Archive for Thursday, July 25, 2002

U.S. builds support for action against Iraq

July 25, 2002


— George W. Bush's war on terrorism and Vladimir Putin's pursuit of entente with the West are the dominant and reinforcing influences in world politics today. They are combining to reshape the nature and future of global power, to the potential detriment of Europe.

This chilling thought has begun to take form in the chanceries of Europe's major capitals. Bush and Putin are moving toward common understandings that could reduce Europe's strategic interaction with and influence on both of the former Cold War rivals.

Putin has become Bush's hole card in the fast-moving poker game of nations. Bush is Putin's queen on the chess board, to be moved into a position of rescue or of domination at decisive moments. The two leaders play different games, but these intersect to serve the goals and interests of each and of both at this moment.

Europeans have already seen how the new entente works. The once-vocal opposition from Berlin, Paris and elsewhere to U.S. national missile defense and particularly to President Bush's proposal to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty evaporated last autumn when Putin made it clear he would not object strongly to Washington's withdrawal from the 1972 accord.

"It is a mistake," he grumbled softly, offering the treaty up as a lost pawn in his longer-term game and quickly moving on.

Without Putin and the Russians covering their flank with righteous indignation, European leaders could no longer insist that the arms control treaty was the cornerstone to strategic stability. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, sensed the change early and adeptly shifted rhetorical gears on the subject.

This pattern is likely to be repeated now in the diplomatic run-up to an American military strike against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein next winter. Diplomats recently in Moscow detect signs that Putin has already reached an informal, private understanding with Bush that Russia will not be an obstacle to American use of force once Bush has clearly and effectively made his case against Iraq to world opinion.

The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to argue otherwise as it frantically tries to rally Europeans and the Chinese to a common effort to save Moscow's ex-client in Baghdad. But the Russian president's pragmatism is almost certain to trump lingering Cold War loyalties.

In an unusual public keynote address at the Foreign Ministry on July 12, Putin pressed on Russia's most senior diplomats his view of U.S. cooperation as the key to Russian economic and political revival. Putin told his ambassadors that Russia's diplomacy is unequipped to respond to free markets, modern media or the threat of global terrorism and must be overhauled.

Russian acquiescence on Iraq changes the international environment, particularly in the U.N. Security Council. Putin's reported tentative commitment to Bush moves Russia close to French and British positions.

Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have separately told Bush that they will support U.S. action, once Washington has launched a fresh and thorough effort to get Saddam Hussein to accept effective U.N. inspections for weapons of mass destruction, officials report. The assumption in London and Paris is that Saddam Hussein will risk war rather than accept thorough inspections.

This would isolate China as the only permanent member of the Security Council opposing any form of military action against Iraq. Beijing is unlikely to push its opposition very strongly in these circumstances. And Europeans unhappy with American policies also will have little room to maneuver.

"Since Sept. 11, Bush has treated Russia as a more reliable partner than his European allies," says one senior European official. "Russia is more eager, and more pliable, on security matters. For Washington, the Europeans are too strong to be treated like Russia, but too weak to oppose American designs. We are bothersome in-betweens."

That may be too limited a view. Russia's strategic leapfrogging of the Europeans is contingent on two developments. Putin's July 12 speech was an implicit admission that his policies do not yet have the support of his own national security elite or public, which he must eventually secure. And its puny economy must expand rapidly if Russia is to have true weight in world affairs.

To achieve durable global entente, Bush and Putin must update the central Cold War metaphor that portrayed Americans playing poker while Soviet officials played chess. Washington and Moscow must play both games simultaneously and from the same side. Bush's urgent, short-term priorities cannot tie his hands for the future on serious problems like Chechnya. And Putin cannot rely on inevitability, as his chess-playing communist predecessors did all the way down.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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