Middle East

Iraq: The war that will break the West?
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - It's an odd twist of fate. This weekend US Secretary of State Colin Powell will come to Beijing to confer with his Chinese counterparts about the forthcoming war in Iraq and the troublesome situation in North Korea. In China, until recently a Cold War foe, he will find more support than in France, its ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the country that two centuries ago helped America gain its independence.

The Eurasian continental balance has apparently shifted. Whereas western Eurasia had been for more than half a century the cornerstone of US strategy on the continent, with much shakier relations in the eastern part, now the eastern part seems more solid than the western one. Certainly this is only temporary, as the deep ties binding Western Europe to America can't be easily traded for the fragile bonds between Washington and Beijing. But, as the Economist said in "Old Europe's last gasp?" on February 13, "The nature of the split [between the US and France + Germany] threatens to undermine the postwar trans-Atlantic alliance, the hopes of those who dream of a common EU foreign policy and the prospect of a smooth transition to the newly enlarged EU in just over a year's time."

Simply put, as by influential European commentator Lucio Caracciolo, European public opinion doesn't back the war in Iraq. There are many the reasons for this:

  • The September 11, 2001, attacks were kindled by the Palestinian issue, and the war against terrorism promised some months ago also to resolve the Palestinian issue. This, especially after the recent Israeli elections, which confirmed Ariel Sharon, renowned for his tough stance on the Palestinian issue, will not happen. In other words the war on Iraq will not help the solution of the Palestinian cause. The Arabs then will receive the stick but no carrot with the war, and sticks without carrots rarely work. This could trigger further destabilization in the Middle East.
  • The European Muslim domestic minority is important because its dissatisfaction with Middle Eastern policies could trigger protests and possibly radicalize Muslims in Europe.
  • There is strong Catholic opposition to this war. The Vatican has a strong constituency in Iraq, a country hosting a large Christian minority loyal to the pope. There is fear that a war in the Middle East that does not provide a solution for the Palestinian solution could antagonize the Muslims. The pope, who doesn't want wars tainted with religion, thinks that the biggest threat to Catholicism comes from atheism, not other religions.
  • European public opinion believes that a war in Iraq could further ignite terrorism in Europe, closer and easier to attack, and conversely does not see at present the danger of terrorist attacks the Americans feel. In a way, Europe has lived with terrorism for decades and has given up the pretense of total security, which is opposite to the US notion of attempting to regain through war the illusion of total security.

    These sentiments give sufficient reasons to hesitate regarding a war. In the face of all these social costs, Europe might well be called to foot part of the bill of the war and its present claims to some of the Iraqi oilfields could be forfeited. The United States has already claimed that contracts signed with the present Iraqi regime will be reviewed after the war. France and Germany could bargain with the US about these costs but there is a much bigger geopolitical event around the corner. Through this war the US will be able finally to emasculate the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which the West will welcome, although this might not be openly expressed. However, this will give the US de facto strategic control of oil in an unprecedented way. Before Middle Eastern countries and Venezuela formed OPEC and challenged the West with a price war in the early 1970s, oil supplies were jointly controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. After the war, the US will in essence have total control of oil security from Iraq, Kuwait and the whole Arabian Peninsula. The UK and France will have no part in it, as no European country will have any part in the reshaping of the Middle Eastern political geography that will follow the war.

    On the positive side, the war could boost the dollar and deflate the euro, thus helping European exports and the sagging US stock market and its investments. This would help expand the economy on both sides of the Atlantic - provided there is a quick and clear-cut victory. But many Europeans fear that this will not be the case, in which case Pandora's box will have been opened, something for which the US seems ill-prepared. This could be especially true if the war does not contemplate a viable solution for the Palestinians.

    These are good enough reasons for caution and possibly for not starting the war. But what the European public is failing to grasp is that war has already started, and in fact it has been going on for months. In this situation it would be in everybody's best interests to solve it sooner rater than later. But this is not happening, and consequently oil prices are rising and anti-war demonstrations are growing.

    It is a vicious circle that started because the United States began the war in Iraq without declaring it and now it is hard for Washington to say it. It was a US stratagem to prepare the field for the final attack, before officially declaring it, but now it has turned against the US. This occurred because the US underestimated the European opposition to war and the Israelis' tough stance on the Palestinian issue.

    The US predicament is more understandable in China, where government and people have a national passion for stratagems, and the rulers can see and accept that the war has already started and it is only a matter of winning or losing it. In Europe, conversely, democratic public opinion would react even more bitterly if the US were to declare the simple truth that the war has already started and it is only a matter of winning or losing it. It could look like a deception of naive Europeans.

    But the real question remains: Could the administration of US President George W Bush withdraw from the war? What would be the consequences of letting Saddam Hussein continue ruling Iraq?

    For one thing, the global economy would stall for months, US public opinion might swing even more strongly against Europeans and oil prices could go sky-high as US market sentiments plunge further.

    So, war will certainly be waged, but will this trans-Atlantic rift be healed? And in what way? This rift could threaten the security bond that held together the Western world for more than 50 years and helped defeat the Soviet Union and hold the whole of Eurasia together. The trans-Atlantic alliance may well be the largest casualty of the Iraqi war, something that we have not even started to address.

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    Feb 22, 2003

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