Transatlantic relations after Bush

Transatlantic relations after Bush

Bulletin article
Kori Schake
01 October 2007

Answer this: which US president bombed Iraq, attacked Afghanistan, and started a war without UN Security Council approval? Here is a hint: the same president, explaining why he launched the strike on Iraq, said: “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbours or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons”. It must be George W Bush, right? Actually, wrong – it was Bill Clinton.

The 42nd president attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, having failed to obtain UN approval. In 1998 he launched missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan in response to terrorist attacks on US embassies in Africa. And he also presided over a long bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq. George W Bush is less of an anomaly than we would like to believe. The hope of many Europeans for a different relationship with the US after 2008 – and for different behaviour by the US internationally – rests on a premise that the Bush administration is unique.

This is much less true than most Europeans are prepared to admit. The Clinton administration may have been more graceful in its diplomacy than that of Bush, but it was Clinton who put in place the policy of pre-emption. That shift was strongly supported by US public opinion. In fact, by the late 1990s there were already significant tensions over transatlantic perspectives on security. The turning point of American policy came in August 1998, when attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 312 people and injured five thousand.

The Clinton administration traced the embassy attacks to al-Qaeda and retaliated with military strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan. In justifying the attacks, President Clinton said: “Our target was the terrorists’ base of operation and infrastructure. Our objective was to damage their capacity to strike at Americans and other innocent people.” That is, the purpose of using military force was not only punitive but also pre-emptive – to prevent future harm. He also said that “the risks from inaction to America and the world would be far greater than action, for that would embolden our enemies, leaving their ability and their willingness to strike us intact”.

These are the exact arguments that animate the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy – act early, act with force, inaction kills. Also in 1998, President Clinton warned that “countries that persistently host terrorists have no right to be safe havens”. Again, these could have easily been President Bush’s words – in effect, they remove the right of states to sovereignty by making it contingent on behaving in a manner consistent with US security. Clinton's 1998 strikes and statements were an extraordinary and sweeping shift in American strategy. Yet, surprisingly, they drew virtually no response from Europeans. The British government defended the attacks.

The Arab League and Islamic Conference condemned them, but Arab governments were silent. It is true that the Bush administration subsequently chose an even more aggressive and unilateral strategy. The 2002 National Security Strategy emphasised the futility of containment and the need to act against threats before they fully develop. However, the document does not depart in dramatic ways from the Clinton administration’s decisions in 1998. The Clinton-Bush analogy matters. The next US presidential election is around the corner.

President Bush has 15 months left in office. He will be remembered in Europe as a divider, as someone who created an enormous gulf between US and European views on security. Nevertheless, many Europeans view America as an indispensable power. They wait with impatience for the next US president, almost irrespective of who that turns out to be. They hope for him or her to bring back a more pliable, chastened and multilateral United States, that is willing to solve problems on terms comfortable to European sensibilities.

The hopes run high on the other side, too: the new US president is likely to expect a more helpful Europe that takes responsibility and is prepared to run risks to solve common problems. And therein lies the danger: neither aspiration will be met. Some presidential candidates may sound ‘softer’ on defence than George W Bush but none, not even among the Democrats, has renounced the doctrine of pre-emption. Europe faces the prospect of enormous disenchantment when continuities emerge in the new administration. In 2008 and beyond, Europe and the US will above all need patience and understanding for each others’ differences.

Kori Schake served on the National Security Council during President Bush’s first term. This article is based in part on her forthcoming CER essay, ‘The US elections and Europe: The coming crisis of high expectations’


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