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Seeking a common ground on Islam

To solve the problems of the Middle East, the United States and Europe need to solve their own disputes and reconstitute “the West.” Brave New World.
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America’s “war on terror” increasingly appears, at least to those who put their faith in Allah, to be a war against Islam. Try as they might, America’s leaders cannot change this perception alone — not by inviting Islamic clerics to the White House, by appointing Arab-American generals to lead U.S. forces in the Middle East or by spending millions to fill the airwaves with America’s perspective in Arabic. America needs a character witness, and the only credible one available with its own stake in preventing further deterioration of U.S. standing in the world is Europe — yes, “old Europe.” Call it Mid-Ostpolitik: a strategy which would empower Europe to help us rebuild bridges to the Muslim world much as West Germany opened avenues to the closed Communist bloc in the Cold War.

One of the most pervasive fallacies thrown around by those who see Europe these days as simply a pack of weasels is the idea that the West won the Cold War solely because Washington never blinked and it saw the Soviet Union for what it was: an “Evil Empire.” In fact, as any East European dissident will tell you, a key factor was Ostpolitik, the West German-led opening of cultural and economic ties to the previously boycotted Soviet bloc nations.

Without Reagan’s backbone, it might be argued, Soviet repression might have persisted for decades. Without the vision of Willy Brandt — the West German chancellor who decided to start talking with his communist neighbors — there might have been no yearning crowds to take the streets demanding more than the glimpse of the West’s freedom and prosperity, and rock and roll and pornography, that Ostpolitik provided.

Not everyone in Washington, or on Europe’s Right, liked the idea of trading with “the Commies,” whether the exchanges involved students, vodka or steel. (Spies was another matter). But as time has passed, most historians and many of that period’s key figures, from former Secretary of State George Schultz to Mikhail Gorbachev to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, have come to view Ostpolitik as the vital “other side of the coin” to the ruinous pressure that American defense budgets put on Moscow.


There is no such subtlety in America’s policy toward the Islamic world since the attacks of September 2001. Some rhetorical softening has taken place of late, largely due to the belated realization that the Iraq occupation is going to require enormous commitments from nations other than the U.S., and possibly NATO, if it’s not to end in a replay of Saigon, 1975. But the predominant question American foreign policy poses right now remains: “For us or against us?”

George Soros, the international financier who has spent billions of his own money promoting democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, describes the Bush approach to foreign policy as “supremacist.” In a widely read article in The Atlantic Monthly,The Bubble of American Supremacy,” Soros argues that “the supremacist ideology postulates that just because we are stronger than others, we know better and have right on our side.”

Viewed from abroad, says a diplomat for one of America’s longstanding allies in Asia, “it is an incredible, stupendous misplaying of your hand. You’ve taken the world’s pity [for the Sept. 11 attack] and turned it into fear. You have made [Osama] bin Laden’s rantings about America’s hatred for Muslims look credible.”

This has been particularly damaging in the Muslim world. Returning from a recent visit to Indonesia, President Bush expressed shock that anti-American attitudes had become so prevalent even in such a moderate Muslim nation. Yet his message rarely strayed from the war on terrorism. This prompted Southeast Asian news outlets to lament that America’s president, who in the past has been an agitator for democracy and economic hope in the region, now overlooks such niceties as long as “filthy Muslim terrorists are being arrested,” as one Indonesian paper put it.


Sitting largely on the sidelines as the poisonous rift between the the U.S. and Islam widens is the world’s most powerful economic bloc, the European Union. Thanks to its own internal demons, and to slights, both public and private, directed at it from Washington, the power of Europe simply is not engaged.

Yet Europe is far more “exposed” to Islamic terrorism than the United States, and with the Iraq debate fading a bit, some progress is being made in forging a joint “Western” way of moving forward, both in the war against al-Qaida and in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Aware that its star has faded almost to black among the world’s one billion Muslims, the Bush administration is now trying to draft Europe into helping it explain American motives. Specifically, Washington wants help getting the message out that the United States. does not want to stay in Iraq, that it wants a Palestinian state if Israeli security can be guaranteed, and that America does not want to remake the Muslim world in the West’s image.

Several steps in the past few weeks confirm the trend:

President Bush’s speech pledging to support democracy in the Middle East last month emphasized multilateral action, even if few believe the U.S. will put much real pressure on allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia to democratize.

Earlier this week, the European Union and the U.S. agreed to a compromise that settles a dispute over EU desires to create a military planning capability separate from NATO.

The dramatic rethinking of the Iraq occupation since mid-November, while also driven by political and military considerations, also addresses the rift with Europe. As a result, the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis — a key European demand since the war — has now been pushed up to June, 2004.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell European defense and foreign ministers about giving NATO an official role in post-war Iraq. This is a sea-change for the go-it-alone Bushies, and a clear sign that Europe’s own larger powers — France and Germany — may now see more risk in America’s failure in Iraq than in its success.

On Friday, Powell plans to meet, much to the distress of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the glee of Europeans, with the authors of an information “peace plan,” the Geneva Accord..


Reconstituting “the West,” in some form, at least, is now being viewed by governments on both sides of the Atlantic as a prerequisite for dealing with the problems of the Middle East, from al-Qaida to Iraq, from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the Middle East peace process.

Both Europe and the United States stand to reap enormous dividends from a new partnership that plays to their strengths: for Europe, economic and humanitarian aid, “preventative” diplomacy and post-war reconstruction; for the United States, raw military power, trade and quiet but forceful leadership (underpinned by the rarely spoken threat of military action) on tough issues like nuclear proliferation or sheltering terrorist groups.

A model might be the current diplomatic effort to get Tehran to reign in its nuclear ambitions. The EU led the way in winning an Iranian pledge for more open access. The effort might still fail, but for now the United States is intrigued enough to be soft-peddling the military options.

Nations, friend or foe, inevitably will view some issues differently, and that does not always translate into one being right and the other wrong. What is right for Haiti is not necessarily right for Italy.

Admitting as much would be viewed as a huge concession by the United States, and on such a foundation the West could be turned, once more, into an effective actor in a dangerous world, offering the hand of friendship and progress to those who seek it, and keeping a clenched, largely American fist behind its back. At the same time, it could pursue truly common interests, like the obliteration of al Qaida, with far less internal friction.

Timothy Garton Ash, perhaps the keenest observer of the late Cold War period, was under no illusion about the hypocrisy that such a dual approach sometime caused. Ostpolitik, in its ugliest form, often looked like buying peace from the Communists.

Yet, as he notes in his book, “In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent,” during the Cold War “the Americans remained too hooked on sticks while the Germans became too partial to offering carrots.”

For all the changes since 1989, the situation is not so different today.

Michael Moran, whose Brave New World column appears each Thursday, is senior correspondent for