Tuesday 07 March 2006

Soft Europe

The Wall Street Journal
Leon De Winter


After two years of disastrous dialogue, and more of the same in recent days, we can conclude that no diplomatic initiative can stopIran from getting the bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency meets again this week to discuss the mullahs' nuclear ambitions, while Russia floats a plan to get Iran to enrich uranium on its soil. But before we got to this point, we had the Europeans in the starring role.

The foreign ministers of the leading EU countries -- Britain, France and Germany -- did try for years to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, most recently at Friday's meeting in Vienna that ended up in yet another failure. ButIran knew all along that this threesome, formally the "Troika," had no real negotiating authority and would never resort to serious measures.

And yet Britain's Jack Straw, France's Philippe Douste-Blazy (and his predecessor, Dominique de Villepin) and Germany's Joschka Fischer (and his successor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier) talked on, clinging to a post-modern European belief in a world in which any conflict can be resolved with enough reason and mutual understanding. The Troika offered the mullahs economic carrots and alternative sources of nuclear power -- as if energy had anything to do with it -- while Iran did what any football team does when it's ahead: It played for time. This it used very well to push ahead with its clandestine nuclear program.

Did the Troika know that Iran knew that Europe was weak? Of course. Europe's posturing was empty from the start. The only weapon that the EU was willing to consider, as a last result, was an economic boycott that would harm Europe's commercial interests more than Iran's.

The mullahs also knew that the Troika couldn't back up its threat of an economic boycott with the threat of military action. If the EU couldn't muster the will to fight in its own backyard in the Balkans without America leading the way, it surely wouldn't put any lives at risk beyond the frontiers of the Continent.

By contrast, Iran, ostensibly a democracy but in reality a religious tyranny, possesses a character trait that is almost non-existent in modern Europe: Iranians, almost exclusively Shiite, are willing to suffer. This quality is deeply rooted in their religion. Ashura, one of the central Shiite rituals that marks the death of Imam Hussain at the Battle of Karbala in 680, celebrates flagellation, blood, pain. As Steven Vincent, the remarkable American journalist who tragically was murdered last August in Iraq, observed in his book "In the Red Zone": "Eight-foot long white silk flags depicting crossed sword, the blades oozing with blood... pictures of severed hands, severed heads,... a fountain in front of Meshed Ali spraying geysers
of blood-red liquid... bloody swords flashing over the heads of milling crowds... men with blood-soaked bandages wrapped around their heads to stanch the bleeding from self-inflicted wounds... endless posters of the slaughtered innocents. This is an orgy of death imagery, I thought."

Can Europe grasp this commitment to voluntary suffering? For casualties to be acceptable on the battlefield, people need collective ideals and values that transform their society into a sacred entity. In European eyes, Shiites have ritualized this to the point of absurdity, with most Westerners finding it bizarre.

* * *

After the horrors of World War Two, Western Europe turned to new ideals of radical pacifism and post-nationalism. The Continent had been devastated by war twice in three decades. In the 1950s, the desire to avoid more war led it to a new ideology, permeating society and politics, that viewed national interests and cultural traditions as relative. As a result, people started to believe that peaceful coexistence with communist Eastern Europe was better than emphasizing the differences between East and West.

The largest demonstration ever in my own country, the Netherlands, was held in 1983 against the stationing of U.S. cruise missiles on Dutch soil. Anti-American sentiments were popular then as well, since America was a country that was prepared to oppose the Soviets with force, while the demonstrators categorically rejected any use of violence in favor of other means. What these means were remained vague for most people, but that was unimportant as long as the central issue was the growing threat of war implied by the stationing of U.S. missiles.

Little has changed in recent decades. Europe became wealthier and more convinced of its idea that world peace can be achieved by talk alone. Even the West European countries in the American-led coalition in Iraq, apart from the British, are only participating symbolically in order not to offend its main ally. In the Netherlands, the authorities speak of "peace missions" when discussing Dutch military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoiding terms like "war" and "violence."

If the threat were limited to the Middle East, the European reluctance to act now that Iran has de facto begun developing nuclear weapons might be almost understandable. But it is clear that the Iranian theocracy has set its sights far beyond its region. The rhetoric of the Iranian regime has been clear for years. As with Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism plays a key role in modern Iranian politics. If Iran succeeds, its nuclear weapons will be controlled by people who believe that they should bring the End of Days closer -- a notion not dissimilar to Hitler's Apocalyptic visions. An Iranian bomb threatens the very existence of Western civilization.

But what does Western civilization mean in and to Europe? In the European welfare state, the system ensures that each individual can rely on maximum social security. Without doubt, the welfare state is the ultimate achievement of European civilization. But it did not come without a philosophy: the welfare state gave birth to a post-modern cultural relativism that underpins the tolerant, liberal, pacifistic and secular European societies of today.

Only the earth is still a planet on which opposing forces collide. The welfare state, based on its provision of social services and the participation of reasonably acting civilians, is unable to respond to globalization or mass immigration. Its structures work as long as the system is closed. But because of vast changes in demographics and economics, the welfare state has become too expensive. All over Europe its fundaments are cracking.

This crisis is serious enough. The European political establishment is too preoccupied with its internal problems to even contemplate problems beyond its shores. Its philosophy holds that "soft power" alone can be brought to bear in any conflict between power blocs or ideologies or civilizations. That explains Europe's inability or unwillingness to defend the freedom of speech in one of the smallest EU member states, Denmark, during the Cartoon War. That's why there is near silence in Europe about the daily anti-Semitic provocations from Iran, which says that it'll hit Jews worldwide if Israel tries to destroy the Iranian nuclear program.

The EU does not know why it should ever sacrifice its sons in military conflict. What sacred values are worth defending at such a high cost? The EU isn't prepared to enter a conflict with Iran, with all its potentially devastating human casualties and economic hardships.

* * *

So for years the Troika continued talking, maintaining the illusion that Tehran was playing by the rules as equal partners and denying the reality that the Mullahs will gain great economic and military leverage over Europe in the very near future.

Europe could have suppressed the Iranian threat if it had convinced the mullahs two years ago that it was willing to contemplate military options. Only Europe lacks core values that it holds sacrosanct and that it's willing to defend at the highest cost. It will continue to operate on the diplomatic field and cling to soft power even though this is the path of certain defeat when confronted with power players burning with geopolitical and religious ambitions.

Thanks to European illusions about soft power, the free world has two options left on Iran: disaster or catastrophe. America andIsrael will bleed for Europe's lack of conviction.

Mr. de Winter is a Dutch novelist and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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