Europe and America
[I wrote this a year ago as part
of a discussion on Europe V. America.
It still remains important.]
Or…why Americans aren’t from Mars and
Europeans aren’t from Venus.
Nations, Lord Palmerston said,
have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies - only permanent interests.
He was, of course, quite correct. Whatever
feelings of friendship or gratitude one nation may have for another, they are
often far less important than cold geopolitical imperatives.
It is those imperatives that determine, more often than not, how a nation
will react in any given situation.
Ideology, on the other hand, is
how a nation will justify its
actions. Fascism, Communism,
Nazism, Religion and even Democracy are ideologies.
To use a blunt example, the
for perfectly sound geopolitical reasons, but came up with several ideological
justifications for its actions.
Generally speaking, the more morally repulsive a regime is, the better it is at
justifying itself. Consider, for
example, just how good Soviet Russia was at painting itself whiter than white.
Geopolitics are rarely stated outright – or, for that matter, always
understood clearly by those in power.
Geopolitics – or rather the issues
that affect geopolitics – are hard to define.
They consist of the sum total of a given area’s statistics; nationality,
military power, demographics, technology, economics…in short, everything that
might have an affect on the area.
Put simply, France is always
going to border Germany;
that’s geopolitics. In 1940, the
French Army had a fair claim to being the second-best army in the world.
Unluckily for the French, they had to fight the best army in the world –
the German Army. In contrast, both
the United Kingdom
and the United States were protected from
the German Army by impassable bodies of water and superior naval power.
Soviet Russia, while inferior to Germany
tactically and technologically (and lacking any natural barrier) was simply too
large for the Germans to crush quickly.
If we consider Austria-Hungry or Yugoslavia (both vanished from the
map), it becomes apparent that less-obvious factors also play a role in
influencing events. Both states
were multi-ethnic entities that had very little holding them together.
The demographics ensured that they were always on the verge of disunion,
all the more so because their leaders had ensured (intentionally or otherwise)
that the different ethnic groups remained at loggerheads.
A country, therefore, will have
geopolitical priorities. When those
priorities are met, the country will remain independent and thrive.
When those priorities fail – or when they clash with another country’s
geopolitics – the country will lose.
Very few countries maintain their geopolitical priorities permanently.
Example; both France and Germany need to be the pre-eminent military,
political and economic power in Europe, but only one of them can be supreme.
It doesn’t require much
information to understand that, when it comes to geopolitics, the
United States of America is the most blessed
nation in the world. Take a look at
a map and consider; to the north,
is friendly and – military-speaking – far inferior to the United States.
To the south, Mexico remains in a constant state
of political ferment and, again, it is far inferior to the United States.
In the long term, the influx of Hispanics into the
may pose a demographic challenge to the integrity of America, but there are few other
If we pull back a little, we see
that the United States
is bordered east and west by vast oceans.
If we assume that a hostile power intended invasion of the American
mainland (as in Eric L. Harry’s Invasion)
that power would have to surmount formidable logistics problems.
Transporting an army from anywhere outside the American continent to
would be extremely difficult. The
United States Navy, the single most powerful naval force in history by a very
long way, would be blocking the waters.
Even if the USN was somehow sunk by an advanced super-weapon and the army
arrived on American soil untouched, it would still require a massive logistical
effort to support the invasion – and, of course, that army would have to be
larger and more powerful than the United States Army.
It is simply impossible for any present-day hostile power to land on the
mainland and occupy the
What this means, effectively
speaking, is that the United States
can lose wars, but it can never be actually defeated.
Consider; the US, to all intents and purposes,
lost the Vietnam War, a defeat largely self-inflicted.
What did this actually mean for American security?
Nothing. The US was still utterly impregnable.
The building blocks of American power remained untouched.
There is one possible exception to
this rule; nuclear weapons. It is
true that several powers, some of them past and probably future foes of the United States, have the ability to
launch nuclear strikes against the American continent.
This is not as grim a problem as it seems at first glance.
Even absent the presence of a workable ABM system, the number of missiles
that can reach the US is not high
and the US
– a massive continent – can absorb the damage.
And, of course, the attacker would be utterly crushed.
Nuclear weapons tend to impose their own limits on wars, which will be
This geopolitical safety net
explains a great deal about the American psyche.
Speaking as an outside observer, the
United States, which has interests everywhere,
is very poor at maintaining its focus on any given problem.
While the US is materially the greatest power in the world, its friends
and enemies doubt that it has the political will to confront any given problem,
let alone press on to victory. Its
enemies are emboldened by American failure; its friends start to edge away.
In summery, the American
geopolitical priorities are:
-Maintain the strongest military
force in the North American Continent.
-Maintain effective control of the
seas, preventing any naval challenger from arising.
-Maintain a network of bases and
security agreements to use as a base for global power.
