Iraq: Mars, Venus, Extremism





Stuttgart, 17 June 2004

* * * * *

This a conference about images and stereotypes in foreign policy.

It’s about what’s real, and what isn’t. What people think is real, and what isn’t. Who decides what is real and what isn’t. And what to do about it all anyway.

Stereotypes are all about simplification. The trouble with simplification is that things are complicated. The trouble with things being complicated is that we need to simplify them. Take people. Someone who is methodical can be slow, someone who is fast can be careless, someone who is cautious may be cowardly.

What about international affairs?

Europeans and Americans are doomed to disagree. This is clear from sport. Europeans are kind. We are happy with a hard-fought draw. Americans are unkind. Every US sporting event ends with someone winning, someone losing.

Robert Kagan has given a definitive account of Transatlantic stereotypes. Americans are from Mars (strong, decisive, ready to fight to defend themselves). Europeans are from Venus (weaker, preferring discussion to action, reluctant to use force)

Some people say that obviously Kagan is right. Others say that it depends on which examples you pick. And which timescale you think about.

We have just commemorated D-Day, when a huge US-led army incurred terrible losses invading Europe to save us from our own madness. That was followed by the Korean war.

The US-led intervention stopped the Communists taking over Korea completely. That intervention cost tens of thousands of lives. But millions of lives were saved or improved. North Korea today is starving to death its own people. South Korea has almost as many wireless Internet outlets as the whole EU. Where would we rather live?

Then the Vietnam War, which ended rather differently. The Iran hostages crisis under Pres Carter. The Beirut crisis under President Reagan. The tremendous fuss in Europe over the Neutron Bomb. The Somalia crisis under Pres Clinton.

Then the Balkan crises in the 1990s, when we had excellent cooperation for a while between Washington and Brussels, the Vance-Owen process. NATO eventually bombed the Bosnian Serbs, but it was Martian Europeans who were ready to put their troops in danger on the ground.

Now we have Iraq. Some European countries have strongly supported the Americans, some have been strongly opposed.

So the historical record is messy. If it shows anything, it is that being strong is not the same as being effective. And that the US and Europe do well when they work together.

What is Kagan on about? Kagan is looking at the fact that US capacity to do things now far surpasses everyone else’s. They are getting richer than we are at a faster rate. If the US economy grows at 4% and the EU’s at 2%, more or less what is happening now, the gap between US and EU GDP is set to widen to something like 2 trillion dollars in about 200 weeks.

The Americans are spending more and spending well, buying mobile, sophisticated forces. Europeans are spending less – and spending poorly: we are not getting bangs for our bucks, but squeaks for bucks.

Kagan’s core Mars/Venus argument is about the psychology of this situation.

Kagan is saying that when the US is grappling with the enemies of all of us it feels it deserves European support.

That argument carries weight in London. In early 2003 the diplomatic effort to mobilise support against Saddam’s regime was under way. The FCO held its first-ever gathering of Ambassadors.

The Prime Minister said “These things really come down to a matter of taste. I do not think it right that the Americans face these problems on their own. Our common freedom is under threat. We should defend it together.”

Kagan argues that because the US and Europe have different options, they think differently.

“A man armed only with a knife may decide that a bear left prowling the forest is a tolerable danger … hunting the bear with a knife is riskier than lying low and hoping the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle will make a different calculation of a tolerable risk.”

He’s right. Washington has different practical options for addressing global issues. It shows in their confidence. If they see a problem they want to fix it. They think they can fix it. They deploy money and people fast to do it.

In late 1995 the Clinton Administration decided to ram through a Bosnia peace settlement. I attended the last Contact Group meeting in Moscow before the Dayton Peace Conference for Bosnia. The US delegation led by Holbrooke and future Democratic Presidential runner Gen Clark seemed bigger than us. We were given the US position on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. We took it.

Going back to Kagan’s bear, the metaphor like the bear can run in different directions. A man with a rifle is well armed. But that does not make him any smarter. Hunters with only a knife creeping through the forest see things from closer range. They may notice that shooting the bear from a distance will stir up the nearby hornets nests.

Europeans live closer to the Middle East hornets nest than the Americans. We say we have special insights. We argue the need to proceed carefully. We may even be right. But being right is not the same as being effective. Plus sometimes bears eat hunters.

