William Pfaff: Washington makes nice

William Pfaff on transatlantic relations, 2004 will be the year of reconciliation, but the US Administration will not forgive.

Two annual events in January provide useful forecasts about the coming trans-Atlantic weather. One is the annual seminar on security matters by the American ambassador to NATO. The other is the World Economic Forum in Davos.

This year the forecast is reconciliation – but not forgiveness.

Vice President Dick Cheney in Davos was sweet reason itself in explaining that America seeks neither a unilateral nor a multipolar world, only one that is free and democratic.

The butter remained unmelted in his mouth as he told his audiences how important trans-Atlantic cooperation and improved multilateral institutions are to the Bush administration.

Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns in Brussels told his fellow NATO ambassadors that the unpleasantness of the past year should be put behind us. A reunited NATO is needed in Iraq, to consolidate security there and contribute to reconstructing the Iraqi state.

This effort to relegate recent conflicts to history is also meant to blur the outlines of those clashes and dull their implications. The implied reading of past events is that the United States and the rest of NATO had really all been part of the Iraq freedom team from the start, merely playing different roles.

The Pentagon has set aside its established hostility to joint operations with NATO (which resulted from its Kosovo experience) because the United States needs the political and civic reconstruction skills of Europe’s armies, and it needs European manpower.

Virtually the whole U.S. Army, plus its reserve forces and those National Guard units considered functional, is tied up by Iraq: being either there, or on the way, or being rotated back, or refitting and retraining to go (or to go again).

Bodies and boots are badly needed to bulk out the coalition’s forces in Iraq, effectively under siege in a guerrilla war that has not been fading away but recently has seemed to be intensifying. That was never part of the plan.

The power transfer promised the Iraqis for the end of June is becoming steadily more complex to accomplish, and might have to be postponed – in part because of the security situation.

The edges of this unpleasant reality are being blunted by the use of a new vocabulary that puts the Iraq intervention back into the large and ambitious framework in which it was launched.

It now is being described in terms of an ongoing effort, which NATO is expected to support, to reshape the “Greater Middle East.” The Middle East today usually is taken to mean the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf states. The dictionary tells us that in the imperial past it meant all of Southwestern Asia and part of Mediterranean Africa.

The “Middle East” then extended from the Balkans and Turkey (the “Near East”) to Afghanistan – and indeed beyond, to wherever the “Far East” was thought to begin, a movable frontier.

The Bush administration likes this redefinition because it identifies American action with a positive approach – a vision of unification and reform to Islamic civilization as a whole.

It also implies that the controversies that divided the allies during the past year – over the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s attacks on Germany and France, the deriding of the United Nations as “irrelevant” – were misunderstandings over specific and secondary matters, among allies who have a shared mission to reform and restructure a vast sweep of human society.

The appeal to support such an effort, under American leadership, is a powerful one to NATO governments and publics already accustomed to be followers.

When the United States formally proposes that NATO move into Iraq to take over “nation-building” and security, as it already has done in the Balkans and is now undertaking in Afghanistan, there is likely to be majority agreement.

There also is likely to be minority opposition, which at NATO means a veto. The new American language is essentially a rhetorical reaffirmation of the same policy proposition that produced the Iraq intervention last year.

It ignores the discredited assumptions that produced that intervention – highlighted by the Hutton Inquiry findings, just published in London – and by the fact that Iraq has yet to be pacified or given a new government. The scheduled partial transfer of power has yet to take place, might yet become stalemated, or fail to meet Iraqi nationalist expectations. The intervention certainly cannot at this point be guaranteed a successful outcome.

Washington’s new terminology represents what might be called an election-year – and virtual – version of what the French call a “fuite en avant,” or a headlong rush into something new to disguise or discount current setbacks.

The promised outcome in Iraq has not arrived – nor has there been the slightest movement toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. For that reason, a more ambitious version of the same policy solves nothing in the real world, and invites an even bigger version of the same failure.