Why Europe, US differ on Mideast

They disagree on using force and have different considerations at home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the French foreign minister visited a war- ravaged Beirut earlier this week, he had no problem meeting his Iranian counterpart as part of European efforts to end the Middle East crisis.

The United States has also pinpointed Iran, and Syria, as central to ending hostilities. But the US approach has eschewed diplomatic engagement, instead maintaining that such nations "know what they need to do": Stop arming Hizbullah.

That difference is just one indication of the deeper political and philosophical differences that roil international efforts to address the deepening violence – complicating any accord on which steps to take next.

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The cracks separating the US and Europe are appearing along many of the same fault lines – the use of force, the impact of warfare on civilians, the definition of terrorism – that were exposed after 9/11 and the debate over war in Iraq. Those schisms had begun closing over the past year – especially with dogged effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – but are reemerging under the pressure of another Mideast war.

"The willingness or refusal to engage your adversaries speaks to a larger difference, and it starts with the fact that the US, and this administration, tend to have a black-and-white view of the world," says Charles Kupchan, professor of American foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington.

"According to that view, the bad guys are unequivocally Hizbullah, Iran, Syria, the insurgents in Iraq – and they must be defeated. The Europeans," he adds, "especially given their long experience in the Middle East, are much more worried about the knock-on effect of the fighting in Lebanon – or Iraq."

One result is the current difference over what has to come first in any settlement of the Israel-Hizbullah conflict. The US is pressing for an international force to be set up before Israel is compelled to stop its drive against Hizbullah. The Europeans want the fighting on both sides to stop first.

But at the United Nations Thursday, the US and France appeared to be inching toward a solution that would bridge that difference. The plan is to pass at least two resolutions to address the crisis: the first calling for a cease-fire and delineating the requirements for a sustainable peace settlement, and a second – perhaps sometime next week – laying down the terms for deployment of a large international force in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting Thursday in Malaysia, demanded an immediate cease-fire, and warned that what it called Israel's "criminal acts" could, if left unaddressed, feed the forces of Islamic radicalism.

The differences between the US and Europe are more than a mere dispute over "sequencing." They reflect distinct perspectives on force and the use of warfare, experts say.

"The Europeans have suffered tremendously with war, so their instinct is to stop the fighting," says Jeswald Salacuse, a specialist in international conflict resolution at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "They don't see it resolving a crisis, but exacerbating things."

Contrasting with that outlook is President Bush, who not only has resorted to force to resolve conflict, but also emphasizes Israel's right to use force to defend itself – especially in light of the 9/11 attacks.

"This administration tends to see this conflict as an extension of the war on terror," notes Mr. Salacuse. "That has led to a tighter bond with Israel," which the administration sees as fighting the same foes that the US is, he says. But it hasn't tightened ties with the Europeans, "who see things differently," he says.

Viewing this conflict as another chapter in a continuing war, the US thinks in terms of rooting out a terrorist group, seeing that as a prerequisite for achieving the goal of a democratized Middle East, analysts say. And the European approach is both more pragmatic – dealing with the influential actors, like them or not – and focused on ending civilian suffering.

Those different approaches can be seen starkly in how the two sides of the Atlantic view Hizbullah. The US lists the Shiite group as a terrorist organization, but the European Union has resisted US pressure to do the same, taking account of Hizbullah's political status in Lebanon.

"It comes down to their [Europeans'] desire to be influential in Lebanon," says Amatzia Baram, a Middle East historian at the University of Haifa.

Noting that the EU has listed the Palestinian organization Hamas as a terrorist group, Professor Baram says the position on Hizbullah reflects France's connection to Lebanon. "France wants to guarantee its good relations in Lebanon, and they believe that if Europe brands Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, their ability to build bridges and to help Lebanon stay in one piece would be affected."

Baram, who travels extensively in both the US and Europe, says it is "simply a fact" that Europe is more anti-Israel and pro-Arab than the US – in part due to history, in part a result of large Muslim populations. But he says the European position on the current conflict is not driven by anti-Semitism or even domestic pressures, but by a priority of avoiding civil war in Lebanon.

"For the Europeans, if that means paying for Lebanon's stability with Israeli coin" and unfulfilled goals, he says, "so be it."

Mr. Kupchan of Georgetown says it should surprise no one that another war in the Middle East would expose old transatlantic fractures and rivalries.

"Probably no issue divides the two sides of the Atlantic like the conflict between Israel and its neighbors," he says.

But he expects to see the two sides converge – as they are at the UN – because both sides fear, though for different reasons, the rising costs of a continuing war.

The Europeans can't forget their Muslim populations at home and want to demonstrate their leadership potential, while the US "is already paying a high price for appearing to give Israel a green light," Kupchan says. "It doesn't want to see its influence in the region diminished any further."

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