Very soon George Bush will have to decide a fundamental question at the heart of American foreign policy in the 21st century: Should he downgrade the NATO alliance with Europe and ignore the views of Arab countries when deciding his Middle East policy?
A sharp debate on these questions reportedly pits the Defense Department, headed by Donald Rumsfeld, against the State Department and its chief, Colin Powell. Vice President Dick Cheney's staff generally sides with hardliners on Rumsfeld's staff, and a fourth key player, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, often leans toward the Defense Department's views. Two other members of Mr. Bush's national security team, CIA Director George Tenet, and General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serve as advisers, not policymakers, but their views carry considerable weight.
Complicating the debate is the reality that the Defense and State departments are also divided within themselves on the need for allies in carrying out U.S. Middle East policy.
Hard-line conservatives on Rumsfeld's staff, most of them political appointees, claim that America is so powerful militarily that it doesn't need the European allies in order to pursue the president's goal of "regime change" in Iraq. They also say that Bush should not be influenced by the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia who told the president last spring that it would be dangerous for stability in the Middle East to start a war against Iraq while Israeli troops are crushing the Palestinian Authority and reoccupying the West Bank territories.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose advice has influence on Secretary Rumsfeld's and the president's thinking whenever military force is contemplated, reportedly oppose an invasion of Iraq unless the force includes some 250,000 troops and has access to bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, and, hopefully, Saudi Arabia. During the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were major staging areas for the assault that liberated Kuwait.
At the State Department officials offer differing advice on the importance of having European allies and cooperative friends in the Middle East. Most share Powell's view that a military operation in the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere, should have support from some NATO countries, especially the British. But some consider Europe to be less important to U.S. security now than during the Cold War, especially since Bush has achieved a strategic relationship with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.
Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991 during the Gulf War, is particularly sensitive to the need of having Arab allies when the president decides to invade Iraq again in order to oust Saddam Hussein. Powell also believes that the United States is not capable of exercising a world-wide security role without the support of the Europeans as well as major Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Indonesia.
A recent event that highlighted Europe's frustration over Bush's foreign policy was the White House's decision two weeks ago to reject the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) which began operations July 1. The State Department threatened to veto renewal of United Nations peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and elsewhere unless the Security Council exempts U.S. personnel from liability to arrest for alleged war crimes. Even the British government denounced the U.S. action. Diplomats say a compromise will likely be found by the July 15 deadline set by Washington.
It should be noted that Bush's decision was consistent with the views of Bill Clinton who believed the treaty establishing the ICC to be deeply flawed. He declined to submit it for Senate ratification, where it would have been rejected.
This U.S. veto threat unleashed a firestorm of criticism in Europe of America, some commentators calling it an arrogant bully. Even our neighbor Canada officially criticized Bush's ICC decision, prompting one columhist, the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente, to write this pithy comment: "The world dislikes America because America doesn't give a rat's ass about the world's opinion of it. America used to be first among equals. But now it stands alone.... We're supplicants, and we don't like it." ("America the good, the bad, and the ugly," July 4).
Another factor focusing Europe's attention on what critics call America's unilateralist foreign policy was a front-page story in the New York Times July 5, "U.S. Plan For Iraq Is Said To Include Attack On 3 Sides: Preliminary Document Envisions Tens of Thousands of Troops."
Publication of the story raises two important questions. First, how does the Pentagon foresee launching a major ground invasion of Iraq if it doesn't have the active participation of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, which is not at all certain? Second, is President Bush willing to approve a massive assault on Iraq if he has neither the support of European allies nor the approval of the major Arab governments?
A third question, perhaps a critical one for a projected invasion of Iraq, is whether President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have an understanding that Israeli troops will withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the end of this year and that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories will start to be dismantled. If so, this would greatly facilitate Mr. Bush's efforts to build a new coalition for an assault on Iraq in 2003.
This is a part of the larger question that the president needs to decide soon. In his June 1 address to the graduating class of cadets at West Point, he called for the preemptive use of military force against enemy states when required.
Some European allies, notably the British, might be willing to support this policy in certain circumstances, but only if they are fully consulted, not simply informed. They fear, correctly in my view, that if the United States goes to war, the allies may eventually be called upon to assist. The French and German governments are not likely to support preemptive military actions unless the United Nations approves.
The alternative strategy being urged on Mr. Bush by hardliners at the Pentagon is to ignore the Europeans and go it alone when necessary to crush "evil doers." They predict that other nations will support the United States when they see its determination to proceed.
But what happens if these war hawks are wrong and America finds itself alone, as happened to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 when he sent thousands of U.S. forces to Vietnam? He discovered that none of the European allies, or Canada, supported the intervention, and by 1968 he was forced to admit defeat.
America needs to decide what kind of superpower it hopes to be in this century. If it wants to become a hegemonic power acting mostly alone, is the country willing to bear the financial costs and military burdens of policing the world unaided by allies? I doubt it.
Europe may not add much to America's awesome military power, but it often contributes immeasurably to America's political credibility around the world.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST