Catalyst, autumn 1990
Paul Anderson examines reaction in Europe to the Middle East crisis
The response of west European governments to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has been notable both for its incoherence and for its caution.
There is general support for sanctions against Iraq to secure its withdrawal from Kuwait and for military deployments to deter Saddam Hussein from moving into Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Beyond this, however, the political and military establishments of Western Europe have little in common apart from a vague unease at the prospect of being dragged into a bloody war by the United States.
Even Britain, which, desperate to revive the flagging ‘special relationship’, has offered almost unconditional rhetorical support for the Americans’ military deployments and for their insistence that the Kuwaiti royal family be restored, was at first reluctant to send significant forces to the Gulf.
Margaret Thatcher might have grabbed headlines on 30 August by berating the rest of Europe (except France) for its “patchy and disappointing” response to the Gulf crisis, but for the first month or so after 2 August Britain’s own military contribution was little more than symbolic.
It was only in early September, after the US Secretary of State, James Baker, started to complain publicly about the lack of solidarity shown by America’s European allies, that the British Government agreed to send ground forces to the Gulf (much to the annoyance of the army). And even the tanks -ancient, unreliable and still in transit – hardly constitute a key element in anyone’s military calculations.
The French response has been even more ambiguous. Initially, the French sent the carrier Clemenceau to their base in Djibouti (more than two days’ sailing time away from the Gulf), 13 warships to monitor UN sanctions, and a helicopter reconnaissance squadron to Abu Dhabi – a significant force, but one carefully designed to reassure Arab opinion that France was not going to be bounced into over-hasty military action. It was only after the Iraqi seizure of four French citizens from the French embassy in Kuwait on 14 September that President Mitterrand decided to deploy ground forces on Saudi territory.
Today the French forces are, on paper, second only to the Americans in size and firepower. But serious doubts have emerged about the usefulness of the French deployments. French artillery and armour are incapable of taking on Iraqi heavy tanks, and the French have too few transport and tanker aircraft to keep their ground and air forces adequately supplied.
More embarrassingly, the Iraqis are equipped with French aircraft and missile systems, and many Iraqi pilots were trained in France on the same equipment that the French themselves are using, rendering French aircraft extremely vulnerable in combat.
At the same time as making these military deployments, the French Government has been at pains to emphasise its diplomatic distance from the Americans – most clearly on 24 September, when Mitterrand outlined a four-point peace plan to the UN General Assembly. He declared that ‘everything would become possible’ if Iraq announced it would withdraw from Kuwait and free hostages, distancing himself from the US both by omitting reference to restoration of the Kuwaiti royal family, and by suggesting that there should be an international conference on the Middle East to resolve all international disputes in the region.
It is the Germans, however, who have incurred most American wrath during the Gulf crisis. Not only have they failed to send forces to the region (a simple matter of being barred by their constitution from out-of-area military operations, but that seems beside the point in Washington), they were extremely unwilling to part with cash to pay for the military operation and to compensate the other Middle East countries hit by anti-Iraq sanctions. It was only after much huffing and puffing from Congress that Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed in early September to cough up 3,300 million Marks-worth of aid and announced that he wanted the constitution amended after all-German elections in December to allow German participation in a UN contingent in the Gulf.
Given the differences among Britain, France and Germany, it is perhaps unsurprising that attempts to secure a united West European response to the Gulf crisis have not got very far. But there are other factors too – not least the absence of any adequate institutional framework for co-ordinating West European policy on the Gulf. NATO is limited by its charter to take military action only within its area; the European Community has no security role.
That leaves only the nine-nation West European Union, a relic of the 50s’ attempts to create a West European defence community, which has been revived to provide a forum for some co-ordination of efforts, particularly in calling in late September for an air embargo against Iraq.
Nevertheless, the WEU’s role has been well short of breath-taking. Despite the grandiose scheme of the Italian foreign minister, Gianni De Michelis, for the EC to take over the WEU and make it responsible for security matters, it is too soon to say whether the WEU is now set to play a major role in West European defence policj. Its last revival, in the mid-eighties during the controversy over President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, was no less vigorous than today’s, yet it fizzled out in no time. What happens next depends on whether the current stalemate erupts into war, and, if it does, how it erupts into war. At present, the governments of western Europe are lined up behind the Americans (though even now their support is not unqualified). If Saddam makes the first military move, it is unlikely that this will change. But if the Americans decide to attempt to shoot Saddam out of Kuwait – at present an unlikely prospect, but the whole situation could change after the 6 November Congressional elections – western Europe will be in a quandary.
Many current supporters of American policy (including many in government and nearly all the social democratic opposition parties) would back a first move by the US only if diplomatic efforts had come to nought, sanctions had proved ineffective and military victory could be guaranteed quickly and with minimal loss of life. It is almost inconceivable that these conditions could be fulfilled – particularly the last. If the body bags start coming home, the current west European consensus backing America on the Gulf will evaporate. But that is a scenario almost too horrible to contemplate.