CAIRO – Whatever the results of the Bush-Blair Camp David summit on Friday, Europe’s role remains the key for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis.
Although President George W. Bush it made clear in his State of the Union address earlier this week that the course of a superpower may not be dictated by the decisions of others, the Middle East’s future will be decided by Washington with influence from some European corridors of power.
For the developing world though, it has no say: the Arab world – as well as Asia – has absolutely no input in the matter.
The Saudis, nevertheless, are still desperately putting all their efforts on an exile option for Saddam Hussein. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has had frantic talks with the leaders of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and will soon travel to France and Germany. He keeps hammering to the Iraqi leadership the fears of the whole Arab world: the massing of American troops is not a bluff. Mubarak had to admit, though, that Iraq “usually” does not answer to Egypt’s warnings “but sometimes we feel they agree.” The Arab strategy, in fact, consists of warning Iraq and urging it to surrender unconditionally to the US: But Saddam and the Revolutionary Command Council would rather perish than lose face in this manner. Arab repressive regimes know that Iraq will be the first domino to fall in a very long series.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland, Jordan’s King Abdullah said, “It would take a miracle to find a dialogue and a peaceful solution to this crisis.” The recent Istanbul meeting of key Middle East nations produced only a vague communique. A Turkish diplomat goes straight to the point, “We get nearly all of our military equipment from the US. We owe more than US$30 billion to the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. We can’t afford to antagonize the US.”
Washington may not give a damn about the reactions of the Muslim, and specifically the Arab street; as all Arab regimes are not democratic anyway, Washington trusts that the security apparatchiks will do the job expected of them, repressing the anger at boiling point of their own populations. But Washington is very much aware of what might happen in South Asia. Two possible nightmare scenarios: The government of Pakistan’s President General Pervez falls, replaced by a pro-Islamist army junta very much in tune with widespread anti-American popular resentment in Pakistan; and India’s hardliners in the government see their opening to launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
Divide and rule. The British imperial motto keeps being effectively applied by America. If the disunited Arabs are now appallingly apathetic, the Europeans themselves are alarmingly divided. The British government – through premier Tony Blair – once again has made a clear strategic decision to play Greece to America’s Rome. Arab and European political analysts concur: Britain was responsible for the Balfour Declaration – which is the cause of all, absolutely all, problems in the Middle East. Britain was part of the Sykes-Picot agreement – which in fact represented a balkanization of the Arab nation, with the ultimate objective of preventing the constitution of a unitary kingdom. And once again, in Britain, foreigners are plotting to redraw the map of the Middle East.
The map of Iraq, as is well known, was drawn by the British on a napkin. The new look won’t stop with Iraq, of course. Asia Times Online has learned from diplomatic sources that there are serious discussions in London’s Foreign Office right now on a feasible partition of Saudi Arabia: the Wahhabis would keep Mecca and Medina, the Anglo-Americans would “liberate” the “oppressed Shi’ite minority” and keep controlling the oil, and there would be two Arabias. There are also plans for a partition of Iraq. The central Sunni and Christian sector would be incorporated into a new Hashemite (princely Arab family claiming direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad) kingdom from the Jordan river to the Gulf. Britain is contributing to the configuration of the end of the post-Ottoman Middle East with as much technical and historical advice as with thousands of special forces.
France, on the other hand, clearly identified Washington’s long-term strategy: total US hegemony over the Middle East and its oil resources. Not only France, but a majority of countries in the European Union, as well as Russia, know that after Saddam goes, the US will never hold Iraqi oil “in trust” for those with large interests in the country (France and Russia) – as Washington has promised. Both Paris and Moscow have to carefully factor the consequences of potentially being excluded from the loot.
What Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is too blind to see is the fact that a war will also have devastating consequences – crucially in the form of tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of refugees drifting to Europe (including Italy). France also knows very well that a war will propel a new round of terrorism in Europe, and “it will lead to the recruitment to many anti-American terrorists,” in the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a recent visit to Cairo. As Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, from the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, estimates the situation, “We are facing a crisis not only for the Middle East, for the Iraqi people, the Palestinian people, indeed for all the peoples in the region, but for the whole world. The crisis could eventually engulf the entire planet, including Europe.” As all of the Arab world is aware, Sid-Ahmed reminds everyone “we are facing two superimposed crises, each reacting with the other: Iraq and Palestine.”
Blair is largely perceived not only in France and Germany, but by large sections of public opinion across the continent, as Washington’s Trojan Horse in the European Union – something that deeply embarrasses the British pro-European business elite. On top of it, almost 70 percent of British public opinion is not convinced of the necessity of war, or why Blair so obsessively torpedoes Europe’s unity in favor of Washington’s designs. One particular psychological trait has to be taken into consideration: a shrewd politician, Tony Blair never engages himself in a policy when he does not have absolute certitude of winning.
