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Europe must define its own 'war on terror'

By Ali Abunimah
Special to The Daily Star
Monday, March 22, 2004

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of daily commentaries The Daily Star will publish during the coming week, in which writers throughout the Middle East and abroad analyze the regional and global impact of the past year of war, occupation and rebuilding in Iraq.

The Iraq invasion and its bloody and chaotic aftermath offer proof that Europe needs to provide new, bold leadership and challenge Washington vigorously where it knows it is wrong. The Madrid attack is the wake-up call that action cannot wait.

The overwhelming consensus in key European, Arab and Muslim nations is that one year into it; the Iraq war has harmed the effort to combat terrorism. That was the conclusion of a study conducted by the prestigious Pew Research Center shortly before the Madrid atrocities.

The study also found that the broad opposition to the war a year ago persists, and has not been mitigated by its outcome. In the UK, support for the war has plummeted from over 60 percent to just 43 percent. Only in the US does a majority still support the war, but even there support has eroded steadily.

The dramatic result of Spain's general election suggests that the Madrid attack is only likely to harden this consensus, rather than scare people into joining the Bush/Blair camp that insists terrorism is entirely unrelated to anything that happens on earth, and is driven solely by a mysterious and unexplainable evil.

The Pew findings are one measure of the failure of the US "war on terror." If nothing else, such a campaign requires broad support, and this one doesn't have it. Significant mistrust of US motives exists in major European nations. Large majorities in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey believe the US is primarily motivated by a desire to protect Israel, anti-Muslim feeling, and a thirst for oil. The depressing but unsurprising result is that despite all the American efforts at "public diplomacy," Osama bin Laden is viewed far more favorably than George W. Bush in three of the four Muslim countries surveyed.

Most people in France and Germany, and even the UK, want the European Union to develop a foreign policy independent of the United States and to provide a counterweight to US power. EU Commission President Romani Prodi spoke for many when in response to the Madrid attacks he said, "It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists." Sometimes using force is the answer, but the current American approach has nothing else in its arsenal and it has failed.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, European policy has been mostly deferential to the US. This was understandable as the victim of the attacks could claim a moral authority that was hard to challenge. Europeans now have, at tragic cost in innocent blood, a powerful counterclaim that they have a right to define the terms of their own war on terror, and act on instincts and principles very different to those of Bush. Europeans recognize much more than Americans that the growing gulf between the West, and the Arab and Muslim worlds is fuelled by unresolved conflicts from Palestine to Kashmir to Afghanistan, and blowback from decades of disastrous Western support for tyrannical regimes. Islamic fanatics and American neoconservatives share a nihilistic worldview in which their respective "civilizations" are at war. If Europe does not force a change in direction, this view could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The lesson that Europeans should take from Iraq and Madrid is that they cannot afford any more to subcontract their security and fundamental interests to the United States, especially not to an administration that views them as expendable allies of convenience at best, and potential enemies at worst. Central to changing the dynamic in the region, Europe must start using its power to find and implement long-term solutions to conflicts, especially in Palestine, and offer to expand its successful model of economic development, social and political integration and democracy to its neighbors in the Arab world. This will require an effort no less daunting than that which built the EU itself from the ruins of post-war Europe. But Europe, unlike America, has demonstrated the ability to set transparent and inspiring political goals and pursue them doggedly over decades if necessary, accommodating different perspective along the way.

In the immediate future, European governments will have to resist intense pressure from Washington, delivered in mock-Churchillian tones that unless they follow the same failed path they are effectively choosing the side of the terrorists.

Bush appealed to Spain's Prime Minister-Designate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to keep his country's troops in Iraq in order that "the free world remain strong and resolute and determined." US House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the most senior Republican in Congress, threw oil on the fire by directly accusing the Spanish people of "appeasing" terrorists by democratically voting to change their government for one that actually represents their views. And Henry Hyde, another leading Republican congressman, called the Spanish vote a "victory for Al-Qaeda." Hastert and Hyde are only the most prominent of many US politicians and commentators to express these odious views. They are likely intended not only to intimidate Europeans, but to scare American voters into sticking by Bush no matter what happens between now and November.

But Europeans should not be intimidated by these abrasive tactics. Nor should they comfort themselves that if Bush is defeated the need for an alternative strategy would disappear. If John Kerry wins, the US will still be fighting in Iraq, and will still do nothing effective to resolve the century-old Palestine conflict, just resolution of which remains the keystone and starting point for progress on every front across the region.

Ali Abunimah, Chicago-based Palestinian-Jordanian analyst, media critic, and co-founder of Electronic Intifada, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star from London