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Dispelling confusion

01 January 2004

One year after the war in Iraq, the EU is still confronted with two major challenges. The first is in Iraq itself, where the US strategy of stabilisation and democratisation is encountering dramatic setbacks. The second challenge arises from the growing terrorist threat to Western interests and citizens, as seen in the terrible attacks in Madrid on 11 March. If one thing is certain in this chaotic environment, it is that the war in Iraq has not made the world safer or the terrorists weaker.
The EU member states have reacted to these challenges with increased cooperation and reconciliation: a revised Action Plan against terrorism on the one hand, a new global political strategy vis-à-vis the Mediterranean and Arab countries on the other. The election of a new Spanish government has helped to overcome the European divisions of last year, including the cleavages over the relationship with the United States and the EU's constitutional future. But this process of EU reconciliation, possibly leading to a more balanced transatlantic partnership, is also producing massive confusion.
First, there is confusion over the so-called `victory' of terrorism. Many have suggested that the downfall of José Maria Aznar's government was a victory for the terrorists who, with a few terrible bombings, have shown that they can affect and change European policies. This is not only particularly unfair on Spanish citizens (who have long suffered from ETA terrorism while strengthening their democracy over the last twenty years); it is also just not true. It was not the bombings that defeated the government but a mixture of manipulation and intimidation, over three days, which became unacceptable to millions of Spanish voters. Had the normal democratic rules of transparency been respected, it might well have remained in power, in spite of the collective trauma, despair and anger created by the attacks themselves.
The second confusion concerns Iraq. The announcement by the new Prime Minister that Spain may withdraw its troops from Iraq is also viewed, in some circles, as a defeat for democracy and a victory for terrorism. This accusation presupposes that the war in Iraq is key in the West's fight against terrorism, which again is highly questionable: one may agree or disagree with the reasons why the United States decided to attack Iraq, but nobody can seriously maintain that it was because Saddam Hussein had links with Osama bin Laden. Even the US administration no longer dares use this argument. Decoupling the issue of Iraq from the fight against terrorism is therefore a question of honesty: being critical of the US intervention in Iraq but at the same time deeply involved in fighting international terrorism is not only possible, it has strong rationale and legitimacy.
This brings us to a third confusion, on the management of postwar Iraq and transatlantic solidarity. Many of those critical of a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq tend to forget that the United States is the first country likely to reduce seriously its military presence in that country, for a complex variety of reasons. Even more, it is precisely to allow some US withdrawal from Iraq that the United States is pressing for international support and involvement, possibly even including a NATO mission there. It thus seems difficult to deny Spain the right to do precisely what the United States would like to do, especially when over 90 per cent of the Spanish population are convinced that the war was not the right solution.
That said, it would be foolish to conclude that the Europeans, especially those critical of America's arguments for going to war, can simply forget about Iraq. As a matter of fact, stabilising that country has become a security interest for the entire international community, and formulas must now be worked on, with the UN and regional partners, which could help prevent all types of worst-case scenarios, in and arising from Iraq. Still, again, any further confusion between this unavoidable cooperation for the sake of Iraq and some kind of ex post facto legitimation of the war itself must be avoided.
For the United States, and the EU and its individual member states, a final challenge emerges from all this: at a time when the terrorists themselves have their own communication strategy and are eager to exploit the complexity inherent in all democracies, could it be that our societies find themselves forbidden to express their disagreement, to criticise their leaders or to peacefully impose domestic or international changes just because such criticism or changes could be perceived, erroneously, as a victory for terrorism? Is it not precisely the honour of democracies to reject these most perverse arguments?