Who persuaded Libya to renounce weapons of mass destruction? Not perceptive EU negotiators. Not the EU countries closest to Libya. It was us, the awkward off-shore British, this time leading the far-flung Americans.

A victory for superb diplomatic technique. A victory for combining a tough policy with a willingness to talk – the ideal combination of US and European energies?

* * * * *

Kagan argues that Europeans and Americans today have “a philosophical, even metaphysical disagreement over where mankind stands on the continuum between the laws of the jungle and the laws of reason”.

I think it is worse than that. Neither the US nor Europe nor other democracies are good at dealing strategically with Extremism.

Putting it another way, in a networked world how do we “Love Thy neighbour”? What if Thy Neighbour wants to force your society back to the Middle Ages?

Some people say that we best show love for our extremist neighbour by addressing the ‘root causes’ of his extremism. Even if that is true – and we can agree on what they are – that can not be done quickly. Root causes have roots.

These deep roots are now in our own societies. Recently a British newspaper reported the views of young British Muslims, all in good jobs, whose hero is Osama Bin Laden: “I would like to see the Mujahideen coming into London and killing thousands, whether with nuclear weapons or germ warfare. It will be a day of joy for me.”

If all of us in this hall were blown up tonight by Al Quaida these neighbours of ours would be happy, even dancing. Is this politics, religion, or mental illness?

So some neighbours at home are not very lovable. But who are our foreign neighbours? Bad Governments? Or the millions of victims of a cruel regime? At what level of misery do we decide that we must intervene to protect our foreign neighbours? And if we do decide to intervene, are we any good at it?

Diplomats focus on three questions:

What is Legal? What is Achievable? What is Wise? They do not focus enough on a fourth: What is Done Well?

Even if our policies are Legal and Achievable, they may not be Wise. And even if our policies are Legal and Achievable and Wise – what if they are just not Done Well? The public can live with disagreements on policy. That’s democracy. What the public really likes is success. A tough job done well. And what it really dislikes is incompetence. Things not Done Well.

After years in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina and post-conflict Serbia and Montenegro, I have bad news. Democracies and international organisations, European and American, EU and UN alike, are not good at interventions. Nor are they good at learning lessons from their failures and successes. There are dozens of things I could say on why this is the case. But let me mention just two.

First, a core problem after you intervene successfully to topple dictators is what you do with all the nasty people who did well from the previous regime. If you marginalize them they sabotage reform. If you incorporate them they get rich at our expense and frustrate change; you seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, which dismays moderates.

There is no principled answer to this. Each case is different. But it needs to be thought through and prepared and explained in advance. The neighbours you are liberating know that their oppressors are dangerous people. They want to know if you really mean it, or whether those oppressors will be coming back in smarter suits we have paid for.

Second, we bang on about a market economy but our interventions are strikingly ‘socialist’. They are driven by governments and bureaucrats, paternalistic, top-down, all about rules, about “we know best”.

I have attended many conferences and senior seminars about bringing peace to the Balkans. I almost never see a single business person there. People at these events say: “Oh, it would be nice to hear what a businessman thinks” as if it was some kind of exotic optional extra.

In short, many of our problems in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Iraq are all about our failure to have a clear plan for Doing the Job Well.

The Americans do have one clear advantage over us in Doing Things Well. They offer deals.

US diplomats constantly try to move things forward by offering packages of positive/negative incentives. It works. Not perfectly. But it works.

There is no comparable EU mechanism for this. EU positions are hard to agree in the first place and thereafter even harder to change. We are simply not effective at promoting real-life changes in this way, especially with fast-moving difficult targets. Instead we sit and watch, usually complaining about something.

This is disappointing. We Europeans ought to be world leaders at tackling extremism. We have practised it enough. As far back as we know the main enemy of Europeans has been other Europeans. We have exported our wars round the planet.

The wounds from all those centuries of violence take a long time to heal. Acts and words of historic reconciliation continue today, six decades after WW2. On the eve of Poland’s accession to the EU I had the privilege of hearing President Rau’s moving address to the Polish Parliament. Chancellor Schroeder was at the D-Day commemorations. He will be in Warsaw in August for commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

How did this happen? After WW2 America made a strategic investment in European democracy. We have used this investment well. We have invented unique new mechanisms for intelligent cooperation. This is a huge success for us. The world can breathe a sigh of relief. The crazy Europeans are not on the rampage again.

