How good it made us feel to see our president cheered in Europe by both the street and his pairs! Not since John F. Kennedy had we seen anything similar. But one thing marred the picture: Obama recognized America’s mistakes and shortcomings, but then proceeded to lecture the Europeans on what he perceives to be theirs. If the Europeans were right to criticize past administrations – and not only the two Bushes – for a multitude of sins, when a new administration pretends to break with past conduct it should not ask them to join us in future conduct that is similar to the policies they rightly condemned.
Obama’s Afghanistan project will not be accepted by the Europeans unless and until he spells out the real reasons behind it: access to Southwest Asian oil and natural gas without passing through the Russian Federation. Pretending that terrorist attacks, whether in Europe or the U.S. are a reason to go to war against two entire countries, (Afghanistan and Pakistan, for all practical purposes), is not going to cut it. A single cost/benefit analysis would show that: so many dead in terrorist attacks, so much infrastructure damaged, vs. what it costs to keep tens of thousands of boots in a foreign land, give me a break.
But there’s another reason why Europe doesn’t – and won’t – buy into Obama’s plan: they know war up close. They’ve always lived with war. They know the difference between war and terrorist attacks. They don’t believe it makes sense to go to war to prevent terrorist attacks. Then there’s a third factor that will prevent the Europeans from buying into the wars in Afpak as the front is now called: to European applause, Obama is calling for a nuclear free planet. That squares with efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from going nuclear, it makes sense in terms of encouraging the other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan to divest (but Israel would have to be included). But waging all-out war against terrorist networks in order to prevent them from one day obtaining nuclear arms is putting the cart before the horse. If there were no more nuclear weapons, we wouldn’t have to fear them falling into the (“wrong”) hands. It is also important to view this disagreement in the context of long-standing European anti-Americanism: European economies started to go bad to the extent that, notwithstanding popular resentment, they allowed themselves to be seduced by American financial practices. The European street is protesting the recession much more aggressively than are Americans, and European governments agree that they were wrong to follow our lead. At the same time, having stopped short of following us all the way by dismantling their welfare systems, European governments can pass on large stimulus packages, since they have built-in safety nets. Finally, the nails in the coffin: President Hamid Karzai – our nominal ally – signs legislation that puts Afghan women’s rights back where they were under the Taliban, and Iraqis are going after gays. This is a headline writ large on the world stage: you will not conquer us culturally. And Al Qaeda’s war is a cultural one.