The Washington Times

I had a chance to take the temperature of the trans-Atlantic relationship at a non-governmental meeting here of a group of 50 or so mid-career Europeans and Americans, who are heavily engaged in one way or another in foreign affairs in their respective homes. It is, generally speaking, a very Atlanticist group, one committed to making U.S.-European relations work. If you’re looking for European anti-American sentiment, which has indeed been an increasing amount in certain elite circles, this is not your crowd.

Because of the goodwill, the criticism can be constructive, not carping. And in truth, this has not been a good couple of months for the Bush administration, dating from the president’s decision to impose steel tariffs, continuing through the breakdown in the Middle East, a certain measure of drift in Afghanistan, a strange response to a coup in Venezuela, and vagueness about what is happening with the “axis of evil.”

Europeans are absolutely delighted to have been given the moral high ground on trade by Mr. Bush’s terrible steel decision. They feel empowered, which is normally the attitude the United States puts on display. Whether the European response is indeed the wickedly clever imposition of trade sanctions designed to hurt the very states Mr. Bush sought to help for electoral reason, as Europe’s trade chief Pascal Lamy has been suggesting, the problem with Mr. Bush’s policy is that it is indefensible, and the Europeans know it. They are enjoying pointing that out, and who can blame them?

Trade is hardly the biggest item on the agenda, of course. In the Middle East, we have a major disagreement brewing over whose side you’re on, Israel’s or Palestine’s. Secretary of State Colin Powell didn’t get much for his efforts, and one question is whether that was a failure or a success, in the sense that perhaps the president himself didn’t want much of anything to happen. In any case, it’s clear to everyone that the United States doesn’t quite know what it’s doing.

This in turn has lowered the temperature under the proposition that the United States should try to “impose” a settlement along lines that all Europeans now think are obvious: telling Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank settlements to something close to the 1967 border and telling Palestinians, as they set up their new state, to forget about the return of refugees to Israel. It used to be fairly axiomatic among Europeans that the United States was in a position to do such a thing. Now, we don’t look so hot. And Europeans have begun to worry about the fact that they themselves have no credibility with Israel, on the grounds that Israelis see them as staunch allies of the Palestinians. There was even some talk about efforts to try to build some credibility by not being so one-sided.

Meanwhile, the war. There was substantial wariness about the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism, to the point that some of the more hawkish Europeans and Americans took to speculating about whether Europe needed its own “Pearl Harbor” incident to get fully committed.

In any case, the Americans in the room had little difficulty persuading the Europeans that on this subject, we, at least, mean business. In fact, while the “axis of evil” terminology still causes confusion – Europeans ask what policies toward Iraq, Iran and North Korea will we or can we have in common? – many do not seem quite so opposed to taking action against Iraq as one might expect from reading the op-ed pages of their leading newspapers. The concern about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands is genuine, and from it follows a willingness among Europeans to entertain a military response. All the usual provisos apply: Go through the United Nations, try to get the weapons inspection regime reinstalled, etc. But there’s more “yes” than “no” in the reply.

And it’s here, I think, that many of the Europeans were making a point that the Bush administration should pay more attention to. Among the Iraq naysayers, the biggest worry is what comes after Saddam. How committed will the United States be to doing what is necessary in order to ensure regional stability from a successor regime? Not very, many worry, and they cite the U.S. reluctance to increase the peacekeeping presence in Afghanistan as Exhibit A.

I wish I could say I thought their concerns are off-base, but they aren’t. It’s not for the sake of persuading Europeans to go along but rather for the sake of the entire project we’re engaged in that we need to make sure when we replace something bad, what follows is actually better. The administration doesn’t like “nation-building,” a hangover from 1990s GOP rhetoric. (Was the U.S. semi-support for the coup attempt in Venezuela a GOP reflex from the Cold War?) Anyway, that was then. The bottom line is that if we do this right, we won’t be short of support, and if we don’t, I shudder to think – not so much about losing European opinion, but about losing as such.