So under the shade of American power a pleasant, European micro-climate has grown up. This success is making us think that we have invented the answer to the world’s ills: ‘Post-Modern Europe’.

But what signal does it convey? A tough, determined, businesslike Europe? Or a self-absorbed, whimsical Europe bent on ‘deconstructing’ national pride? As the British Minister of Europe Dr MacShane put it recently, “The US symbol is the Eagle. Russia’s symbol is the Bear. What is the EU’s symbol? The Ostrich?”

A real technical problem the EU faces is that what makes us strong internally – methodical, polite consensus-building – is no help against fast, dangerous pre-Modern Extremists. Look at recent conflicts in Europe itself, Balkan Extremism.

We started badly, squabbling among ourselves. Tens of thousands of people died as a result. Millions had their lives ruined. The cost of not intervening. Now we have a Plan. That people in the former Yugoslav countries should follow our example. Calm down. Be nice. Join the EU. A good plan. But it takes time.

Our long-term policy is to nurture the fragile new grass of Balkan reasonableness. That makes sense only if we also have a short-term policy for dealing with extremists spreading plant-killer on our own garden. And a policy for tackling extremists which exists on paper but is not backed up by real-life action is not a policy but a silly noise. A good policy, but not Done Well.

What do we Europeans do about Balkan extremists? Not enough. Some European governments work hard to track down war crimes suspects in Europe’s back yard. Others don’t. Some don’t care.

If you want an image from the Balkans take Radovan Karadzic, football coach and poet turned petty criminal, turned political leader, turned fugitive. In mid-1996 at another Contact Group meeting in London we Europeans were trying to persuade the Americans not to ban Karadzic election posters in the BH elections, nervously warning that such drastic action might collapse the Dayton process.

Rubbish. US arguments were better and more principled than ours.

Yet the Americans too held back in the Balkans when it suited them. Read Holbrooke’s book. The Clinton Administration did not arrest Karadzic in 1996 in case the operation backfired and damaged Clinton’s re-election prospects.

As Ambassador in Belgrade after Milosevic I pushed for a visa-ban to stop violent Balkan extremists traveling to EU countries. Even that pathetic measure was rejected: “too difficult”. Thanks to combined European and American dithering Karadzic and Mladic and Croatia’s Gotovina are still at large.

This feeds insane Balkan conspiracy theories. It stops this part of Europe normalizing. Serbia’s Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a great European and especially popular in Germany, was murdered by criminal allies of these people. Balkanites on all sides believe that if Karadzic has not been captured it can only be because we don’t want to capture him!

A lot of Balkan leaders complained to me that the West has double standards. I always replied that double standards are better than no standards.

* * * * *

So much for the Balkans. Things are improving. Our policies have been Wise. But not always Done Well.

What about Extremism in the Middle East? Just as Communism was unsustainable, religious and other despotism in the Middle East is unsustainable. After Communism collapsed, we needed a policy to extend modern pluralism to this region too. But we carried on as before.

Republicans and Democrats, European Centre Right and Centre Left: we all have talked about democracy while busily trading with or actively supporting undemocratic regimes, leaving millions of people prey to oppression and fanaticism. We said we wanted stability. We got stagnation.

We have ended up treating disgraceful human rights abuses as ‘normal’ in that part of the world. This amounts to a racist stereotype of Arabs as people unable to accept or cope with democracy.

In London last year President Bush made a strong statement: “It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty. It is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it.”

What about Extremism specifically in Iraq? Saddam Hussein’s regime’s ideology in part tracks back to the Nazis. He was one of the greatest mass murderers in modern history. He defied the UN on weapons of mass destruction for over a decade.

Saddam’s defeat by Coalition forces has been a powerful blow for freedom in Iraq and more widely. Not everyone sees it that way. Post-Modern opinion in Europe and the US alike seems to see President Bush as more dangerous than militant Islamic extremism.

But if we remember that Korean timescale and look at the Iraq intervention as the first few months of a much longer process, things are going pretty well.

Life itself is forcing change. The Arab world realizes that its stagnant societies are at risk. The latest UN Resolution is a good sign. We have an assertive, new Iraqi leadership insisting that Iraq wants its own democratic way forward. Imagine the galvanizing effect for the region of pluralist politics in Iraq. No wonder extremists and criminals are murdering Coalition forces and Iraqis, and trying to terrorize the planet to stop it.

