Coalition allies lament: It's still 'America first'

By , Staff writer

If Americans' view of the rest of the world has changed since Sept. 11 - seeing it as closer and more threatening - the rest of the world sees America in much the same light.

Among Washington's allies, meanwhile, policymakers who had hoped that the attack would prompt the US administration to soften its "America first" stance are having second thoughts.

"When the security of American citizens is at stake, America trusts only America," says Dominique Moisi, a top analyst at the Paris-based French International Relations Institute. The campaign in Afghanistan, he adds, "shows that the hyperpower is even more powerful than we had thought."

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Washington will still need to count on its friends in the quieter aspects of the continuing war on terrorism, such as intelligence gathering. But its clear military superiority - over both its enemies and its allies - has given the US a diplomatic dominance worldwide that European capitals fear may reinforce unilateral instincts in the White House.

When President Bush took office 11 months ago, his determination to pursue his vision of US national interests was already unnerving policymakers in Europe and beyond.

Washington's refusal to join the Kyoto treaty on climate-warming greenhouse gases, its reluctance to involve itself deeply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even as the intifadah gathered steam, and its commitment to a new missile defense system regardless of the provisions of the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty were among the new US policies that upset the international applecart.

"Europeans were more and more worried about US unilateralism," says Bernhard May, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at the German Foreign Policy Society.

Arab leaders pleaded with Washington to rein in Israel's increasingly harsh response to Palestinian unrest; the Kremlin fulminated against missile defense plans; European allies and others decried what they saw as American selfishness in refusing to sacrifice some economic gain for the good of the planet's environment.

So when Mr. Bush's first reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks was to set about building an international coalition to bolster his war on terrorism, his fellow leaders abroad rejoiced.

Once eager assistants

Russia leaped to help, offering Washington intelligence, the use of Russian airspace, and guns for anti-Taliban troops in the Northern Alliance.

US allies in NATO, for the first time in the organization's history, invoked Article 5, calling the attack on America an attack on themselves, and pledging to fight alongside the United States.

Even countries with a history of prickly relations with Washington, such as Pakistan, agreed to join the war on terrorism - tempted by economic aid and an end to sanctions.

But three months later, "the coalition-building looks like a diplomatic fig-leaf, allowing the US to pick what she wants, when she wants, if she wants, from her allies," says Mr. Moisi. He points to the way that the Pentagon turned down almost all offers of military help in the Afghanistan campaign, preferring to keep control of the operation in its own hands rather than lead a group of countries in a more cumbersome coalition.

On the other hand, Mr. May notes, "because it [Sept. 11] was taken as an attack on America, it is quite natural that the American government was in the lead in the response."

Washington "is not operating multilaterally," argues David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who is now president of the International Peace Academy in New York. "Rather, it might be described as practicing smart unilateralism, just as it has used smart weapons to gain military dominance."

The strains that this approach has put on America's relations with its allies were clear as Britain pushed for the creation of an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan with a mandate from the United Nations, which began deploying last weekend. For weeks Washington blocked the idea, accepting it only when London promised that US Central Command would have ultimate authority over the force, even though no US soldiers will be part of it.

Most of Washington's friends seem resigned to this sort of US hegemony: Their military weakness gives them little basis for complaint. It certainly has not rankled too deeply with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example. When Bush announced earlier this month that the United States would pull out of the ABM treaty, Putin said little other than he felt it was "a mistake."

Still, mistrust of America runs deep in some quarters, according to a recent survey of opinionmakers in 24 countries by the Pew Center for the People and the Press and the Paris-based daily International Herald Tribune.

While 70 percent of American respondents said they felt Washington was taking its partners' interests into account in the fight against terrorism, 62 percent of non-Americans believed that the United States "is acting mainly on its own interests."

Seventy percent of foreign respondents said that most or many people in their countries think that "it's good that Americans now know what it's like to be vulnerable."

Overall, however, support for America's position is strong, with nearly 70 percent of foreign interviewees saying many or most people in their countries backed Washington against Al Qaeda: The figure rose to 89 percent in Western Europe, and dropped to 45 percent in the Islamic world.

Nowhere, however, is there majority support for any US attack on countries such as Iraq or Somalia, if they were found to harbor terrorists: Only 29 percent of foreign respondents supported such a development.

Not, however, that this means the Arab street would rise up in revolt were Washington to strike at Iraq: Predictions of such turmoil proved false 11 years ago, during the Gulf War, and earlier this year, when US warplanes began bombing targets in Afghanistan.

Split reviews in the Middle East

Indeed, the experts in Middle Eastern countries who answered the Pew survey's questions said that 48 percent of their fellow countrymen had a very favorable or mostly favorable opinion of the United States, compared with 49 percent who have a very or mostly unfavorable view.

In the crucible of the Middle East, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, both sides are still hoping that the United States will be able to broker an end to the current violence and then a return to a peace process.

The events of 2001, however, upended one of the principles of peacemaking in the Middle East: the idea that it was up to the United States - Israel's financial life-support - to cajole, pressure, and otherwise nudge the Jewish state toward a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.

As the year closes, Washington is applying pressure much more forcefully and exclusively on the Palestinians than ever before.

Many Israelis feel that the United States has come to accept their "kill-them-before-they-kill-us" approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, exemplified by Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinians they believe are planning terror attacks.

A senior Israeli diplomat estimates that 12 months ago, US government support for "the Israeli way of fighting against terrorism" was between 50 percent and 60 percent. Today, he says, speaking on condition of anonymity, it is 95 percent.

Immediately after Sept. 11, it was by no means certain that the US would move closer to Israel. A desire to put together a strong coalition of Arab partners pulled some US policymakers in the opposite direction: They argued that now was the time to push the Israelis toward a resolution, or at least a less militaristic approach to the Palestinian uprising.

But since then it has grown difficult for Washington, while bombing suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, to suggest that the Israelis should show restraint.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have got something out of a changed America, but mostly in the form of rhetoric. Bush's references to a Palestinian state and Secretary of State Colin Powell's call for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories were landmarks for Palestinians - evidence that the US government imagines a future more or less in line with their own hopes.

But Palestinians realize, says Palestinian Legislative Council member Abdul Jawad Saleh, that despite these encouraging words "policy has shifted in an important way in favor of Israel."

Fred Weir in Moscow and Cameron W. Barr in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

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