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Iraq: Bush's Calls For Tough Action Likely To Highlight Differences With Europe

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to call on Europeans to back tougher action against Iraq as he begins a six-day trip today to Germany, Russia, France and, Italy. RFE/RL looks at how European leaders may respond to Bush's call as strong differences persist between many of them and Washington over how best to deal with Baghdad.

Prague, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly before leaving the U.S. for Europe today, President George W. Bush restated his administration's position on Iraq to a group of European journalists.

Speaking in Washington, he said that any policy merely to contain Iraq will not work because Iraq's aim is to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

"The word 'contain' doesn't work if someone's got the capacity to deliver a weapon of mass destruction," Bush said. "How do you contain somebody when they have got the ability to blackmail or launch a weapon?"

At the same time -- while stressing that the U.S. has yet to decide what to do over Iraq -- the president said the threat from Baghdad will not go away and "we're going to have to act."

That summarized an argument Washington has been making to other capitals for months and which Bush is likely to repeat often on his six-day trip to Germany, Russia, France, and Italy. The U.S. president is expected to use a major speech in the German Bundestag (parliament) in Berlin tomorrow to -- in part -- call on all Europeans to back tougher action against Iraq.

As Bush asks for a harder European stance toward Iraq, he is also likely to stress Washington's view that Iraq should be a target of the international war on terrorism. U.S. officials have warned that Iraq and other hostile states trying to develop weapons of mass destruction could one day provide them to terrorist groups. Washington has charged Iraq, Iran, and North Korea with seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and called them a security threat to the West.

But if the Bush administration has frequently called for the international community to share its alarm over Iraq's weapons programs, the U.S. president is almost certain to find that many European leaders view the Iraq problem quite differently from Washington.

European political analysts say that European leaders share Washington's concerns that Iraq is continuing to try to develop weapons of mass destruction despite the ongoing United Nations-sanctions regime upon the country. The sanctions regime is intended to force Iraq to prove it has no such weapons with which to threaten its neighbors.

Yet, few European leaders have said they support using military force to disarm Iraq or overthrow its regime if it refuses to cooperate on inspections. The possibility of using force has been raised by Washington, which says it is considering all options for dealing with Iraq and would take unilateral action if necessary.

Steven Everts, an expert on EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform in London, said that the EU countries have varied positions on Iraq. But he said that, in general, they see Baghdad as less of a security threat than Washington does.

"It is well known that some countries in the European Union, such as France, have traditionally been skeptical of the effectiveness of the sanctions regime and certainly skeptical of military action. There have been other countries in the European Union, mainly the U.K. but also others, that have traditionally have taken a tougher stance," Everts said.

"But the underlying difference [with the U.S.] in the assessment [of Iraq] is how much of a threat is Saddam Hussein and how much of a threat is his weapons program to European countries or to the United States. Most people in the United States are generally worried about that [threat]; most people in Europe are less worried about it," Everts added.

Everts said that most European leaders believe that the Iraqi weapons programs can best be controlled within the existing framework for UN arms inspections if Baghdad can be pressed to readmit the monitors. By contrast, U.S. officials have expressed deep skepticism over whether Iraq will ever allow a resumption of arms inspections under terms that could guarantee all Baghdad's weapons programs are dismantled.

The UN and Iraq are now conducting discussions over the terms for the resumption of inspections, which have been on hold since late 1998 when Baghdad barred monitors from returning in the wake of U.S. and British air strikes. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday a new round of talks -- the third this year -- will be held early in July in Vienna. So far the talks have produced no agreements.

Everts said EU states will remain reluctant to see force used against Iraq unless it becomes clear Saddam is sabotaging the new efforts to have an effective arms-monitoring program. He said only then might they move from backing diplomatic strategies to supporting military solutions.

Moscow, which Bush will visit tomorrow, is considered highly unlikely to support any use of force against Iraq.

In the past, Russia has been the strongest voice on the UN Security Council arguing for the use of incentives to gain Iraqi cooperation with arms inspections, including loosening or lifting of the sanctions. Moscow joined the U.S. in backing tighter restrictions on military goods to Iraq while loosening controls on civilian imports -- a step taken by the UN this month despite Iraqi objections. But Moscow remains an advocate for solving problems with Baghdad's cooperation.

Everts said the Russian position is partly based on its commercial relations with Baghdad. Russian companies are reported to control about one-third of Iraq's oil-export market within the UN-approved oil-for-food program. The Russian government has said it counts on this and future oil business to help it recover some $7 billion in loans made to Iraq in the 1980s for arms purchases. At the same time, Baghdad owes sizeable arms debts to France, which also is a major Iraqi trading partner under the same UN program.

Political analysts say that during Bush's current visit, many European leaders are likely to raise serious concerns about what kind of successor government Washington would hope to obtain in Baghdad through any military action. They are also likely to question what impact any such military action might have upon other Arab countries.

Everts said the Europeans' principal concern in the Middle East is not Iraq but how to promote the modernization of Muslim countries and avoid conflicts that might fan radicalism.

"[For Europeans, the Iraqi crisis] all plays against the background of what, I think, the United States and Europe are agreed upon in terms of the long-term aim of [promoting the] modernization of Muslim countries, of opening them up in political terms, [and] of bringing them closer in the global market economy," Everts said.

[But the Europeans ask] what will a conflict in Iraq do for those larger questions? Will it bring us closer to a situation where Muslim countries are more successful politically and economically, or will it fan the flames of radical Islam in certain countries? If it is the latter, will the net result of military action against Iraq be positive?," Everts said.

In the face of these continuing hesitations, U.S. officials this week again said that military action against Iraq is just one of many options Washington is considering.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Monday that Bush "hasn't made any decisions on what to do about the status quo in Iraq, just that the status quo is unacceptable."