Europe's past colors its view

Military weakness and newfound unity on the 'most violent continent on earth' shape public's rejection of war.

You can find clues to the European public's profound hostility to an American war against Iraq in every town and village square in France,

War memorials, carved with the names of hundreds of thousands of dead, are a personal reminder of centuries of battles on this continent. Inside each town hall, beside the French tricolore, hangs the 12-starred flag of the European Union, a reminder of how today's peace was built.

Beyond accusations of European cowardice or complacency in the current debate over what to do about Iraq, lies Europe's awareness of a terrible past, and a tolerable present. For 50 years, Europeans have put their faith in the defenses of international law, laid down by their own EU, or the United Nations.

"The US does not believe that international law is set in stone, to be respected under all circumstances, if it thinks higher values are at stake," says Jiri Pehe, an adviser to former Czech President Vaclav Havel. "We have a basic rift between two value systems."

A worldwide Gallup International poll released this week found that more than 90 percent of people in the 22 European countries surveyed are opposed to a unilateral US invasion of Iraq. Nowhere would more than 51 percent support a war even if it had UN blessing.

Behind the deep European reservations about war, say pollsters, lies a general sense in Europe that Saddam Hussein does not pose the sort of threat that the US administration sees.

And there is little sign yet that Colin Powell's speech to the UN Security Council Wednesday, in which he accused the Iraqi regime of supporting Al Qaeda, has changed any minds.

In Denmark, where 45 percent of respondents in the worldwide Gallup International poll are against military action against Iraq under any circumstances, "people fail to see the point of a war, the picture is too muddy," says Mogens Jakobsen, who conducted the poll.

"Most people do not see Saddam Hussein as a threat."

In France, adds SOFRES pollster Gilles Corman, "war is essentially seen as an American operation whose motives have not been clearly spelled out. There is skepticism about US geostrategic, oil and personal interests. People are asking why Iraq is suddenly such a danger now after 12 years. Where is the urgency that demands a war that could kill thousands of people?"

In Germany too, "people wonder if it is worth a conflict," says Richard Hilmer, head of the FORSA polling agency. "People are afraid of the possible conflicts that could result from it."

The Germans, of course, have learned lessons from their history that make them doubly wary. And after sending troops to Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the German public is dubious, says Bernard May, deputy director of the German Foreign Policy Society, a Berlin think tank. "Nobody asked us to participate in military operations till 1990," he says. "We have had only 12 years to learn how to deal with aggression."

The French, too, have their own reasons for clinging so tightly to the UN and leading the diplomatic battle to insist that only a second UN resolution could justify a war. Paris is a second-rate power with dwindling world influence. At the UN, armed with veto power on the Security Council, it enjoys parity with the US.

France is perhaps the nation that most loudly voices what Josef Joffe, editor of the German paper 'Die Zeit,' calls Europe's "moral claim" after decades of peace, that "we have overcome war as a policy tool...the most violent continent in history has learned to overcome its conflicts through negotiation, and we see the US as retrograde because it insists on behaving as a nation state."

The problem, Mr. Joffe suggests, is that "we are now in a period when war and violence are back in the picture, and the currency of military force has been re-valued. What Europe can bring to the table, soft power [the influence won through trade, aid and diplomacy] has been devalued."

That, he argues, leads to "resentment of the Americans for doing what Europeans no longer want or dare to do."

Behind that resentment, says Dr. May, lies "a major difference between US and European cultures - the Americans are much more optimistic. If they see a problem that needs solving, they want to go out and solve it."

Europeans, on the other hand, are less likely to feel that "difficult problems can be solved with short-term measures," Dr. May argues. "They fear that American optimism sometimes creates the false illusion that there are easy solutions for very difficult problems." In the Middle East today, he adds, that means that "Europeans are more concerned with the region after a war, while underestimating the threat of weapons of mass destruction."

The overwhelming public opposition to an American invasion of Iraq has not kept some European leaders from backing Washington.

Ten former Communist Eastern European nations said Wednesday that Mr. Powell's speech had convinced them that Iraq was "in material breach" of UN resolutions. Eight other European leaders last week signed an open letter supporting the US. In doing so, they have set them selves sharply apart from Germany and France, in order to underline their alliance with the US.

Hungary, whose premier Peter Medgyessy signed the letter, "wants to be a really loyal member of NATO," says Andras Balogh, a prominent political commentator in Budapest. "Hungary wants to keep cordial relations with the US and the European Union, but the EU has not yet agreed on a common view" on Iraq, he points out.

"The post-Communist countries remember that the US played an instrumental role in

bringing down communism, so they still feel a lot of gratitude," says Mr. Pehe.

The divisions among European governments complicate efforts to bridge the value gap between Europe and America, Pehe suggests.

"It can be overcome only if Europe really unites and speaks with one voice, so that it feels more confident," he says. "A lot of what we see now in Europe is the result of an inferiority complex; they would like to be able to play a more important role, but they haven't been able to get their act together."

That inability, says May, translates into a "cynical" position, that "America, as the only superpower, will take care of governments seeking weapons of mass destruction, but if they do, we will criticize them for unilateral action."

"Europeans will be happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, but they don't want to expend the blood and treasure themselves," adds Joffe.

"Call it chicken, or call it moral, but it's a mixture of cold, calculated realpolitik - staying out of harm's way - and keeping the moral superiority of having overcome the atavism of war."

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