OPINION

Breaking the eggs

War destroys all in its path, like a fire obedient only to its own rules, creating a new order that depends on where all the pieces fall. The fire changes the forest even before it consumes it. Birds and animals flee, the trees and undergrowth crackle with the certainty of their incineration. So everything appears to have changed as America prepares for war against Iraq. The smell in the air is from the smoke of bridges burning. So much of which we were certain is now up in the air. What we do not know is where it all will fall, where we will be when it is all over. Perhaps the proof that war is in the air, and that the United States and Iraq are not just involved in brinkmanship, is what appears to be a total lack of fear on the side of the Americans. War is so inconceivably dangerous and its results – both in the short and long term – so unpredictable, that fear of the unknown is the greatest defense against it. And fear, and the fear of fear, is also one of the most valuable assets for surviving, if not winning, a war. (Remember Aesop’s hare escaping the hound – the one runs for his life while the other runs for his master’s supper.) The way we see this fear shows the great lapse in judgment and failure of imagination that has provoked the unprecedented rift in relations between the United States and many of its allies in recent weeks. The Europeans failed to realize that September 11 plunged America into war without giving its people the luxury to contemplate the consequences. With no opportunity to feel fear, they suffered a blow beyond their worst nightmares. The worst taboo has been broken, the first step toward war already taken. The quick outcome in Afghanistan and the amazing technical proficiency provided a sense that war was almost painless for the Americans – although they did not get their man, Osama bin Laden. America’s being at war strengthened the hand of those with the most unilateralist view, allowing them to set the agenda. This is understandable. It is the paranoid who are best at imagining the worst outcome and planning against it. As long as they are on the defensive. But if you put paranoid individuals in the driver’s seat, then everyone else had better get off the road – as the Americans’ tiptoeing around North Korea illustrates. Our American friends might use North Korea and its nuclear weapons as proof that it is better to take the risk of disarming Saddam Hussein today than allowing him to become Kim Jong Il. This is a valid point, but it highlights the irony of the passionate intensity with which the hawks in Washington have been selling the war against Iraq while almost ignoring North Korea simply because it is just too prickly a customer. Europeans, though, are not convinced by the arguments in favor of hasty intervention against Iraq – and here we are generalizing, of course, talking about some governments and what appears to be the majority of public opinion in otherwise very different nations. True, if arms inspections drag on, the mighty war machine gathering in the deserts around Iraq will «lose its edge,» as the military argot has it. This is the logic of «if you have a gun you have to use it.» So much for even the pro-weapons National Rifle Association’s fatuous conviction that «guns don’t kill people, people kill people.» Anyhow, using your army when it is best prepared makes absolute sense when you are already determined to fight. For others it does not. Many Europeans – perhaps many more than the Americans imagine, or the leaders of France, Germany and other countries, for that matter – are not opposed to the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime. The outcome of war may improve the people’s lot both in Iraq and the region as a whole just as easily as it may turn out to be a disaster. History is as full of dire stories of great invading armies destroyed by local armies and conditions as it is of imperial triumphs. But winning a war against any single country is not the issue. What follows could well determine the fate not only of Iraq but of many other countries. If America triumphs easily and everything after the invasion and occupation goes according to the most optimistic plans, US-European relations, the cornerstone of international stability for half a century, will still be rocky. America’s being right and the «former allies» being wrong will only keep the rift open. If things get ugly and America has to slug it out alone, enforcing an occupation that will require strong police action, raising the risk of guerrilla retaliation, demanding a great but potentially destabilizing reconstruction effort, then the skeptics will be proven right. Again, this will not benefit anyone – and the world will be a more dangerous place, to boot. And then, imagine the unimaginable: That the United States occupies Iraq only to find that, in the end, Saddam Hussein may have been dissembling unforgivably but had not actually been developing or stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. This is the 21st century, when the whole world is everybody else’s business and such a war, and its grisly consequences, will be held in the full glare of television. Nowadays we see the side of the losers too; we do not only read the history written by the victors. War waged by mistake will sap the United States of the moral authority of which it is justifiedly proud, to the detriment both of America and the rest of us who, despite our carping, rely on the world’s only superpower to maintain stability in the world. Perhaps that benevolence has worked so well that France and Germany, for example, feel so small a threat that they can look at war as something academic – a last resort rather than something we are already in. The level of anger directed this way from Washington shows just how differently and how impatiently officials of the Bush administration see the issue. There is no longer any tolerance for what is seen as the primping and preening of born-again pacifists in Paris and Berlin. In fact, this is a time for cashing in chips and calling in favors. There are comments galore concerning America’s help in saving Europe from the Nazis and the Soviet Union; there are threats of boycotts of French, German and Belgian products; warnings that America will now do business with the Eastern Europeans instead. There is also the plaintive argument that the French are fine ones to talk, seeing as they have never stopped conniving with tyrants or waging colonialist wars to promote their own interests. (Is it not demeaning that the United States should think that misbehavior by a second-string power should excuse its own actions?) The thing that angers the Americans the most, though, is the truth that any threat from Iraq can only be countered by the genuine threat of military force. This has been the only way to get any concessions from Baghdad, and America is not keen on depending on Iraq’s good will for ever. Washington argues that dissent from its allies’ capitals and street demonstrations are precisely what encourages the Iraqi regime to keep playing games. This, in turn, could make war more likely. This is something that both sides of the Atlantic need to look at – and it would be helpful if these laughable, amateurish letter-writing campaigns pledging support to the United States by EU members and candidate countries stopped, for they do nothing but sow further discord. (And President Bush and his cold warrior defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, ought to remember that no matter how irritating they may be, Germany and France are not the enemy.) The EU, for good or ill, has enough organs within which members can express the full range of their disagreements. Acting outside of them serves only to make it appear that some countries are more pro-American than others, irrespective of whether their people are opposed to the war or not. This is unfair – both to Washington and the EU itself. All in all, though, disagreement over Saddam Hussein is not worth destroying the Western world’s cohesion. This has to be understood by both sides. It no longer makes any difference who is right and who is wrong. Washington must show greater patience and keep the dogs of war on their leash for as long as need be. The Europeans must work out the greatest differences among them and understand that sometimes you have to stand by your friend even if you have not been able to sway him completely. They have to meet each other halfway. There is no other way. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech at the Security Council yesterday was a sign that the US still has patience, even if it is not infinite. Perhaps the eggs are not yet broken, to borrow the weary saying by Anthony Eden, the British prime minister in the midst of another Middle East crisis half a century ago. «If you’ve broken the eggs, you should make the omelette,» he wrote during the Suez Crisis in 1956. In that incident, the United States objected to the military intervention in Egypt of Britain, France and Israel, forcing them to back down, breaking Britain’s influence in the region and leading to Eden’s resignation. Sometimes allies can be so cruel.