Europe is offstage in the Middle East, US unilateralism triumphs
On the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq 17 years ago, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an adviser to US Vice-President Dick Cheney, was told by an academic that “democracy” in Iraq would put the Shia majority to power for the first time in centuries. That would increase the influence of Iran, which the George W. Bush administration was dead set against.
“You understand history; we make it,” was Libby’s retort.
From Afghanistan after 2001 to Libya in 2011 and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the United States has acted unilaterally and shown a lack of understanding of geopolitical forces shaping the region.
That unilaterialism was on brutal display in early January when US President Donald Trump did not have the savvy, before ordering the assassination of the IRGC al-Quds Force Major-General Qassem Soleimani, of warning the leader of the country that, since 1945, has proved a loyal, some would say subservient ally — the United Kingdom.
Nor did he bother to warn French and German leaders, key allies in an increasingly fractured NATO of decisions that affect Europe far more directly than they do the United States.
Trump tore up the internationally sanctioned nuclear agreement his predecessor had signed with Iran — but also with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and the United Nations — and imposed crippling sanctions on any company doing business in Iran. This hurt Iran but also many European companies.
The sluggish reaction from the European Commission offered a stark reminder that the new executive has its work cut out for it to be taken seriously as a major geopolitical player.
Europe has, for too long, fancied itself as a major geopolitical player. In terms of trade, it has the weight to influence the course of events, if it plays as a team. The departure of the United Kingdom weakens its hand but the European Union still has strong cards to play.
Where the Middle East is concerned, Europe appears to have none but not just because of US unilateralism. It is making a complete mess of Libya, about which France and Italy are at loggerheads, supporting opposite factions in a conflict started by France in 2011 without thought as to the risk that the death of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi might encourage the breakup of that weak state.
The United States is acting by default in North Africa while the Europeans look on in horror as Italy, Turkey and Qatar back the internationally recognised government in Tripoli while France, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Sudanese mercenaries support the claims of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. When America is absent, Europe is powerless.
One needs to look to the 1990s to understand the predicament Europe finds itself in. The continent’s imperial challenge includes two distinct and dissimilar parts.
On the one hand, Europe must keep up a two-way relationship with the more powerful United States. However, it must take care that its leaders do not simply provide resources for US operations and step in afterward to handle the consequences without having had any say in the fundamental political-military decisions. Europeans must resist marginalisation.
On the other hand, Europeans must concern themselves with their unstable periphery, prevent collapse and war there without being drawn into a spiral of expansion that would overtax it. The paradox is that they could suffer imperial overstretch without being an empire.
The European Union failed to find an answer to this two-fold challenge because it failed to see it for what it has been for more than two decades. Europeans reassured themselves that there was a tendency to equilibrium between the United States and the European Union but, in so doing, downplayed the point that the erosion of US world leadership would pose greater problems for Europe than it would solve.
The prospect of economic equilibrium with Europe could induce the United States to turn even more to military solutions with the idea that this could again make dwarfs of the Europeans and giants of the Americans.
European integration has focused on the constitutional-political order and European cultural identity, which assumes that Europe had a long time frame in which to bring together different political cultures.
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, this “slowing down” of history has reversed itself. Europeans have been very slow to recognise that they could no longer afford the luxury for a search for a common identity.
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union adds to the pressure. In the absence of a Paris-Berlin-London axis, will the United Kingdom choose to position itself on the periphery of Europe or will it become a junior partner of the United States? Brexit also consolidates Israel position, it carries more weight in Washington and the Middle East than the European Union.
Whatever the answer, there will be no European capacity for joint external action without a stronger hierarchy among European states. If small European countries balk
at this idea, they will only strengthen America’s influence over European politics.
This explains why it makes little difference who is president of the European Commission, the European Council or in charge of the European External Action Service.
Trump’s unilateralism may be more brutal than the Barack Obama or George W. Bush versions but it fits in only too well in a pattern of war-making that has seen the United States and some of its close allies, like the United Kingdom, spend trillions of dollars in asymmetrical conflicts in the Middle East and throw up the challenges of loss of trade and large waves of immigration from conflict zones.
The United States shows no interest in how the costs of such unresolved challenges end up being borne by its European allies.
Events in Baghdad and Tripoli suggest US unilateralism is one of a broader set of factors that will force European leaders to devise radically new ways of exercising influence in the periphery of the European Union, in ways that have a greater affinity with the requirements of empire than with those of an interstate system. Europe’s future will not be able to do without borrowing from the imperial model.
The United States and Israel are making history in the Middle East even if France and the United Kingdom, because of long historical association, probably understand that history better than Trump does.