Theater Of War

  • Share
  • Read Later

For months it has felt as if Europeans and Americans are not so much close allies as different species. The historic bond of common cause, intensified by Sept. 11 — "We are all Americans now," Le Monde famously observed — has dissolved into incomprehension and distrust. President of Texas, the Europeans hiss about George W. Bush, who won't join Kyoto or the International Criminal Court or lean on Sharon to make a deal with Arafat — and seems hell-bent on reigniting a war his dad let fizzle too soon. Feckless Eurowimps, the Americans retort (when they bother to regard Europe at all), all you care about is your own backyard and your wallets and your dusty old dignity. Saddam Hussein is a menace getting worse, and if you aren't going to help us with the world's dirty work, just get out of the way.

The elaborate public humiliation Washington took such pleasure visiting on Gerhard Schröder last week — though Germans re-elected him Chancellor precisely because he condemned any war against Iraq — was merely the latest sign of bad blood in the transatlantic relationship. But the truer message of the week, brought to us by the raucous miracle of democracy, is how much we allies have in common. To the surprise of the many Europeans who caricature the U.S. as a monolith aching for war, lots of middle-of-the-road Yanks are now asking tough questions about Bush's policy. Al Gore materialized in San Francisco, blasting the man who beat him to the White House for disdaining world opinion and losing his focus on al-Qaeda. Tom Daschle, the mild Senate majority leader, boiled with fury after Bush said Senate Democrats didn't care about national security. Senator Robert Byrd, 84, a conservative Democrat who never rouses rabble, accused Bush of warmongering to win Republican votes in next month's midterm elections. That is exactly the claim German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin made two weeks ago — minus, of course, the comparison to Hitler that got her fired.

Sure there is politics in how the Democrats are accusing Bush of playing politics, just as there is in Schröder's grab for votes and Bush's own tough-guy stance. That is exactly the point. Wars fought by democracies require the consent of the governed. Winning consent for a war far from home to counter a threat that is grave but not imminent requires all the political arts, from gentle persuasion to bullying — and not just at home. As long as Bush seeks an international coalition to squeeze Saddam, he must appeal not only to his own constituents, but also to Schröder's, Tony Blair's, Jacques Chirac's and Vladimir Putin's. Polls show that voters on both sides of the Atlantic are worried about an Iraq war. So as senators spar in the next few weeks about how much war-making authority to cede to Bush, they will repeat arguments M.P.s shot at Blair last week before 53 members of his own party deserted him. Nor is it surprising that British diplomats are quietly invoking that backbench revolt in Washington as an argument for why Bush must not ditch the U.N.

The tussle between Bush and those who want to restrain him is now thoroughly transatlantic. Yet it still feels like kabuki, a precooked debate moving to a preordained conclusion. The hawks have the advantage of a simple argument: Saddam is a vicious thug who has already flouted the U.N., he's bound to get worse and there's no time like the present. The doves focus on process: get U.N. blessing, try inspectors first, show us more evidence. As Bush keeps checking those boxes, the doves will run out of places to land. It will take some months, but unless Saddam converts to pacifism or gets much better at concealing weapons, Bush will have his war, with sufficient support on both continents. "The way to win international acceptance is to win," a senior Bush aide says bluntly. "That's called diplomacy: winning."