The third, it should be noted, is
really more of a wish than a necessity.
When considering the different
approaches that Europe and America took to the Cold War, it is
necessary to comprehend one vital fact.
The United States,
as I noted above, had a massive body of water between it and the Soviet Union. Europe…was right next door.
America could always retreat behind
an impassable barrier; Europe could be
occupied, or destroyed, by the Soviet Union.
Even a ‘victorious’ war would be utterly disastrous.
Europe’s main priority became
preventing that war from ever taking
place, without compromising Europe’s integrity.
It is difficult to exaggerate just
how wretched Europe was in 1945.
The Germans were occupied and sundered, a sundering that would become
official until the end of the Cold War.
The French had been crushed, occupied and broken.
The British had survived without being invaded, but
was bankrupt and exhausted. Disease
and deprivation swept the continent.
The Russians looked all-powerful.
The Europeans couldn’t muster the military force to stop them if they
came west, for both practical and political reasons.
(There was, for example, absolutely zero interest in rearming the
Germans.) There was a possibility –
maybe vague, maybe very real – of a communist uprising, or communist governments
being voted into power. (Labour had
been elected in the UK just prior to the end of WW2, for
example, while the French Left seethed with bitter rage.)
And then there were the issues of those empires…
As we know, eventually, NATO was
formed and a powerful American force was stationed in
to help counter the threat of a possible Russian invasion and – less overtly – a
possible German resurgence. Underlying the surface, however, the collective
European geopolitical priorities were changing:
-Build up and maintain a small
independent nuclear force (British and French) in order to deter the Russians
-Keep the Americans, the only
realistic hope of a conventional defence, engaged in Europe.
-Restrain the Americans from
starting a fight with the Russians - either inside or outside
Europe - that might ignite World War Three.
-Create an economic power block
that would bind Europe together and prevent a third general European war.
-Create a welfare state that would
neutralise communist subversion and prevent a far-left government from being
voted into power.
The core issue behind the first
three priorities lay in the different American and European geopolitical
priorities. If the Russians nuked Paris, Europeans asked, would it be reasonable
to expect the United States
to accept the loss of New York in exchange for
retaliating for the destruction of
the war went badly, the US could always
withdraw, leaving the Europeans to face Russian occupation.
therefore needed the ability to inflict damage on the USSR
independently of the US.
Worse, because the US had freedom of action and Europe did not, it was always possible that a war on the
other side of the world would spread to Europe.
Consider the following
possibility. In…say, 1970, the
North Korean Government decides that it is time to reclaim the South.
Perhaps the Russians are encouraging him, perhaps not – it doesn’t
matter. NK goes south.
At first, the North seems likely to win, but the South and the
rally and take the fight back to the North.
The attack on the South is broken and allied troops head north, intent on
disposing the communist government.
This creates a dilemma for the Russians.
Do nothing – and accept that they will lose an allied state – or up the
ante. The Russians might threaten Berlin, or they might
just come over the border into Europe.
Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter
if the US was in the
right or wrong – not if a nuclear war was fought.
Europe would still lose.
As history moved on, the United States and
remained bound together, but dozens of different issues were bubbling under the
surface. The US became exasperated by what the US chose to
think of as cowardliness. The
Europeans became worried by what they saw as American arrogance and
pusillanimity. These problems would
not have existed if both were fixated on the European Region, but outside
both sides had geopolitical interests that came into conflict.
At base, the Europeans needed the US, but resented
American interference in their affairs.
These matters only became worse during and after President Carter.
After America was
thoroughly humiliated by Iran,
and Carter failed to rise to the situation, Europe
became gripped by the fear that the US was a paper tiger, without the
political will to win.
This produced a whole host of
neuroses in the European body politic.
The very reasonable fear of nuclear war billowed out of control, partly
through Soviet subversion – funding the CND and other anti-nuke groups – and
started to shade into anti-Americanism.
The far less logical fear that the
would start WW3 also grew into existence, fuelled by the relentless pressure of
the Reagan years. It was feared,
perhaps reasonably, that the
would keep pressing to the point where the Russians would start the war, or that
a war might start by accident. Few
of these fears had any basis in truth, but they existed – warping the world.
As newer generations grew up, they forgot the horrors of war – horrors
kept away from them by forces they distrusted or hated.
A new transatlantic aversion to casualties began.
And then the Cold War ended.
Before I go on, I should note one
important fact about the Cold War.
We won. It is easy to condemn both
the American and European approach to the Cold War, but in the end we won.
No European Government went over to the other side.
No Russian tanks crossed the border.
No nuclear weapons were used.
It seemed as if the end of history was at hand.
Unfortunately, life isn’t like
It is a basic fact that
nation-states exist in a state of anarchy.
