Fissures in Iraq coalition widening

U.S. allies in Europe express dissent, want U.N. participation

March 21, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - If ever there existed any true distinction between Old Europe and New Europe, the train bombings here that left 202 dead have blurred those lines and underscored the risks in President Bush's approach to the fight against terrorism, according to diplomats, academics and political scientists on both sides of the Atlantic.

With Spain's incoming government promising to pull its troops out of Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge of them, with Poland's president blaming the United States and Britain for his being "misled" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and with Europeans overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq, cracks in Bush's "coalition of the willing" threaten to widen further unless international institutions such as the United Nations and NATO step in.

"I've been shocked by some of the comments from American officials that somehow Spain is weak by pulling out or that removing its troops is a triumph for al-Qaida," said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute of International Relations and a leader among European intellectuals.

"The election in Spain was an absolute triumph for democracy because it showed how people in democracies have a say in what their governments do, and the Spanish made their wishes known by their ballots and not with bullets," Moisi said. "This is what the terrorists hate."

Because the coalition is one of individual governments without the cohesion provided by the United Nations or NATO, its makeup can change as governments do. Those who, in Bush's language, are "with us" before national elections can suddenly be "against us" depending on an election's results.

And governments facing increasing pressure even before elections might feel - as Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski apparently did - a need to at least hint publicly at displeasure with the chaos in Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

On Friday, he pledged to keep Polish troops in Iraq "as long as needed," but the public criticisms earlier in the week were an indication of how tenuously the coalition is bound.

The death toll from the Madrid train blasts of March 11 could not help but influence the parliamentary elections here. On one side was the ruling Popular Party government, which sent 1,300 troops to Iraq against the wishes of 90 percent of Spaniards. On the other was the candidate from the Socialist Party, who had promised long before the blasts to pull the troops out.

A week after the Socialists' victory, people here continue to debate whether the outcome resulted from anger over the policy of supporting the war or from the apparent minimizing by the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, in the face of all evidence, that Muslim extremists were involved in the bombing.

But the promise to withdraw troops, made by the incoming prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has been largely misinterpreted as an abandonment of the United States. It could be seen as a promise to stick with the United States and other coalition partners if the United Nations takes charge.

"What the Spanish situation has shown - or should show - is that if you try to get countries to support you in something as serious as a war, and you try to attract them without, let's say, an unimpeachable source of institutional credibility, you're looking for trouble," said Robert Hunter, a former NATO ambassador under President Bill Clinton who is now with Rand Corp. "Zapatero left an out for the United States to drive a truck through."

As evidence of the importance of such institutions as NATO and the United Nations, Hunter points to Greece's involvement in Kosovo. Before NATO's formal involvement, Greeks were overwhelmingly against becoming involved in fighting between Serbia and Kosovo. But the Greek government was able to explain that it had a commitment under NATO to abide by its decisions, and it was able to do so with no political harm.

"You do things together when you can and alone only when you must," Hunter said. "And the [Bush] administration can say it has this broad coalition, but it's really a collection of individual agreements and doesn't come with the institutional credibility provided by NATO or the U.N. The real question is why the administration has not been prepared to provide that."

Chistoph Bertram, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said he hopes the United Nations, with or without NATO, will soon be an integral part of bringing peace to Iraq. He said German officials long ago toned down their rhetoric against the war and that France, to a lesser degree, has followed suit.

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