France and Russia (permanent Security Council members) and Germany (which takes the presidency for this month) fully agree: only the Security Council, through a second resolution, can legitimize the use of force, which is not at all justified for the moment. Washington’s mantra is “time is running out.” Paris – along with Berlin and Moscow – says that there’s no time limit to the work of the arms inspectors in Iraq. Belgium shares the same position, expressed by its Foreign Minister Louis Michel: “I believe a critical mass of European countries follow our line.” But he’s also alarmed by the dangers of disunity: “The four European countries now members of the Security Council must indicate that the European countries which will authorize an American attack without a second resolution will bear an enormous responsibility.”
No wonder that the bombastic episode championed by what is now known in Europe as the Gang of Eight – which openly proclaimed their faithfulness to the US line this week- could not but rejoice Washington (‘New Europe’ vs ‘Old Europe’ on Iraq). Not only was it a portentous slap on the face of France and Germany, it might cause tremendous problems to the credibility of the European Union itself. Many European diplomats and businessmen are not contesting the content of the letter – even though most of the 15 EU members don’t consider regime change in Iraq an end in itself. Most of all, they are contesting the form and the moment chosen for its publication. Ironies are flying from Brussels to Strasbourg, and from Amsterdam to Barcelona: the members of the Gang of Eight either fell into a trap, or are being dubbed “the vassals brigade.”
One just has to examine the list of signatures. There’s not a single dissident of the US line. The original idea for the letter is from conservative Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, an extremely close ally of George W. Bush. France and Germany were not even contacted. Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis – the current European Union president – also was not contacted. He only knew about the text late at night on Wednesday, via Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy: the text was splashed on the front page of newspapers across Europe on Thursday morning. Simitis, publicly, regretted the lack of coordination between the Europeans, but privately he was furious. A Greek government spokesman said on the record that Bush and Berlusconi did not say a word about it to Simitis when they talked on the phone on Thursday.
No less than 10 full members of the European Union did not sign the letter. So the Gang of Eight consisted of Britain and four right-wing governments (Spain, Italy, Portugal and Denmark) as EU members; plus three soon-to-become members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Poland is the fiercest US ally in Europe at the moment, behind Britain and Spain. Poland and Hungary are governed by two former communists. And the Czech Republic is already contributing to America’s war effort. Not by accident, these three Eastern European nations are the only candidates to membership of the European Union which are already members of NATO. This is in fact a group portrait of the “new Europe” so cherished by the Pentagon.
And the list could be even longer. Any country from Eastern Europe, previously in the orbit of the former Soviet Union, and eager to enjoy America’s favors, would happily join. Latvia and Lithuania signaled that they would have signed the letter. French, German and Dutch diplomats note in a playful tone that these countries obviously were not in George Bush’s list.
France, through Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, had to play the split down, especially because at this very moment Brussels is trying to come up with a real, credible European common foreign policy. “Let’s try not to oppose one Europe to another while everyone sees we defend the same principles: firmness toward Iraq and the will to find a solution to the crisis in the framework of the United Nations.” Belgium and the Netherlands also officially confirmed that they did not sign the Gang of Eight letter because Europe should speak with one voice.
Whether the four Europeans currently sitting at the Security Council will speak with one voice is still a mystery. Javier Solana, the de facto EU foreign policy chief, defends the work of the inspectors, with no time constraints. At the Security Council, this is the situation as it stands. France, along with Russia and China, all permanent members with veto powers, are in favor of “no time limit” for the inspections. The US and Britain, permanent members with veto powers, say “time is running out” (the US) and “now it’s the last chance” (Britain). Spain and Bulgaria, non-permanent members, more or less follow the American line, but they would be willing to wait a little more. The other non-permanent members are Germany (which takes the presidency during the crucial month of February), Mexico, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, Syria, Angola and Pakistan. The US could easily coax all of them to vote for war – except Germany and Syria – with a varied basket of carrots.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, US Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed a Swiss proposal to host an 11th hour meeting between Americans and Iraqis to avert war. Now Washington knows that it does not have a majority in the Security Council for a vote authorizing a war. It may always opt for the wobbly “coalition of the willing.” At least 53 countries have been contacted so far. The White House says that 21 countries are already on board – among them Australia, Kuwait, Qatar and NATO-happy Eastern Europeans – disguising the fact that this is fundamentally an Anglo-American war.
For Washington, Iraq is guilty until proven guilty; for the international community, Iraq still has the benefit of the doubt. Can the US build its case on the grounds of moral credibility and not imperial arrogance? All over Europe – and the rest of the world, for that matter – people are increasingly sure that for Washington’s hawks, the world doesn’t move forward because it doesn’t follow America’s orders. More and more people also know that America will attack as soon as it secures the necessary number of troops to “contain” or police Iraq as an occupation force for enough time to deliver re-election to George W. Bush. The unspoken truth amid all the spinning is that Bush’s Iraq policy is his economic policy. So this is not about “liberation,” it’s about power politics.
Can Europe finally make a difference? Yes, if European governments listen to their own public opinion. According to the latest EOS Gallup Europe poll released in Brussels on Wednesday, 82 percent of people in the 15 EU member-countries – and 75 percent in the 13 countries that are candidates for membership – say “no” to a war without a mandate from the UN. The numbers couldn’t be more crystal clear.