While many well-meaning people believe in a transnational set of
international laws that prevent misbehaviour, the blunt truth is that such laws
have to be effective in order to work – and, in order to work, they have to be
enforced. No entity exists with the
demonstrated power and
will to enforce those laws.
Without enforcement, the laws become meaningless.
The Cold War had frozen many regional conflicts and limited others, in
order to prevent a general war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
The end of the Cold War allowed dozens of minor conflicts to flare up
and, worse, for the intrinsic geopolitical fault lines within Europe (and within
Europe’s relationship with America) to start to come apart.
On the surface, it was the dawn of a new age; under the surface, the ice
Although I have been referring to
as a collective entity, the truth is that Europe
is nothing of the sort. The United States of America
is one nation. The European Union
is a collection of nations that each have a national identity far stronger than
any American state.
The end of the Cold War changed Europe dramatically.
-It allowed the Germans to reunite
their state, becoming the most powerful state within the EU.
-It removed the threat that had
together. They no longer needed
-It allowed states from
to join both NATO and the EU.
as a global and regional power, seemingly permanently.
To understand what happened next,
it is necessary to understand the true nature of the European Union.
The Europeans who shaped what grew into the EU had just lived through
World War Two. Their principle
reason for creating the EU was not to create a counter-balance to the
US, but to restrain the Germans from attempting
to dominate Europe
for a third time. The theory was
simple enough; the Germans would be enmeshed within Europe
and part of NATO, a force dominated by the US, by the time the Germans
reunited, got over their guilt for WW2 and started playing an active role on the
world stage. As such entities tend
to do, the EU grew in size and scope, yet it was always limited.
Europe could agree on some issues, but
not on others, mainly defence. The
disunion over Iraq might have brought that into
the light, yet it existed prior to 9/11 and the War on Terror.
The different states of Europe
had different interests. In
particular, France and Germany
(although for different reasons) wanted to chart an independent course (i.e. not
an American course) while Eastern Europe
wanted to remain closely allied to the US.
They remembered how they were betrayed by Western
Europe in 1938-39.
United States had its own problems in the
post-Cold War world. Like most
victorious nations, the US
had won and wanted to enjoy the fruits of victory.
Military spending was cut (although many warned of a possible future
threat from China) and – terrified by the
spectre of Vietnam
– the US
became very casualty-averse. The
network of alliances and defence agreements the US had created was allowed to fray
in some regions and expand recklessly in others (Eastern
Europe, for example).
Worst of all, the US
was gaining a reputation as an unreliable ally; when the going got tough, it was
whispered, the US
History seemed to bear that out.
The US had restored the status quo in
the Middle East after a stunning multinational
victory against Iraq,
but Saddam remained in power and, when his own people tried to rise up against
him, the US
allowed them to be slaughtered – after encouraging them to rise up in the first
place. The Battle of Mogadishu
convinced the US
to withdraw, after suffering a pitiful number of causalities.
(Saddam, who had sent thousands of his own people to die in the war
against Iran, was hardly impressed.)
The United States, the greatest force
for democracy and freedom on Earth, seemed timorous.
Genocides went unpunished.
Tyrannical states were allowed to flourish.
It seemed that the United States
could only produce plans that involved someone else being willing to commit
suicide on America’s
Consider the following scenario.
You are the leader of a small country that happens to border a state that
the US regards as a Rogue State.
You don’t like this state; you hate it, you distrust its leader and you
fear what they might do in the future.
Logically, you should seek an alliance with the
and get American protection, right?
Or maybe not – what happens if the
pulls out? Now that tyrant has
another reason to be mad at you...
This problem kept reoccurring over Iraq.
Arab states such as Saudi Arabia or
wanted – desperately – to get rid of Saddam and would have backed, if not
overtly, an American invasion of the country.
The endless containment, however, was not something they could support
enthusiastically, because one day the US might pull out and Saddam would
It has become common to blame the
growing dysfunction of the international system on George W. Bush.
The truth, however, was that the international system was dangerously
dysfunctional a long time before Bush took office.
Without strong and considerate American leadership, NATO drifted, the UN
became even more impotent and the world grew darker.
Hundreds of problems were bubbling under the surface and finally one
Europe, largely because it had grown used to thinking of the US as not only invincible, but
untouchable. (Internal problems
like Oklahoma City didn’t
count.) This was not, of course, a
valid belief. No European
government raised serious objections to the
and many were prepared to send troops to assist in the hunt for OBL.
Unfortunately, as geopolitics reasserted themselves, the enthusiasm for
assisting the US started to wane.
The problem only got worse as the months drifted on without another
serious terrorist attack.
The EU had had a terrorist problem
for a long time, from the IRA in the
to the Red Army in Germany.
