In Europe, pushback against US 'war on terror'

Reaction in Germany was hardly neutral when a prosecutor in Munich indicted 13 CIA officials last week for kidnapping a German of Lebanese descent and interrogating him in Afghanistan before apparently realizing they had the wrong man. Germans solidly backed the prosecutor.

Since Christian Schmidt-Sommerfeld took the unprecedented step, both the right and left in Germany have supported the "rule of law" principles he articulated.

The media have been unified as well. Typical is the centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung: "The justice system has stood up for the rule of law. Whether the government will do so is a different matter. Berlin must push for the kidnappers to be extradited, or ... tried in the USA. But it is unlikely to have that much courage."

The solidarity underscores a shifting tone in Europe. As changes of leadership loom in Britain and France, and capitals contemplate relations with a post-Bush US, Uncle Sam may expect stronger "pushbacks" from Europe, experts here say. Public disapproval of the US-led "war on terror" is also growing, spurring the change.

"There is a deep gap between government policy and public opinion in Europe, and that opinion may be shaping the direction here right now," says Frederic Bozo, professor of European Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. "Europe doesn't want to upset the careful balance with the US. I don't think there is a united opposition against the US at all. But Europe is setting the groundwork for its own identity."

Gordon Brown, who is shortly expected to take over as prime minister in Great Britain, opposed the Iraq war from the start, and has made no secret that he plans to carve out an independent line on the venerable "special relationship" with the US. Many anticipate that British troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year.

In France, even the avidly pro- American Nicolas Sarkozy, current front-runner in the French elections this spring, stated in an interview taped in New York last week that Americans need to "get interested in the world, and the world will learn to love you."

To be sure, European cooperation with the US on a wide range of areas, including counterterrorism, is extremely strong, even in France, where the Chirac government has steadily gone it alone in Europe in opposition to the Iraq campaign.Yet Europeans have steadily refused to accept the concept and phrase, "war on terror," a sentiment that extends to its application to Iraq.

Last week, European Union officials in Brussels sought to reduce the amount of information given to US agencies on air passengers leaving Europe. An official in charge of data protection for the European Central Bank similarly advised that millions of pieces of financial information being sent regularly to the US after Sept. 11 were in violation of EU privacy codes.

The "secret, routine, and massive access" by US agencies to banking SWIFT codes – needed to transfer in and out of European financial institutions – is "unacceptable," stated Peter Hustinx, the Brussels official responsible for EU data oversight.

Boosting this sentiment is Europeans' recognition that the US is also in flux with an election season starting up, and that President Bush's term appears to be winding down with the United States in a vulnerable position overseas.

The US legal basis for conducting interrogation centers at Guantánamo Bay, for example, has long rankled in Europe.

"Most of the French opinion, many of the German people, a large share of the Labor constituency in the UK, the Spanish, and now Italy, don't just oppose the policy, but the basis of US policy," says Georges Le Guelte, of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "You can't have renditions and Guantánamo and talk human rights at the same time. That is more clear to many of us."

In Italy, prosecutors put out warrants several months ago for 25 members of a CIA team that abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan.

Nor is Europe alone in its willingness to speak more pointedly to the White House about its foreign affairs. On page 1 of last Thursday's People's Daily, a newspaper of record in China, a Chinese official criticized Mr. Bush for inflammatory rhetoric that turned the war in Iraq into a "religious war."

The comment was unprecedented in a state where official decorum is rigidly maintained. (For nearly a decade, China has conducted a brutal campaign of summary executions of Muslims in its far-west Xinjiang region, as documented in human rights reports.)

In the case of the Munich renditions, announced Jan. 31, 13 American CIA operatives allegedly apprehended German citizen Khaled el-Masri in Macedonia in 2004 and whisked him to an Afghan prison called "the Salt Pit." Realizing he was the wrong man, they left him on a hillside in Albania five months later, warning him never to talk of his experience. Mr. el-Masri instead filed suit in a Virginia court. Masri's case was dropped in Virginia after arguments that a trial would jeopardize US security operations.

But with help from Spanish police, the Munich prosecutors discovered the identity of the operatives through flight and hotel records in Palma de Mallorca, where they stopped to relax.

On Friday, in Washington, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the Munich warrants were only valid in Germany at present, but that Berlin felt the local court might issue an international warrant, according to German papers.

Ms. Rice said the warrants would not harm US-German relations. Justice Department officials have not responded to approaches by the German prosecutors.

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