianism and the dignity of the individual. That is the post-Enlightenment lesson the West can offer, and it is a legacy worth defending.

As I prepare to leave Washington for London, one thing is clear: There will be even less time in the future to take flying lessons.

The writer ended his tour as Germany's ambassador to the United States yesterday.


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