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Isolated again…….America’s War

Beverly Crawford, Professor emerita, Political Science and International and Area Studies | December 2, 2009

President Obama is dreaming when he says that the Afghanistan war “is an international effort” and that he is confident there will be further contributions from America’s allies in the weeks ahead.  He would like to turn back the clock to the days of global unity after 9/11 when the United States had near universal support to overthrow the Taliban regime that provided refuge for Al Qaeda.  Since those early days, Europeans have sustained two attacks by “Al Qaeda inspired”  extremists: a bombing of the Madrid subway in 2004 that took 191 lives and wounded 1,800, and a 2005 suicide bombing in London that killed 56 people and wounded 700.   In light of these attacks, one would think that Obama’s case would be a “slam dunk,” that Europeans would again see that Afghanistan was the “good” war that had been interrupted and weakened by the “bad war” in Iraq.  One would think that Europeans would cheer when the President stated that “what’s at stake is the security of our Allies, and the common security of the world.”

But Europeans didn’t cheer.  Despite the Madrid and London attacks, despite wildly-popular candidate Obama’s call in 2008 for European combat (instead of peacekeeping) troops in Afghanistan, and despite President Obama’s 2009 publicity tour to convince skeptical European voters to stay the course, few have taken the bait.  Europeans have demonstrated  that they don’t believe their security is at stake in Afghanistan.    In Italy, crowds recently demanded that Silvio Berlusconi bring home their 2,800 troops; 70 percent of Germans want their troops out; in Britain,  62 percent of respondents  to a Daily Telegraph poll wanted troops to come home, and only 27 percent favored a long deployment.  Opinion polls and remarks in official circles from Britain to Poland and across the Atlantic to Canada have made clear that that publics are fed up with Afghanistan.  Europeans are asking why they should support a feckless effort to eradicate safe havens for terrorists in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have so many safe havens around the world. David Headly, for example, suspect in the Mumbai bombings who defended beheadings and suicide bombings as heroic, found refuge in the United States.

Many Europeans no longer see the point in spending blood and treasure to support a failed and corrupt state, a flawed mission, an assured expansion of the war to Pakistan, and no real end in sight.   Governments in Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada have either pulled their troops out or set withdrawal dates.   Governments in Denmark, Italy, Germany, Norway and Sweden, say they will maintain current troop levels but have pledged no significant increases.  Only those in Britain and Turkey have made meaningful pledges, and Turkey — a Muslim country — has committed noncombat personnel only.  French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s response to Obama last night was that “for the moment there’s no need for increasing the number of troops.”

Obama threw down a clear and unequivocal challenge to Europe last night, and in the coming weeks he will try to obtain a pledge for yet more NATO troops.  “What’s at stake,” he said, “is… a test of NATO’s credibility.”  What he meant was that if the alliance is not up to the challenge of Afghanistan then its very raison d’etre is in question.  In fact, however, it’s Obama’s–and America’s– credibility among the allies that’s at stake. And last night’s address did not instill confidence.  They see as disgraceful and delusional Obama’s statement that:  “although it was marred by fraud, [the recent] election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.”  Huh?  Did the 2000 presidential election in the U.S. lower the bar for what constitutes “democracy” and pave the way for a statement like this?

Perhaps European leaders will cough up a few more troops and spill the blood of more young men and women just to  keep peace with their long-time ally and Cold War protector, the United States.  But the resources the allies are willing to devote do not match the stakes that Obama has raised.  Europeans spend $520 a year per capita on the military, a third less than Americans. And a NATO graph that tracks European military spending shows that in every country but Greece, 2010 budget projections suggest a sharp drop. Britain’s military budget, the biggest along with France’s, could drop 10 percent in five years.  And with regard to Afghanistan, it is clear that these cutbacks coincide with a quickly dissipating political will.

If Afghanistan is truly the “graveyard of Empires,” as it seems to be, Europeans are saying, “been there, done that.”  This war will continue to drain America’s strength and distort America’s thinking about its global role.  The United States will again be a lone warrior.