Despite the continuing tensions between the United States and some of its European allies over Iraq, some signs point to a greater convergence of views on important security and political issues between the two sides of the Atlantic. While some observers argue that Europe’s Middle East priorities conflict significantly with America’s agenda, Europe is slowly waking up to the fact that the United States might have identified key strategic challenges that need to be addressed. Terrorism and WMD proliferation now top Europe’s agenda, and the old continent is surprisingly taking the lead on several fronts in the Middle East. Even on reform and democratization, the European Union, perhaps stimulated by the disappointing results of the Barcelona process, has moved a long way, aggressively conditioning trade and cooperation agreements on practical steps.
Currently, Iran constitutes the most important challenge to Persian Gulf and international security, and it will be the real test of transatlantic cooperation. Many in the United States have derided the Europeans’ failed attempt to convince Iran to suspend its nuclear program. Now that a new deal has been reached, US critics are waiting for Iran to renege on its commitments once again to disprove the validity of Europe’s strategy of engagement. What these critics fail to recognize is that the Europeans have bought time for the United States to finally develop a coherent policy toward Iran. The two-phase approach that calls for a complete suspension of Iranian enrichment of uranium followed by comprehensive negotiations creates a window of opportunity that the United States should take seriously. Many foreign policy analysts rightly blame the Bush Administration for not having defined a consistent strategy in dealing with Iran. Because Europeans understand that the success of their efforts is contingent upon genuine coordination between the European Union and the United States, the new Bush administration needs to make hard decisions and realize that the Paris deal is as much an opportunity for the United States to grab as it is a chance for Tehran’s mullahs to reflect on their national security decisions.
The Europeans stay true to their assumption that the Arab-Israeli conflict disrupts any effort to promote stability and reform in the Middle East, but this time they are also moving to create an environment conducive to negotiations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian issue be addressed seriously and is investing his political capital with Bush, his credibility with his people and possibly his political future to obtain a genuine commitment to resume a peace process from his American ally. Mr. Blair has repeatedly expressed hope that Washington would invest more energy and time into implementing the “road map,” but so far the Bush Administration has given a free ride to the Israeli government by requiring change in Palestinian leadership before talks can start. Yet, as Bush’s key ally in Iraq, Blair is uniquely positioned to influence the US president. With the probable emergence of a new Palestinian leadership and the Knesset vote on the Gaza disengagement, momentum is clearly on Blair’s side. Washington cannot indefinitely delay progress on this issue without damaging the reputation and standing of its main ally.
On this issue, France too is playing an important role. Much has been said about France welcoming an ailing Arafat, but this decision has put French President Jacques Chirac at the center of discussions over the future of the Palestinian national movement. Because France has demonstrated its support for Arafat and honored him as a head of state during his last days, France commands significant respect and probably leverage to encourage a more responsible, forward-looking Palestinian leadership. Many Palestinian officials realize that terrorism has achieved nothing, military confrontation has devastated the Palestinian economy, and corruption and authoritarianism have alienated even their European allies who are now voicing displeasure and calling for greater accountability and transparency. The failure of moderate Palestinian leaders to deliver on the political and economic fronts will only strengthen the Islamist radical group Hamas. If France and the United Kingdom succeed in convincing the Americans to reactivate their efforts, and the Palestinians to renounce violence, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon will be compelled to reverse his strategy of undoing everything that has been achieved during the 1990s. Mr. Sharon’s excuse to infinitely postpone peace talks is vanishing, and a Europe that enjoys the trust of the emerging Palestinian leadership could play a decisive role in the new round of negotiations.
Renewed cooperation between Europe and the United States extends to Syria and Lebanon. In September, France and the United States co-sponsored a UN resolution that called for all foreign forces (read Syrian) to withdraw from Lebanon, the disarmament of all militias (read Hezbollah) and the organization of free and fair elections. Given France’s strong ties to Lebanon and Syria, many were at first skeptical of French intent and questioned the seriousness of its commitment. Others were suspicious of US goals, arguing that the United States would pressure Syria until Damascus cooperated on Iraq and sealed its eastern border. They were proven wrong, as France and the United States garnered support for the resolution and a statement by the UN Security Council president noting the lack of Lebanese and Syrian compliance with UN demands. Syria and Lebanon are now subject to international scrutiny. Syria’s brinksmanship and inability to adapt to the post-9/11 and Iraq war realities could come at a cost that will prove too high for Damascus. By going the UN route, instead of unilaterally pressuring the Assad regime, the United States has demonstrated wisdom and has opened the door for Damascus to reconsider its most controversial stances. But it has also won the support of the European Union. Together, these two forces may carry enough clout to compel Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon, stop its support for radical groups and resume negotiations with Israel. So far, this pressure has compelled Damascus to drop its opposition to a clause on weapons of mass destruction that had stalled an economic partnership agreement between the European Union and Syria. Syria has become so dependent on trade relations with Europe that should Brussels and Washington join hands, sanctions could significantly weaken the Syrian economy and the Assad regime. Because Syria has legitimate security concerns that must be addressed to achieve peace in the region, Damascus must demonstrate its readiness to move forward and make Sharon accept his responsibilities.
This last case illustrates how the massive political and military power of the United States, combined with Europe’s economic leverage, can have an impact and produce results. Whether this approach will prove successful is uncertain, but aside from Syria and the Syrian-obedient Lebanese regime, few have questioned the legitimacy of the initiative. If Washington could transfer some of its experience and anxiousness over security to Europe, and Europe some of its wisdom and sense of urgency about the Palestinian crisis to the United States, the Middle East would greatly benefit from their joint effort.