(An Islamic group in France actually
planned to ram the Eiffel
Tower with an aircraft.)
knew that terrorists were a serious problem, they didn’t actually see them as a
life or death problem – but then, most of the EU-based terrorists were a
domestic problem. The US hadn’t
helped; factions in the EU had long memories of US-based financiers supporting
terrorists (mainly Irish) and they weren't so inclined to cooperate with what
they saw as US
hypocrisy. As 2001 became 2002, the
stresses within NATO grew worse.
Afghanistan, the geopolitical situation ensured
that the US could not guarantee a victory.
Afghanistan itself was a fragmented
state. Pakistan was needed to transport
supplies into Afghanistan,
hence the need to keep
sweet, but at the same time the Taliban was relocating itself to Pakistan, with
the tacit backing of elements in Pakistan.
The US needed to pressure the Pakistanis, yet it faced the issue that if
it pushed too hard and the Pakistani Government fell, it might be replaced by a
hardline Islamic Government that would refuse to cooperate, dooming the mission
in Afghanistan. If that wasn't
enough, the Indians had to be kept on side – and they were worried about
Pakistani nukes, as was the US.
Who had control over Pakistan?
The US faced an impossible task.
The core issue was one I have
alluded to before. The US was simply not feared.
The US could not police the Middle East and round up terrorists – it simply lacked the
local knowledge. The local
governments had little love for the terrorists, but moving against them was
risky and there seemed no reason to fear the US.
a prime source of funding for terrorist groups, couldn’t be threatened, because
invading Saudi Arabia
would cause economic shockwaves.
The US was – it had
to be – restrained. The terrorists
had no such weakness.
America’s solution to this problem was simple
in concept, if not in execution.
The US would invade Iraq and
liberate the Iraqis from Saddam’s nightmarish rule.
This would, it was hoped, have a number of useful effects:
-Iraqi oil would flow into the
global market, reducing Saudi Arabia’s
-Iraqi democracy would encourage
democrats across the Middle East to demand more democracy, rather than Islamic
-The lingering sore of Saddam (and
his WMD) would be permanently removed.
-Other dictators would realise
that the US could and
would remove them too, if they failed to cooperate.
Having come up with a cold-blooded
plan, the US started
trying to drum up support for the war.
The justification chosen (explaining openly that invading Iraq was part of
a long-term plan would not have gone down well) was two-fold; WMD and human
rights. This didn’t seem like a bad
idea. Saddam’s WMD programs were
known to exist and Saddam himself had a long history of attempting to conceal
his WMD. Worse, Saddam had actually
used WMD on the Kurds (and attempted
to use them on the Shia in 1991, although it failed and this wasn't actually
discovered until after the invasion.)
And then there was the shocking state of Iraq’s citizens.
The plan was simple enough.
would demand that Saddam prove that he had no WMD or be removed, something that
was politically possible in the post-9/11 era.
Saddam’s denials would not be believed – he had a long history of lying –
and the US
could go to war with the support of the UN, as in 1991.
Saddam was certainly in defiance of many UN resolutions.
It seemed perfect.
Unluckily, the US miscalculated.
To understand what happened next,
at least in Europe, it is necessary to understand the political
geography of the EU. On the face of
it, there were no political groupings within the EU.
In practice, three separate consensuses – schools of thought – had
emerged within the EU. I will call
them – there are no official names – the West, the Middle and the East.
The West (mainly Britain) believed that the best
course was a permanent strategic alliance with the US.
In effect, the West felt that the US could be used as a
counter-balance to the EU (Middle and East), preventing them from becoming
submerged within a European super-state.
Working with the US
was the best way to gain influence over the US.
The West had been losing influence in Europe
for a long time, however, as it seemed the US was uninterested in rewarding
them for their efforts.
The Middle (mainly France and Germany) wanted
to maintain the status quo – indeed, they believed that the world had changed
and that they were permanently safe.
They saw the terrorists as less of a threat than the US, which might
not intend to invade them, but though
its uncontrolled actions in other parts of the world might cause problems that
would rebound on them. (In effect,
the old fear that the US
would cause WW3.) The Middle
believed that the best course of action was to steer an independent course – in
order to avoid becoming submerged within the US, without influence over the US –
and to attempt to restrain the US where possible.
Their enthusiastic support for transnational organisations like the ICC
represented another attempt to restrain the US – after all,
they were not likely to be threatened
by the ICC.
The East (mainly former Warsaw
Pact nations) wanted protection from
While states like Poland wanted economic ties with the
rest of Europe, they had bad memories of being
abandoned by the Western Powers in the run up to WW2.
The slow, but steady Russian resurgence had convinced them that they
needed military ties to the power that
hadn’t betrayed them – the US.
