Add to the troubles facing America’s coalition builders the following reality: placing friendly foreign troops in the proximity of the American war machine is a deadly business. British troops learned this during the Gulf War when 22 of them fell to “friendly fire,” including nine killed in mistaken U.S. air attacks. Now, four Canadians have died in a similar tragedy, underscoring the lethal nature of modern war but also the shallowness of those in the Bush administration who complain that America’s allies fail to pull their weight.
Whether they serve under Germany’s black, red and gold, the Italian tricolor or the Canadian maple leaf, all of the troops fighting under American commanders in Afghanistan bleed crimson red. It will surprise many Americans to learn that some 800 Canadian troops currently are fighting in Afghanistan — a “token” force, no doubt, in the minds of the more hawkish members of the Bush administration, but a force nonetheless. Few of them expected to find themselves in the line of fire. They were, by and large, garrison troops and symbols of Canada’s decision to stand with the United States in its time of trouble. And now four of them are dead, and two more cling to life, all victims of an American error.
This is not a column railing about “friendly fire” deaths, which are as much a part of modern warfare as uranium tipped armor-piercing rounds or guided missiles. Friendly fire isn’t even particularly new. Ask any Southerner worth his or her salt, and they’ll concede that the greatest general of the Civil War, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, died as the result of wounds inflicted by his own troops.
To read many American accounts, one might think America’s allies turned a blind eye. The well-reported exception, the British, has been rightly emphasized. British submarines launched Tomahawk missiles early in the war; a British aircraft carrier launched strikes. On the ground, British SAS and SBS special forces units fought side by side with U.S. and other elite units, and Royal Marines currently are shouldering the majority of the fighting in eastern Afghanistan.
But the war long ago ceased being the “Anglo-American” enterprise it was on Oct. 7, 2001, when the first bombs exploded in Kabul. In fact, some 16,500 non-American troops are now sharing the same perils as the Canadian Light Infantry. Among them are 3,900 German troops split between peacekeeping and special operations duties; Jordanian, Czech, Russian and Swedish hospital units; and hundreds of Turkish, Danish, Australian and New Zealand special-forces troops. France and Italy both have carrier task forces operating in the Arabian Sea, part of an armada that is stopping suspect freighters and other ships that might carry al-Qaida operatives into exile.
COMMITMENT VS. CAPABILITY
The point of this laundry list is not to suggest that the American war in Afghanistan would falter should any or even all of these foreign military forces decide to pull up stakes and go home. Indeed, most of the German troops, for instance, are earmarked for peacekeeping duties in and around Kabul. They may well be the cream of the German armed forces, but they’re not doing anything right now that the Massachusetts National Guard couldn’t do just as well.
But the soldiers of the Massachusetts National Guard, by and large, are going home each day to Budweisers and Red Sox games. The Germans troops, like their American, European and other comrades, understand that at any moment they could be killed by a truck bomb, a sniper’s bullet, an angry mob or ... an American F-16.
It is that element - the risk of death - that makes the efforts of America’s allies in Afghanistan so significant. American and European critics of the decade-long failure of Europe’s militaries to keep pace with American military evolution and innovation are absolutely correct. As NATO’s Secretary General, George Robertson, said in February: “American critics of Europe’s military incapability are right. So if we are to ensure that the United States moves neither towards unilateralism or isolationism, all the non-U.S. allies … must show a new willingness to develop effective crisis-management capability.”
Valid complaints about the shortsighted decisions on defense spending by politicians in Europe and Canada during the 1990s are one thing. Using those complaints to belittle or even ridicule those American allies who have answered Washington’s call is quite another. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the most hawkish - and lately, most influential - members of the Bush administration’s defense policy circle are doing. In private statements, senior administration officials complain of “bleating” and “whining” from Europeans whenever the United States decides to act abroad.
AXIS TO GRIND
The most recent nexus for this friction involves American plans, taken as a “given” until the recent Mideast flare-up, to launch a second war against Iraq. Europe, again with Britain as an exception, is far from convinced that Iraq poses the most significant threat either to it or the United States right now. Generally speaking, the Europeans take the view that the United States rightly hit out against al-Qaida for the atrocities of Sept. 11, but should now begin to address the inflammatory problems that make a mass murderer like Osama bin Laden a hero to some of the world’s Muslims. Specifically, this means getting a handle on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and putting an end to the U.S.-backed economic sanctions regime that has contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the past decade. Pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia wouldn’t hurt either, Europe counsels, since much of the Muslim world appears to view the U.S. bases there as nothing more than a way of ensuring the pro-American and repressive Saudi monarchy stays in power.
“We feel that our lack of military clout is used as an excuse to completely disregard our views,” a senior German defense ministry official told me recently. “This is dangerous not because the U.S. needs us, but because sometimes being the bigger military power doesn’t necessarily mean you’re also making all the right decisions.”
By and large, the Bush administration has done little to dispel this notion. While Bush claims the United States fights on behalf of Western civilization, his aides refuse to allow the European voice to be part of the debate. Thus, without consultation, plans for Iraq are laid and Iran is branded as part of an “axis of evil.” Europe’s views are dismissed as cowardice.
“If the European message is: we accept risks posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and don’t (want you) to do anything about it because it makes us nervous, then the European influence will be zero,” noted Richard Perle, who leads the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. He added: “Up until now the European recommendations have not been helpful.”
DISTORTING THE FACTS?
Thankfully, that is not the European message at all, though, as in all great democratic societies, there are voices in Europe saying as much. Stripped of the obvious spin that Perle’s comment contains, European governments, and American allies from Tokyo to Ottawa to Canberra, are saying something far more complex and controversial. Their greatest fear is not of being dragged into a global war against terrorism, but rather that the United States will use that war as cover to settle old scores against Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Colombia. Add Vietnam, and you have a pretty neat list of conflicts that 20th-century America didn’t see through to the end.
The failure of American diplomacy in the Middle East is breathtaking, and it was predictable. It should give Americans pause. We do not know everything and our military might does not make us right.
Europe was sounding alarms about the Bush administration’s neglect of the Mideast violence as far back as January 2001, when the State Department announced it would discontinue the post of Middle East envoy (a decision hastily reversed late last year when violence began spiraling out of control). The fact that Europe was right - and that the E.U. lacks the diplomatic clout to do anything about it - has not been properly acknowledged by the United States. This doesn’t make the Europeans right about anything else, necessarily. But it does make their views worth listening to, and it certainly makes it tremendously unwise for the Bush team to dismiss Europe as a bunch of cowards. On both the Middle East and Iraq, U.S. and European interests are very much in sync. The differences involve timetables and the amount of bravado expended before Saddam is evicted (the U.S. wants plenty, Europe as little as possible). An argument can be made that telegraphing one’s punch isn’t the brightest approach right now.
BACK TO THE POINT
Whatever one makes of these foreign views, there should be no confusing these disagreements with the very real commitment America’s allies have made by sending troops, planes and warships into battle. Leaders who do this invariably expose their nation to retribution attacks by terrorists. They risk political consequences by giving their domestic opponents a stick with which to beat them. They risk unrest, in some cases, if American or other allied ordnance falls on civilians.
Most of all, they risk the lives of young men and women who might just as easily be sitting in Calais or Cardiff, Calgary or Cologne, sipping a beer with friends. Americans should take a moment to think about that this week.
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