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Asmus: U.S.-NATO Gap Over Iraq Narrows Slightly

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Ronald D. Asmus
October 1, 2003

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Ronald D. Asmus, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the Clinton administration and an expert on NATO, says that an “important first step” toward healing the rupture between the United States and its European allies has been taken in recent weeks. But he cautions that it is “only a first step” and that Europeans still mistrust Washington’s Iraq policies.

“I fear we will have the victory of a [United Nations] resolution, but it won’t mean much at the end of the day,” says Asmus, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 1 and 2, 2003.

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In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, you write that “one of the most striking consequences of the Bush administration’s foreign policy tenure has been the collapse of the Atlantic alliance.” In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of conversation between the United States and its European allies at the United Nations and elsewhere about repairing this rupture. Is it going to happen?

I think we have taken an important first step, but only a first step. The issue that is on the table at the United Nations is whether the United States and Europe can reconcile in a way that would change the dynamics both in the transatlantic relationship and possibly on the ground in Iraq.

The issue is two-fold: will Europe step forward with a significant contribution [to Iraqi reconstruction], and is the United States prepared to allow Europe to have the right kind of U.N. mandate and voice in the process? The question the Europeans have had for the United States is, “Can we be assured that we will have some say in what’s going to happen [in Iraq] through the United Nations and other arrangements?”

What happened was that the Europeans, given the option of a minimum package or a maximum package, went for the minimum package and the Americans gave them a minimum amount of say, as opposed to the maximum package and a greater amount of say. But it was an important step forward.

You’re talking about the new U.N. resolution that the United States is circulating?

Yes. Crucial to that resolution is the question of whether the United States and Europe are going to come together in a meaningful way to try and manage the rebuilding of Iraq. All European leaders are saying publicly, and in private are emphasizing, that they know that if Iraq were to go wrong, they would pay as big a price as the United States would.

Will the Europeans approve the new resolution?

I expect that the new resolution will be accepted and that the European members of the Security Council will either say “yes” or abstain. They have been signaling for some time that they will not oppose it. But the key question is a different one, namely, whether this resolution leads them to rethink their position and leads them to make significant contributions to the Iraq reconstruction effort. And there, unfortunately, the answer is likely to be “no.” The president’s speech at the United Nations was read in Europe as saying: We’re going to do this on our terms, and we welcome you and urge you to join us. It was not read as sending the message that the United States was willing to accommodate European concerns and interests and wishes in a way that would lead them to make meaningful contributions. So I fear we will have the victory of a resolution, but it won’t mean much at the end of the day. The resolution will not become the vehicle for a more meaningful reconciliation that would have led Europe to go beyond the minimum and do the maximum possible.

What are the Europeans willing to do if a deal can be worked out with Washington?

It is not agreed to yet. But there are European governments willing to put troops on the ground, willing to make a much greater financial contribution, and willing to do everything from training police to encouraging non-governmental organizations to go into Iraq and using the resources of the European Union to make a much greater impact. But in return, they want to have the sense, or the assurance, that they will have a say commensurate with their role. And they still feel, rightly or wrongly, that they’re being asked to sign up on American terms, and they do not feel confident that they would have the say that they think they would deserve.

Now, in return, the American skepticism is that the Europeans are asking for that role without being willing to put resources on the table. That’s the dance that took place, and we did not reach closure. But we did take a step forward.

Is the dance over?

No, the dance is not over yet. In one leading European defense ministry, the internal wager is not whether but when it will put troops on the ground in Iraq. The assumption is that over the weeks and months ahead, there will be another attempt to bring the United States and Europe together in some way to find a more common approach, because at the end of the day, Europeans and Americans have a deep, common interest in ensuring that the project of rebuilding Iraq succeeds.

The Germans made a public gesture of rapprochement when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met with President Bush recently. Is that a real policy change?

I think Germany is the key. The U.S.-German relationship is the one that, in many ways, suffered the most in the past year. Many Germans are very sympathetic to the vision of a transformed, more democratic greater Middle East. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agrees with that view, and in order to bring the French back on board, you need to first reconcile with the Germans. The policy of ignoring the Germans was a mistake. I think we are moving in the right direction now. But Germany is a good example of a country that could have done more, but isn’t yet prepared politically to do the maximum possible. It is doing less than it could because it’s not convinced it will have an adequate role in the decision-making process.

Are Europeans looking for a joint command with the United States?

What Europeans are looking for and what Europeans ask is, why can’t the United States come up with a system similar to the one in Afghanistan today?

That is a separate U.S. military contingent and a separate European force?

