If Nato is to become a global alliance against terror, as Washington policymakers now insist, it has to rest on shared understandings, not only of the immediate threats but also of the long-term strategy needed to contain them. The gulf between perceptions of Middle Eastern politics in Washington and in European capitals threatens to drive the Atlantic alliance apart.
European policymakers see the US as the imperial power in the Middle East – challenged by the Soviet Union through the cold war but unchallenged since then except from within the region. Bitter experience of past empire leads them to see Washington as locked into a position where its policies sustain and regenerate the threats it faces.
A former British minister recently compared US support for Israel with British support for the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland: sustained over 300 years, against cycles of terror on both sides, before the British state accepted a different approach was necessary. French analysts are conscious of the century-long incorporation of Algeria into France, and of the terrorism and asymmetric warfare that forced their withdrawal.
Israel’s long-term security, from these perspectives, can only be guaranteed by securing peace with its neighbours, with a viable Palestinian state as a partner. If its security and interests become identified with America’s, it will not survive America’s eventual loss of dominance over the region.
Perceptions in Washington differ sharply. American exceptionalism denies comparison with other empires; the US is a force for good, bringing democracy and progress to the Arab world. Officials whose predecessors cultivated Sinn Fein insist the “US does not negotiate with terrorists”. American nationalists refuse to recognise the countervailing forces of Iranian nationalism and Arab pride. The subtle but vital differences between Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaeda are swept away in the designation of terrorism as the enemy. Israel is seen as the forward base of western civilisation against the existential threat from radical Islam.
Washington policymakers see themselves engaged in a long war to defend rational values against irrational forces. European observers fear that US attitudes are shaped by domestic politics and by the unbalanced coverage of Middle Eastern developments in the US press. Their misgivings about the direction of US policy are deepened by the sustained campaign against Middle East studies centres in US universities, which has included proposals for Congress to impose a degree of federal censorship over the academic curriculum.
The influence of Christian fundamentalists on US policy makes the Bush administration’s claim to be defending reason against unreason hard to sustain. A 2003 Pew Research Center poll found that 36 per cent of Americans believe the creation of the state of Israel is a step towards the second coming of Jesus. The Bush administration’s tepid support for the Middle East “road map” and continued provision of funds that support expansion of settlements beyond Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries consolidate the Republican base but undermine US credibility in both the Muslim world and European capitals.
US conservatives do their best to deny the legitimacy of European efforts to promote a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine. European governments, neo-conservatives charge, are guilty of “appeasing” the new enemy. Critics are reminded of Europe’s anti-Semitic past. Ultimately, however, the US administration will turn to its European allies to pay for the reconstruction of Lebanon and Palestine; it is already asking them to provide peacekeeping forces in the region. The Bush administration has discovered through bitter experience that it cannot impose its vision for world order alone. It would be wiser to listen to its partners, and to resist allowing its policy on the world’s most complex and dangerous region to be shaped by the distortions of domestic lobbies and the irrational undercurrents of American politics.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the British House of Lords and emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics