Andreas Whittam-Smith: As US power recedes, Europe should fill the gap

The moral authority of the US and its close allies has been sapped by prisoner abuse
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The Independent Online

Influence is slowly shifting from the US to Europe so far as the Middle East is concerned. Europe has a superior ability to talk to Iran. The presence of substantial numbers of European peacekeeping troops in Lebanon brings with it an increased standing. And against American wishes, the European powers are trying to provide the new national unity government in Palestine with room to manoeuvre. This is the evidence, still sparse.

It is not so much that Europe has become stronger but that the US appears weaker. If the American policy of imposing solutions by force had worked and Afghanistan had been permanently freed of the Taliban and Iraq had turned to democracy rather than civil war, then Europe would have remained more or less irrelevant. But it hasn't turned out like that.

Worse still, the moral authority of the US and its close allies has been sapped by prisoner abuse and indiscriminate bombing of civilians. While this lack of success had been evident for some time, it took Israel's failed onslaught on Lebanon this summer to signal the change. The whole world saw that Israel, fighting Hizbollah the American way, could not prevail. It also perceived that the cost in terms of innocent deaths was heavy.

At the same time, a change in the political leadership of America's main allies is under way. First to go was the Spanish Prime Minister, the conservative José María Aznar. He resigned in 2004 and his party lost the subsequent elections. Then in April, Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi was also kicked out by the voters. And our own Tony Blair has been given notice to quit by his party. His unqualified, right-on support of American policy has done him immense damage. Soon only George Bush will be left and he may well be weakened in November by the results of the Congressional elections. In any case he will reach the end of his period in office in January 2009.

Their successors will silently acknowledge previous policy failures and adjust accordingly. That is the way changes are made. I expect these new leaders to make a sharp distinction between peacekeeping and diplomacy on the one hand, and war on the other. Compare the substantial contribution of troops being made to southern Lebanon - Italy 3,000, Germany 2,400, France 2,000 and Spain 1,100. - with the reluctance that these same countries showed to get more heavily involved in Afghanistan.

Curiously, though, France could well make an adjustment towards co-operation with the Bush administration and away from hostility having found itself too far out on a limb. That was the purpose of the visit to New York and Washington last week by Nicholas Sarkozy, the French Minister of the Interior and the favourite to win the presidential election next April.

He arrived in time for the anniversary of 9/11. He told Jewish leaders of his love for Israel. And he criticised the manner in which President Chirac opposed the war in Iraq. He said that threatening to veto a UN resolution desired by the US was no way to treat a friend. - though, like Chirac, he didn't approve of the war.

Meanwhile Mr Cameron, who might be British prime minister when M. Sarkozy is French President, if he is, has been moving in the opposite direction. They should meet in the middle. In a remarkable speech given a week ago, Mr Cameron rejected neo-conservatism, the Bush creed, and espoused "a new approach to foreign affairs - liberal conservatism ... Liberal - because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention. Conservative - because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world".

Mr Cameron then went on to describe the virtues of soft power as opposed to American hard power. He argued that "bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors. They win no hearts and minds; they can build no democracies. There are more tools of state craft than military power. Intelligence, economic development, educational training, support for pro-democracy groups, international law, foreign aid, sporting and cultural initiatives can all play their part."

And he added a very important rider: "We must not stoop to illiberalism - whether at Guantanamo Bay, or here at home with excessive periods of detention without trial. We must not turn a blind eye to the excesses of our allies - abuses of human rights in some Arab countries, or disproportionate Israeli bombing in Lebanon."

Here Mr Cameron described the European way. With America having lost prestige and influence, I am hopeful that it will make a more useful contribution to peace in the Middle East than the past five years have shown.

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