No, it is much more. The plan the Europeans want in Iraq starts with a clear U.N. mandate, with the United States playing the dominant role behind the scenes. This would be done in a way that grants more legitimacy and makes it easier for both Europeans and other countries in the region to come in and participate. None of the Europeans have any problems with the U.S. military running the security side of this operation. That has never been the issue. They want that.

The question is the civilian side and whether you can take the operation run by L. Paul [Jerry] Bremer [III] and merge or morph it into something that is much more international, both in appearance and in substance. That would give the Europeans a role commensurate with the resources they bring in. If there is only a modest amount of resources, then they should have only a modest amount of say. But we need to create the context by which Europe can contribute. I think we took a run at this at the United Nations. We didn’t quite get there, but I hope that we will take another run at this in the days and weeks ahead. We have to, if we are going to succeed.

What is the French government’s position now?

I think President Jacques Chirac is correct when he says that the key issue for many Iraqis is when they will assume responsibility for governing themselves. I think most people, including most Europeans, know that turning this operation over to the Iraqis in the near future is a silly idea and one that wouldn’t work. The debate between France and the United States is over tactics and timing and, unfortunately, the whole conversation is still poisoned by the rift over the Iraq fight earlier in the year.

People want to see the United States succeed. They need to help the Iraqis organize themselves so they can take responsibility. But in the last couple of days, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that within six months, we want a draft constitution, and the Iraqis said they may not be able to meet that deadline.

There is a danger of the process dragging out over too long a time period, and there is a danger of a premature transfer of power to an Iraqi authority unable to handle the responsibility it would assume.

Then how can the Europeans expect an Afghan-type situation in Iraq? In Afghanistan, there was Hamid Karzai, who was an obvious choice for president. I don’t think there is anyone like him in Iraq.

The Europeans say that they helped create Karzai. The Bonn meeting, in December 2001, which the Germans ran, created the international legitimacy and produced a U.N. mandate to empower someone like Karzai as the leader of the country, supported by the international community. That model is what most Europeans wish we would emulate in Iraq. This international mandate allows countries to contribute in a way that they find difficult to do at the moment.

Where does the NATO alliance fit into this?

NATO is in Afghanistan as a security force. The debate is about expanding the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into the regions of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. A second debate is whether NATO, in the months ahead, would take over a sector in Iraq, the sector where a lot of individual national forces, like the Poles, are currently based. That is still a little bit taboo politically, but it is being actively discussed in the halls of the alliance and is a goal that many of us would like to see become a reality. It is something that could be on the agenda at the next NATO summit in May in Istanbul.

The NATO defense ministers are meeting in Colorado Springs next week. There, the first issue is the expansion of the ISAF mandate in Afghanistan. Behind that lurks the issue of Iraq. But for NATO to take that on would require a firmer and deeper reconciliation across the Atlantic first. It is only when we come back together on the political level that we can consider having NATO take over a sector in Iraq.

Can you give us some background on the new NATO secretary-general, Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands?

The new NATO secretary-general has some big shoes to fill because Lord Robertson has done a very good job in a very critical time. The Dutch have historically played a key role in the alliance because they have simultaneously been among the most Atlanticist and the most pro-European. They are trusted both in Washington and in key European capitals, and I think we are symbolically turning to the Dutch when the alliance has gone through a very difficult patch in the hope that someone like Jaap de Hoop Scheffer can help heal the rift and help put the alliance back together.

But the big issue, which I addressed in my article, is what new agenda? We don’t need to put the alliance together around the old agenda, but around the new agenda. And the new secretary general is coming into office six months before a big NATO summit that will be the last summit of this administration’s first term. The key question is whether NATO is going to be able to kiss and make up and show that the United States and Europe are again working together, and whether it is going to set a new strategic direction in managing the problems of the greater Middle East. Those issues are front and center in the debate.

I think if you visualize a map of the United States and Europe, you realize that, with the integration of central and east Europe from the Balkans to the Black Sea accomplished, the big challenge we face in NATO is developing a strategy to deal with the countries farther east— not only Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus but also Central Asia and the Caucuses. When you are peacekeeping in Iraq, you suddenly see the importance of having a strategy that promotes stability in that part of the world.

Are your ideas acceptable to the NATO countries?

When I started to make this argument about a year ago, many people both here and in Europe thought I was a little bit crazy. Today, I think this argument is winning in Washington. I think even some of my colleagues in the Bush administration would say that, if you would leave out my criticism of their performances at the beginning and end of my Foreign Affairs article, there is much they would agree with strategically. And I think in Europe there is an intellectual convergence around the idea that the greater Middle East is the big challenge. We need a new strategy toward the East.

The question is whether, in the last year of this administration, people can take that incipient consensus and turn it into something more tangible and real and start to come up with more common policies on the real issues on the ground, as opposed to a just general understanding that we need to do this together.

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