The fact that the Middle had extensive economic ties with
didn’t reassure them. The East
suspected that if push came to shove, the Middle would abandon them to Russia’s tender
mercies. It didn’t help that the
Middle seemed unaware of the arrogance and consenion they were showing to states
that might have been backward, but had also been under the thumb of Soviet
Russia until the end of the cold war.
And so, when the US went looking for support in the
invasion, it detonated a number of geopolitical landmines at once.
The West generally supported the
invasion, although with some cavorts.
The Middle was adamantly opposed.
The reasoning was confused and to some extent contradictory, but went
something like this. If the US invaded…
-Saddam’s forces would give it a
bloody nose and the US would
withdraw after losing two-three soldiers, embarrassing the US and weakening
the status quo.
would win the war and declare victory, only to withdraw days later, leaving Iraq to chaos.
-Or, having won, the US would expect its allies to do the
hard work of nation-building, while it congratulated itself on its great
-Or, having won and built a
successful Iraq, the US would invade
owed the world (including states within the Middle) would not be paid.
would effectively dominate the Middle East.
The bottom line was that the
Middle didn’t believe that the US had the will
to invade and believed that allying themselves to the US in Iraq was a good
way to lose influence, both with the US and also in the Middle East.
The US had a nasty
habit of treating its allies as subordinate formations; whatever happened, the US would be in
control. The Middle regarded that
as unacceptable. Their independence
would dwindle away.
Their conclusion was cunning, or
so they thought. If the US didn’t invade, they could claim
to have preventing the invasion, boosting their status within the Middle East.
If the US
did invade, without their support, they would be well-positioned to say ‘I told
you so’ when/if the US
withdrew after getting a bloody nose – and gain influence and contacts within Iraq.
And, if the US project succeeded, the Middle
would get to harvest some of the benefits anyway.
It looked perfect.
Accordingly, they made it known
that they would not only refuse to support the
US, but that they would veto any further UN
And, in doing so, the Middle
overplayed its hand.
For the East, the Middle could not
be trusted. The Middle was cutting
deals with Russia.
Who knew – one day, perhaps the Middle would sign away their freedom in
exchange for a Natural Gas contact.
The East needed the military support
of the US,
something the Middle no longer believed it required.
And so the East allied with the West – itself boosted, because it could
blame the failure of diplomacy on the Middle, specifically the French – in
support of the United States.
More European countries supported the invasion than were against it.
No wonder Jacques Chirac exploded.
Months of careful diplomacy had just fallen into the crapper.
It was he, not the East, who had missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.
It is said that no battle plan
survives contact with the enemy. So
it was that America’s grand
plan for reshaping the physical and moral battlefield and tilting it against the
terrorists simply didn’t work as well as the US had hoped.
In fact, through the early years, it seemed on the verge of outright
One could write an entire book on
the complexities of post-Saddam
Iraq, but I am going to have to simplify and
generalise. This is an overall
Iraq’s internal political geography consisted
of three groups; the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds.
(The smaller groups were simply too small to matter.)
Saddam had been a Sunni and so the Sunnis benefited (insomuch as anyone
did) from his rule. He ensured that
they remained in charge of
Iraq, lording over the other two groups, and
gave them preferential treatment.
The Shia, the largest group, were ground under, while Saddam had attempted to
exterminate the Kurds. The level of
hatred between the three groups was difficult to exaggerate.
They also had very different aspirations.
The Sunni basically wanted to
remain in charge of Iraq.
Saddam might have been bad, but he had always been a Sunni.
And besides, the others would want revenge.
The Shia wanted to claim their
democratic right; rule over Iraq.
They also wanted revenge on the Sunni, who had ground them under for
Saddam. Complicating matters was
the fact that the Shia believed that they’d been badly betrayed by the
United States and weren't so inclined to trust
promises from the US,
who had left them to suffer and die under Saddam’s rule.
To add to this, the Iranians had been forging links with Shia groups –
and were regarded as more trustworthy than the US.
The Kurds, who had received a
certain degree of US protection
after 1991, were the most pro-US of the three groups.
They were also the smallest; they wanted to reclaim their territory
(Saddam had been trying to drive them away from the oil for years) and secure a
degree of autonomy from Saddam or any future central government.
Naturally, matters were not that simple; the Kurds, as an ethnic group,
existed in several states – including
– and an independent Iraqi Kurdistan risked bringing in the Turks.
And, if that wasn't enough, the Kurds didn’t entirely trust the
either. What would happen, they
wondered, if the US
decided to sell them out?
