Iraq and the Transatlantic Alliance

The Iraq War tore at the already frayed fabric of transatlantic security relations. Although European countries declared their solidarity with the United States after September 11, they were increasingly uncomfortable with Washington’s emphasis on unilateralist approaches to global problems. After President Bush took office in 2001, his administration upset many European leaders by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, opposing the International Criminal Court, and killing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In October 2001, Washington was reluctant at first to use the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the campaign to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan. While taken aback by U.S. reluctance, NATO leaders and Europeans generally approved of the U.S.-led operation.

This was not true of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which widened the fissures between the United States and Europe as well as within Europe itself. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq led to one of the most damaging diplomatic rows in transatlantic relations since the end of World War II. Since the invasion, the Iraq War has continued to erode trust and military resources. With the recent British decision to withdraw a substantial number of troops from Iraq, the coalition of the willing is now on its last legs. The only glimmer of hope lies with recent poll data that reveal that Europeans and Americans share similar views of global security threats.

The Invasion of Iraq

With Americans feeling more vulnerable after the September 11 terrorist attacks and Europe willing to help, the Bush administration started to ramp up efforts within the United Nations to give Iraq an ultimatum on weapons inspections. In November 2002, all 15 members of the UN Security Council agreed on Resolution 1441. The resolution stated that unless Iraq allowed the free movement of weapons inspectors and gave up any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) it would face “serious consequences.” NATO formally announced its support for the resolution that same month at the Prague Summit.

To the Bush administration, “serious consequences” meant military action. However, some European countries, including the diplomatic powerhouses of France and Germany, had a different interpretation of “serious consequences” and wanted to allow more time for inspections. As it became clear that President Bush would invade Iraq, the alliance suffered what then-U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns described as a “near-death experience.”

Not only France and Germany opposed the Iraq War. Even in countries where leaders supported the U.S. policy, a majority of Europeans opposed an invasion absent the backing of allies and the UN. Certainly, Europeans had an aversion to war because they experienced violent conflicts on their own soil within recent memory. Moreover, European countries were already trying to assist the United States in Afghanistan, where there was at least a connection between the attacks on the United States in 2001 and the subsequent military operation.

Loss of Trust

In the months leading up to the war and in the years since, the Bush administration has shown occasional callousness toward long-time European allies. The failure of intelligence and the troubled occupation of Iraq have only made these diplomatic problems worse.

Before the invasion, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brushed off the anti-war leaders in Europe by saying that Germany and France were part of “Old Europe.” This division oversimplified pro-and anti-war camps. Countries that supposedly fell into the category of “New” Europe, such as Bulgaria and Poland, contributed troops to the U.S.-led effort, but public opinion in those countries did not support sending troops to Iraq. Eastern European leaders may have felt obligated to contribute militarily to the Iraq War because the United States had supported their campaigns to join NATO. However, where the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain fell was not clear. Prime Minister Blair brought the United Kingdom into the war, despite opposition within his own Labour government. Italy and Spain also made sizeable troop contributions — even though public opinion in those countries went against the war and troop contributions were later drawn down as political leadership changed hands.

To be sure, European leaders used opposition to the Iraq War for their own political advantage. Then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s party might have lost if it hadn’t ridden the wave of anti-war sentiment in the fall of 2002. When on the eve of the invasion some Eastern European countries signed a statement of support for holding the Iraqi government accountable under Resolution 1441, French President Jacques Chirac threatened to block their membership in the EU. “Romania and Bulgaria were particularly irresponsible,” Chirac said. “If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU, they could not have found a better way.” Such rhetoric only reinforced previous U.S. fears that the EU was positioning itself as a competitor to the United States and NATO.

But leaders also had their moral arguments for not supporting the war. Spanish Prime Minister José Zapatero, who moved to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, said not long before taking his post in the spring of 2004, “You can’t organize a war on the basis of lies.” Criticizing the Bush policy of preventive war, Zapatero added, “You can’t bomb a people just in case.”

Anti-war sentiment in Europe only grew when troops failed to find evidence of the Iraqi WMD programs that President Bush said were threatening the world. Before the war, a British foreign policy aide sent a secret memo to the British ambassador to the United States that was revealed to the press in 2005. The memo said that facts were “being fixed around the policy” and that there had not been substantial consideration for the aftermath of an invasion.

In addition to the abuse dished out against European countries and leaders, the Bush administration pursued other policies that seemed at least partially intended to move NATO away from its Western European core. Washington announced in 2004 a plan to close about half the U.S. military bases in Europe within ten years. The Pentagon argued that certain large bases were no longer needed and that the United States needed smaller and more flexible ones to meet the post-Cold War threat environment. But the administration also seemed to be punishing “Old Europe” for not cooperating in the Iraq War.

