Six years after their invasion of Iraq, US troops have almost completely withdrawn from the cities in that country. If someone had told me two years ago that this would happen, I would have called him either naive or an extreme optimist. Hardly anyone in the (continental) European press believed that the situation on the ground would soon improve. The sentiment was that: "The US exaggerates its successes on the ground. The Iraqi situation is a mess. The US has made a big mistake by getting involved. The result will be something like Vietnam."
I must confess that I too was sceptical. At the end of the day, neutral information on military moves in a country in civil war like Iraq is hard to get. You depend on the military, in this case on the US military. But even worse than the reporting of the events there was the approach most Europeans - journalists and politicians alike - took: "Let's sit back and watch the US gets its ass kicked."
It is no secret that Germany was at the forefront of this "old Europe" movement. It was the transatlantic issue of dissent after 9/11, when the Schroeder and Chirac governments opposed the Iraqi invasion in the Security Council. "I am not convinced," uttered our then-Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer. The public applauded this brave move and later "enjoyed" seeing things go wrong in Iraq after Saddam had been thrown from his throne. "Old Europe" thought that this time it was on the "right side of history."
Every improvement in the situation there meant a crack in their picture. That is why they completely ignored all successes on the ground. And that is why "old Europe" has been silent on the latest troop withdrawal there. They did not want to confess that maybe the US did in fact achieve something in Iraq.
This wilful ignorance is bad for transatlantic relations. It does not allow for corrections in the assessment of past events: who was wrong and who was right? Maybe both were wrong and right at the same time? The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe the US was right that the removal of Saddam and the creation of a new democratic state would be possible. And maybe Europe was right in that this would not be an easy endeavour. People naturally tend to ignore facts that do not fit into their own picture of the world. The Bush administration did not want to see that democracy in Iraq would be very difficult to achieve and the Europeans did not want to accept that things can in fact be changed if you invest all the forces you have. This will to change things is something that I as a European will always admire about the US.
So, what are the lessons learned? We can still learn from each other, and next time we should listen to each other better. We should not childishly ignore each other's view again. The US is still quite powerful and can change circumstances through its mere might. The Europeans have some good ideas, too. The situation in Iraq was a mess for a long time. The US almost lost control, and there are still many dangers in the country, including a latent danger of a civil war on the horizon. Plus, the conflict diverted a lot of resources from Afghanistan, a country much more chaotic and needy. Afghanistan will be the test case for the transatlantic lessons learned from the Iraq war. Here both sides have to show that they have understood: the Americans that their approach does not always work, and Europeans that they have to try harder if they really want to change the course of events on the ground. The time for childishness is over: The US and Europe should be wise and cooperate!
Christoph Suess is Junior Editor at the Hanauer Anzeiger, writing on political and local issues.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Markus Drake: Europe and Iraq: A Re-Connect
- Matthew Yglesias: How to Repair Our Relationship with Europe
- D. Korski and R. Gowan: On Iraq, It's Time to Call Europe