And so the
drove headlong into a snake pit.
made a number of misjudgements in the run-up to the war.
overestimated the willingness of Iraqi officials to remain in place and
cooperate with the US.
overestimated the willingness of the Shia to rise up in support of the invasion.
grossly underestimated the number of troops that would be required to secure
particularly in the first weeks of the occupation.
grossly overestimated the willingness of its allies – and nearby powers – to
There is no way to know for sure,
but I believe that the origin of these misjudgements lay in the nature of
American society. The US, as a free country, does not –
for example – have laws insisting that all working Americans must join the
Republican Party. Party membership
is rarely a concern in the
The state governments, police forces and the military are not governed by
party membership. An American does
not have to be a member of a particular party to advance, at least outside the
inner structure of said party. (It
is unlikely that a Democrat would seek or obtain power within the Republican
Party.) The levers of power in the United States
cannot be concentrated into a single pair of hands.
This was not true of Saddam’s Iraq.
The government had worked hard to control every aspect of society.
Saddam’s will was absolute; the key to rising was to be a member of his
party, perfectly loyal and willing to do whatever Saddam asked.
There were no other official power structures in Iraq; Saddam
would have seen them as a threat.
It was Saddam’s structure that held
together and, when the US
invaded, that structure was destroyed –
and the US
put nothing in its place to replace it at once.
The result was chaos.
Again, an entire book could be
written on what happened next, so I am forced to summarise.
The Sunni wanted to hang on to their power.
The remains of the Iraqi Army were jobless and eager for revenge on the US.
Everyone who was a member of Saddam’s party (and that was everyone in any
position, including teachers and doctors) was suddenly unsure of their position.
The Shia wanted revenge on the Sunni.
The Kurds started trying to drive the Sunni out of historically Kurdish
areas. AQ arrived in Iraq and, because the Sunni were
desperate for allies, they were able to make a devil’s bargain with the
suddenly-disposed former rulers of Iraq.
Returning to the topic of this
essay, the US Government was slow to officially recognise that it had a problem.
Worse, the US was
already talking about withdrawing and
leaving Iraq to the
Iraqis, apparently under the delusion that everything was rosy.
It was clear to any reasonably competent outside observer that
Iraq, far from being safe and secure, was
growing increasingly dangerous and civil war seemed to be just around the
corner. As the 2004 elections
approached, it was impossible to say just what the
would do – if Kerry was elected, would the US simply cut its losses and walk
The problem returned to the
fundamental geopolitical structure of the region.
The US was a
transient power, while the other
groups in and near Iraq
were there permanently. The US appeared to
be irrelevant, which meant that the groups within the region saw no reason to
listen to the US.
The US could not be trusted, they
thought, so the US
was not trusted, even to offer protection.
the growing chaos was having unfortunate effects.
The West was horrified by the failure – a failure that they were now
associated with – and sought either signs of hope or an excuse to get the hell
out of Iraq.
Spain, for example, changed its
position completely after AQ targeted the nation, using the bombings as an
excuse to pull out of Iraq.
Britain held on; ironically, the
British leadership might have decided to pull out, had they been focused on the
situation. The Middle was more
worried than it cared to let on; while some were quietly pleased at US failure
others were worried about what it meant for the world.
The East had a growing problem to
the…well, east. Russia was back on the world stage.
US, the Russian geopolitical priorities
required near-constant attention from the Russian Government.
Russia needed to
dominate all of the surrounding countries, particularly the ones to the west of
rational was fairly simple; those territories, in enemy hands, could be used to
springboard an invasion force hundreds of miles closer to
Russian need to control those
territories was followed, carefully, by the Tsars, the Communists and the
was weak, following the Cold War, the European East had joined NATO and sought
security from the Russian Bear.
That looked quite reasonable from the US/European POV; the Russians saw it as a
The Russians, being politically,
economically and militarily weak, started to play their cards very carefully,
refusing to over-commit themselves.
They forged trade and economic links with the European Middle, attempting to
weaken any countervailing European alliance.
They didn’t hesitate to show their teeth from time to time – like over
the treatment of Russian minorities in the Baltic States
– and hint at the carrot and stick.
The carrot was trade links with
Russia; the stick was the possibility of
Part of the reason the Russians
got away with it lay in Iraq.
The US military was heavily committed to
and very little could be spared to reinforce NATO, specifically the European
East (which became reluctant to make significant contributions to Iraq), while the
needed Russian support in Central Asia and Iran.
The European East began to fear that another American betrayal was in the
cards, calculating that if the US needed Russia more than
it needed them, the US
would abandon them to Russia.
This may or may not have been a realistic concern, but it was one they
had to believe. A Russian Army in
would mean game over, at least as far as Poland was concerned.
These stresses and strains
buffeted the European Union quite badly.
The reason for this was the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the
As I noted above, the EU’s real
purpose, at least originally, was to restrain the Germans and prevent them from
attempting to dominate Europe.
The European machine would be funded by the Germans, who would not,
because of their guilt over World War Two, dispute their place in the grand
scheme of things. The
would provide the military cover that would save the EU from either having to
reshape itself to act as a military power, which all that that would imply, or
fragment back into different nations.