Meanwhile, in terms of carrots, the United States has in the past year tried to create a more formal partnership program within NATO for countries such as Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. The Bush administration advertised the initiative not only as a way to add military capabilities to the alliance but also to reward non-NATO members for their efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the alliance did not formalize the initiative at NATO’s Riga Summit in November 2006 as planned. Whatever the ultimate reasons for closing Western European bases and trying to “globalize” NATO, the timing of the initiatives only added insult to injury.

A long-time member of NATO, Turkey has been put in a particularly precarious situation because of the Iraq War. Turkey’s strategic position between Europe and the Middle East makes it a valuable U.S. ally. Yet Turks strongly opposed the war and felt that the United States had not consulted sufficiently with Turkish leaders. Turks have also feared the impact that the war might have on Kurds who live in Iraq and Turkey. While over half of Turks polled support the bid to join the EU, Turkey’s road to membership may be long and difficult. Ankara’s foreign policy perceptions and interests are shifting eastward, and the Iraq War has clearly hastened this movement. The United States will no longer be able to take this strategic ally for granted.

Loss of Resources

As a result of European anti-war sentiment and the increasing role that NATO was playing in Afghanistan, NATO restricted its formal military contribution to Iraq. It concentrated on the training of security forces, the establishment of military training centers, and the coordination of military equipment for Iraqi forces. Europeans, among others, believe the Iraq effort has drawn the United States away from other priorities. The U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq has prevented it from being more successful in Afghanistan, and the execution of the Iraq War has undermined the overall U.S. ability to combat international terrorism because of damaged credibility and stretched resources.

The most supportive U.S. ally in Europe on the Iraq War, the United Kingdom, has also been facing a strain on its forces. In 2006, the All-Party House of Commons Defence Committee said that the British mission in Iraq was short of personnel and equipment. And the Ministry of Defence has said that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have meant that many troops were not receiving the usual two-year intervals between deployments to the frontlines. In February, the Prime Minister announced that the United Kingdom would withdraw 1,600 troops from Iraq by next summer.

Other transatlantic military projects have run into difficulties. Although these problems preceded the Iraq War, they have been exacerbated by war spending. The notoriously expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, which the United States has spearheaded with investment from key allies, has been riddled with transatlantic disputes. Washington is concerned about access to sensitive technology and worries whether the Europeans will be able to sustain their original commitments to the program because of increasingly tight budgets and competing European-led aircraft programs. Recently, the Bush administration has sought to rev-up its European missile defense plans with proposals to base components of the system in the Czech Republic and Poland. Prime Minister Blair has also expressed an interest in British participation. On the other hand, Germany has worried that missile defense plans will worsen relations with Russia. And almost two-thirds of Czechs oppose hosting the system. Thus, the implementation of missile defense plans could worsen transatlantic and intra-European relations already scarred by the Iraq War.

These problems, while only a sample, reveal that transatlantic tensions go deeper than Iraq and will not necessarily disappear with the end of the Bush administration or the withdrawal of troops.

Rebuilding the Relationship

The transatlantic security relationship is frayed. But it hasn’t yet snapped. One positive sign is how Americans and Europeans perceive and approach common threats. Polls show that Americans and Europeans prioritize certain security threats in much the same order. Furthermore, a majority of Americans, like Europeans, see U.S. unilateralism as a possible international threat in the next ten years. But if people on both sides of the Atlantic fail to vote based on their preferences for how their leaders conduct foreign policy, then similar threat perceptions might not translate into improved security relations.

U.S. leaders need to listen more closely to the warnings of their allies, and European leaders should be more forceful in dealing with their American counterparts in foreign security policy. In December 2003, the EU’s European Security Strategy stated that terrorism and proliferation of WMD are as threatening to Europe as they are to the United States. Acknowledging shared threats and limited resources, U.S. leaders should revitalize the relationship by working with Europe to fulfill their joint commitment to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, particularly as American and European forces leave Iraq.

The Iraq War’s impact on transatlantic relations can also be felt in the approach to Iran. Europeans have feared that, like the rush to war in Iraq, the United States might be eager to launch a unilateral attack on Iran in the name of preventing a viable nuclear weapons program. The EU has taken a more active role in the crisis. On the surface, it seems that the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and the United States are working together on a diplomatic solution. Prime Minister Blair, still hurting from his role in the Iraq War, made a point of saying on BBC Radio that “Iran is not Iraq” and announced that an imminent military attack on Iran will not happen.

But Blair also qualified his military attack statement by saying that he could not “absolutely predict every set of circumstances.” Some within the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, continue to say that all options must remain on the table. How the United States handles the crisis, however, will not necessarily be a bellwether for U.S. foreign policy trends. An administration decision not to take Pentagon action may result more from an overtaxed military than from effective pressure from Europe and elsewhere to engage rather than attack Iran.

Given the strain on resources and the diplomatic fallout caused by the Iraq War, a constructive U.S.-European approach to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and the broader Middle East will be more difficult. Only time and earnest diplomacy will mend the transatlantic relationship.

Chris Lindborg is an analyst with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of BASIC.