A Bad War for Europe WAR IN THE GULF

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 11, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris.--It has been a good war for Britain's Prime Minister John Major, and a good one for France's Francois Mitterrand as well, after a political tight-wire performance of great virtuosity. It was not so good a war for Italy's Giulio Andreotti, or for Spain's Felipe Gonzalez.

It was very bad war for Germany, gravely implicated in providing Iraq with the materials for mass-destruction weapons, and at the same time seized by a popular pacifism that had a marked anti-American component. It was a disaster for the idea that Europe can acquire a political identity and common foreign policy.

Mr. Major found extreme popularity by taking Britain stoutly and efficiently into the war while avoiding the abrasiveness and partisanship that would have been expected from his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. His success is such that the Conservatives are considering calling a June election, while good feelings endure, to give Mr. Major a proper personal mandate. (He owes his office, of course, to the vote of his Conservative Party colleagues, not that of the electorate.)

Francois Mitterrand was at his most serpentine in this affair, confronted with the bluff and belligerent ''Anglo-Saxons'' on the one side, and on the other a Socialist minority both anti-American and sympathetic to Iraq, and a Socialist majority dubious about substituting war for sanctions. There is a large Muslim population in France that the government does not wish to alienate, and a traditional foreign policy of support for the Arab countries.

Mr. Mitterrand committed troops to the coalition because France is a permanent U.N. Security Council member and he intended to have a say both in the war and its aftermath. He committed them only so far, though, at first only to liberating Kuwait -- but then authorized them to make the deepest penetration into Iraq of any of the allied contingents.

He pushed his own peace plan until the last minute, annoying Washington and infuriating Israel. He reportedly was indirectly negotiating with Saddam Hussein's half-brother for a Kuwait pull-out as late as February 14, but broke off the talks when Mr. Hussein remained unresponsive. He thus has ended with some credit in the Arab world for having done France's best to prevent the war.

He greeted the war's end with a brief address that failed to mention that the United States had played a role and announced that France now would resume its independent diplomacy, thus reconciling the chauvinist vote, not inconsiderable in France.

It was a formidable performance, but Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party is more divided than ever. However, the conservative opposition is even more divided. A part of the Gaullist movement, led by the son of Charles de Gaulle, objected to any French participation at all in the war. The leading rightist figure, Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris, uneasily tried to be both for and against.

Spain and Italy had France's problem of Arab attachments but managed it less adroitly. Both have historical ties to the Islamic world and important current trade relationships. They were pressed on the one hand to be good allies, and sent ships and an Italian fighter squadron to the Persian Gulf. But they put limits on what their forces could do.

This half-heartedness provoked a high Italian officer to object in public to Italy's having got into the war at all and caused an equally high Spanish officer to say that Spain's military honor had been compromised by having done so little. Public and the political classes in both countries were equally divided, and the result has been inglorious for both governments.

The most significant casualty of the war, however, was European political unity. There was no unity whatever on the gulf war. However, this may have been a useful demonstration which will bring greater realism to discussions of giving the European Community a single political identity, currently high on the agenda of Jacques Delors and the European Commission in Brussels.

So long as Britain, France, Germany and the Mediterranean powers all have distinct interests and see the world through the lens of sharply different historical experiences and prejudices, it is unreasonable to expect Europe as a whole to have a single foreign policy. It can have a powerful economic policy in common. Its economic and industrial interests are shared ones. It can have a common security policy, so far as the defense of Europe is concerned.

But in foreign policy it ordinarily can expect agreement only on the innocuous and uncontroversial issues. That scarcely merits the effort. When the issues are large ones the European powers go their separate ways, and assuredly will continue to do so.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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