By 2005, the contradiction was starting to bite.
The problem lay in the fact that
the different nations were nations,
not separate US-style states. As
history returned to Europe, so too did nationalism.
It was dangerously optimistic to believe, for example, that German voters
would vote to continue to tamely fund the EU.
Or, for that matter, that voters from richer nations like
would accept an influx of poorer workers from Eastern
Europe who – to use the common phase – took their jobs.
Why should one expect voters in any given country to take one for the
team – particularly when they had no emotional attachment to that team and might
not even think that they were on it?
In order to do its job – to
prevent conflict within Europe – the EU had to be undemocratic.
When times were good, this passed unnoticed; when times got hard, this
became a major problem. Put
bluntly, the EU started out with the expectation that all states would be equal
within the EU…but that was simply unrealistic.
Why should Germany, the
most powerful single state within the EU, consider Poland or Greece or Ireland its
equal? The logical answer was
simple; it shouldn’t.
The EU was basically trapped
between two points. As an unelected
elite, it had a baleful effect on Europe –
though ill-conceived legislation – and bred resentment among those who suffered
– or believed that they suffered – under its control.
On the other hand, if the EU tried to reform, the results might be
disastrous. They muddled on and
hoped for the best.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the US was slowly
learning how to fight a whole new kind of war.
If the Shia chose to remain aloof from the US, the US would ally with its archenemies –
the Sunni. And, by a lucky
coincidence, the Sunni were getting sick of their ‘allies,’ the nihilistic AQ.
AQ wanted to trigger off a civil war – depending on a person’s view, they
succeeded – and the Sunni knew that they were in for the chop.
They stayed with AQ because there was nowhere else to go; now, the US did two things that its enemies
believed impossible. It reached out
to the Sunni and surged additional forces into the country.
This had three very important
effects on the war. First, it
worked to separate the local Sunni from the hardcore terrorists.
Second, it put the US
back in the game and marked a new American commitment to the war.
Third, it raised the possibility that the Shia would find themselves
marginalised instead – and that the Americans would back the Sunni in
re-establishing their control over Iraq.
Shia elements who were loyal to Iraq itself (as
opposed to having ties to
Iran) came over and started to forge a new
government. It wasn’t obvious at
the start, but Iraq was slowly
turning the corner and returning to sanity.
US’s grand plan hadn’t worked perfectly, not
least because Iraq had been a
far more expensive victory than the US had dared fear.
Saudi Arabia, after being hit by a
wave of terrorist bombings, took strong action against terrorists within the
Kingdom, the best the US
could hope for. States like Libya indicated
their willingness to put aside WMD programs and try to return to the civilised
world. Even so, it was a fragile
victory. One misstep could doom it.
and Europe, there were troubled times ahead.
It is a curious fact of
geopolitics that events that don’t happen are sometimes as important as events
that do happen. If Hitler had launched Operation Sealion and invaded Britain, he
would either have succeeded or failed – and in either case would have had a
major effect on the war. By not launching the invasion, however, he still had an
effect on the war – Britain would remain a secure base for the liberation of
Europe. So it was, through the 2007-2010 period, that one non-event became of
considerable importance – the US failure to deal with Iran.
There were also three events that
were of considerable importance, although for different reasons. There was a
massive global financial crisis that cast a long shadow over the West. There was
the Russian invasion of (and victory over) Georgia. And, of considerably lesser
importance, was the election of President Obama to succeed President Bush. One
could probably be forgiven for failing to realise the importance of the
non-event concerning Iran.
The problem, at least as far as
the US and EU were concerned, was that the three problems were intermingled,
tangling local and global politics. Sorting them out and separating them is
seemingly impossible, yet it must be tried. I will attempt to deal with the
financial crisis and the Russian invasion first.
There is no time here to outline
the cause and scope of the financial crisis. In the US, the banks basically
became overextended, risking the collapse of Wall Street and the entire house of
cards. The US Government was forced to step in to prevent a general collapse –
the bailout – even though large parts of the American population were against
it. In Europe, things were considerably worse, although for different reasons.
Smaller EU nations started to default on their payments, risking the collapse of
entire national economies. Payments and spending organised when times were good
started to fall apart when the money ran out. In effect, nations like Greece had
gained access to a credit card and spent irresponsibly. Now, like a teenager
unable to understand why the bailiffs are repossessing their new car or mobile
phone, the bills were coming due and the debts were being called in.
The problem lay with Germany’s
hardening attitude to the EU. The Germans had been Europe’s banker – and
financier – for the generation following WW2. Now Germany found itself faced
with demands that it bailed the Greeks out, in effect taking their debts on
themselves. This might have made sense in an American context, but it made very
little in a European context. German voters saw no reason why they should help
save the Greeks from the consequences of their own stupidity. The financial
crisis had become political. The EU – with a great deal of justice, for it had
been the EU that had ignored the warning signs when Greece joined the EU – was
seen as causing the crisis. It was part of the problem, not the solution. The EU
itself seemed to be on the verge of coming apart.
