With friends like these

January 24, 2003

NOBODY HAS TO believe that the French and the Germans are acting from pure motives as they try to throw a wrench into an early American war against Iraq. Both countries have had business dealings of a sordid nature with Iraq, both countries are wary of a further extension of American power, and both countries are evidently taking internal European politics - which have almost nothing to do with either Iraq or the United States - into consideration.

No. Their motives are complex but also largely beside the point. The important question is what comes next.

Germany and France have already blocked NATO from considering a plan to cover for U.S. forces that might be called away to a war in Iraq. They have promised to vote against a Security Council resolution in the United Nations authorizing armed action against Iraq - which is no small matter, because France wields a veto.

The Bush administration says it is prepared to go to war anyway. And if this was a strictly military question, the truth is that it wouldn't much matter what anyone in Europe might say. A war in Iraq, under any imaginable circumstances, is going to be an American war.

But of course no war - least of all this one - is solely a military contest. Politics are, as always, of overriding importance.

The fact is that President Bush has not convinced the people of the European democracies of the justice of his cause. That is what has given the elected leaders in Paris and Berlin room to maneuver. The governments of most of Iraq's neighbors are meeting again today in Turkey in a desperate attempt to dream up a way to prevent war. Significant numbers of Americans are also having their doubts. Even the British are looking for a way to push back the commencement of hostilities.

This is a signal failure of politics on the part of the administration. In response, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, casually insults France and Germany. (There will be a lot more of that in the days and weeks to come, for sure.) Colin Powell, the secretary of state, says the United States can fight without U.N. approval. The supposition is that once Washington shows a little muscle, everyone else will fall in line.

And maybe that's the case. But it's hard to think of any war in recent history in which the motives of the belligerent - the United States, in this instance - were held in such suspicion by so many others. Everyone knew that the American goal in Vietnam was what it was advertised to be - to stop the spread of communism. Everyone knew that the Soviet goal in Afghanistan was to install a communist regime. Everyone was very clear that Mr. Bush's father launched a war against Iraq a decade ago in order to liberate Kuwait.

But is this about weapons of mass destruction? Or oil? Or terrorism? Or democracy?

Why war? Why Iraq? Why now?

Good answers to those questions would shut up the French and Germans. Why, then, is the White House unable to make its case?

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