What happened in the end was a
compromise, of sorts. Greece would get the financial help it needed, but with
heavy strings dictated by the Germans. The Greeks weren't happy about it – see
the protests in Athens – and nor were many others in Europe. They saw it as the
Germans moving towards a leadership role – no, worse than a leadership role; a
hegemony over Europe – and feared the consequences.
The EU’s great contradiction had
come home to roost. Being largely undemocratic and unaccountable, it could
dictate measures to benefit all of Europe, but those measures angered voters in
individual countries. Those voters would, in turn, demand newer and tougher
policies towards the EU on the part of their government, which would undermine
the EU. It only had power as long as the national governments were prepared to
allow it. When Ireland, Portugal and Spain joined Greece in sliding towards
complete collapse – perhaps even default – the crisis only grew worse…and the
German position grew stronger.
In the meantime, the Russians had
I don’t have the space to go into
the history between the two nations. The short unsentimental version of it is
that Georgia was attempting to maintain an independent foreign policy and
Russia, for its core geopolitical reasons, could not allow it to try – let alone
succeed. The Russians had worked to fission Georgia and now, with their
invasion, managed to split the country and crush any hopes it had of remaining
independent. The Russians talked about regime change – they could certainly have
occupied the entire country – but they didn’t need to do anything of the sort.
They had made their point with the invasion.
The important point is that no one
was able or willing to help the Georgians. The invasion was condemned throughout
the world, but no effective – i.e. military – action was taken. The Russians had
secured their return to the world stage and done so without serious
repercussions. Although Georgia was not a member of NATO and no other state was
obliged to come to its aid, it sent shivers through Eastern Europe. They
remembered being occupied by the Red Army after WW2.
As I noted above, the US needed
the Russians to help with Afghanistan and Iran. The Russian quid pro quo was no
(or limited) American interference in their sphere of interest. As long as the
US needed the Russians, the Russians could operate without fear of sharp
American responses. Western Europe worried, but absently; after all, the
Russians were a long way away. Middle Europe was too busy making money and trade
deals with the Russians. And Eastern Europe was starting to feel like the
President Obama was greeted with
cries of adulation by Europe. The reasoning was simple. Obama promised a new,
open and respectful foreign policy, which they took to mean that he would listen
to Europe. No US President received that level of adoration when he took office
in the past – Obama was even given the Nobel Peace Prize, for he was all things
to all men. West Europe regarded him as being unlikely to start another war,
Middle Europe thought that he would follow a more conventional foreign policy
and Eastern Europe thought he would provide the assurances they so desperately
needed of support against the Russians.
Unfortunately for them, they were
The American President isn’t
all-powerful. All Presidents since Washington have been locked into their
positions, with their freedom of action circumscribed, often by events outside
their control. Obama might not have been Bush, but he faced the same problems
and limitations as his predecessor. Bush had been…well, Bush because of
geopolitical imperatives. Obama might have spoken against Bush-style operations
while he had been struggling towards the White House, but once inside he was
locked in as well. The war in Afghanistan had to be won, yet it seemed
Obama, at least as far as I can
tell, seemed to believe that Bush’s real mistake was in simply not explaining
himself properly to the Europeans and everyone else. The American position was
redressed in Obama-approved colours and presented to the world. It didn’t work.
Whatever justifications Bush and Obama used, what the US wanted was strongly
against the geopolitical priorities of most of America’s allies. Obama’s team
didn’t help either. When Hilary Clinton made noises about the Falkland Islands,
she effectively stabbed the pro-US factions in the back. By not firing her,
Obama seemed to confirm her position, yet another example of US domestic
politics poisoning the US’s relationships with its allies.
This all tied in with the
non-event. America effectively failed to prevent Iran from growing into a far
greater menace than Iraq. All the problems – despite the American belief that
they are separate – tied together. Russia needed Iran as a bargaining chip;
America needed Russia to help, so the US couldn’t pressure Russia too hard; Iran
was meddling in both Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to keep the US tied down…and
on, and on. The US reluctance to challenge Iran directly makes it difficult for
anyone to support the US openly. The US will either have to bite the bullet and
take direct action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or accept
that Iran is going to become the regional hegemonic power, or accept a new
nuclear arms race in the Middle East. None of this options seemed acceptable,
but neither is muddling on and hoping for the best.
As 2010 draws to a close, it
remains clear that there are harder times to come…
(Predicting the future is a good
way to look like a fool, unless someone predicts a future so far away that
everyone is dead before the prophecy comes to pass, but I will try if someone