We at last are starting to engage with the Muslim World on a new dialogue about reform. The EU’s energetic partnership with Turkey is a powerful example of Europeans adding enormous value – working closely with a Muslim society on a dynamic modernization agenda. What a strategic success for the European ideal if we decide this year to open negotiations with Turkey for EU membership.

And we need to keep looking for a principled basis for resolving regional conflicts. When we ask the Arab World to be more democratic, we must expect Israel too to be more constructive and conciliatory. All that was the excellent message from last week’s G8 Summit. Better late than never.

* * * * *

So there it is. Much of today’s trans-Atlantic bad feeling between the EU and US about Iraq and before that Bosnia and Kosovo is about depressingly trivial stereotypes, but also real differences in ambitions, technique and capabilities.

But that is not as bad as it sounds. It is a consequence of our being democratic. Democracies are moderate and methodical, but also fickle and short-sighted. Our political leaders – and our voters – want results which are short-term/positive/expected. We sometimes get short-term/positive/expected results. We also get results which are long-term, negative and unexpected. Democratic politics is all about striking this balance between short-term and long-term cause and effect.

This is where images and stereotypes play such a key role. Who decides what’s real or important, and what is not?

At Harvard in 1999 I learned that one of the national TV channels in the US market checks its ratings every 15 minutes. They saw that people were tuning to another channel if there was too much talking. So they shortened the average sound-bite from 36 to 18 seconds. Every issue in the world explained in 18 seconds. Welcome to Internet democracy. More and more information, less and less wisdom.

Governments struggle and demagogues flourish. Media outlets themselves struggle. Within seconds of publication errors and poor judgments can be attacked by the Blogosphere, well informed and argumentative people anywhere on earth.

We live in a soaring electronic Tower of Babel. To catch the attentions of people you have to make a bigger noise than your competitor. Noisier marketing. Sloganeering, stereotypes. Under pressure to cut costs media outlets want ‘multi-tasked’ journalists, who don’t need to distinguish clearly between facts, analysis and comment. Irresponsibility shoots up. Standards shoot down. The gap between information and propaganda disappears. Politics becomes marketing, a sterile exchange of advertising slogans.

We expect the media to be in some basic sense fair and balanced. But in a world in which everything is a sensation, everything is boring. Balance, an attempt to look at problems calmly and honestly, is old-fashioned, dull, conservative.

Michael Gove in The Times recently said that some media outlets seem to believe that you no longer need to “stick to the boring old factual truth, if what you’re campaigning on is important enough”. It’s one thing offering a fair balance between Left and Right. Do we need a fair balance between Right and Wrong?

Take the terrible pictures of those prisoners abused by US soldiers. They are so shocking, so unexpected and bizarre, that they are seen by huge numbers of people as defining the moral and practical failure of US-led policy in Iraq. Incredibly damaging, no doubt about it.

But we see the images we see. The international media do not show us over and over again countless videotapes of Saddam’s torture chambers. Or the horrible murder of Nick Berg. Or scores of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Centre. Where are the images of torture and death from regimes which are so effective at brutalizing their own people that there are no images?

Will we see images of the huge efforts made in the US Army and in other NATO armies for years to come to learn from this crisis, and train soldiers even more intensively to treat prisoners properly? No. Do we see much coverage of the tens of thousands of good things happening in Iraq, countless acts of kindness and friendship which Coalition soldiers do across the country? No.

This is not an attempt to explain away abuses in that prison, or any other abuse by Coalition forces. The Prime Minister has condemned them in the strongest terms: “ we intervened in Iraq to stop this sort of thing, not to do it ourselves”. Is the AG episode a disgrace? Yes. Does it discredit the Coalition’s attempt to help Iraq become a better, freer country? No.

* * * * *

In a world whose networks are dominated by images, slogans and stereotypes, democracies need to keep focused. The fairness, tolerance and inventiveness developed by the US and Europe together are a pinnacle in human civilisation. But Civilisation periodically has had to defend itself against barbarians. Sometimes we love our neighbour but our neighbour is crazy and wants to kill us. Just one of those things that happens.

Our policies have to be Legal.

Western or any other governments can’t assert the right to interfere willy-nilly, or to say that our way is the only right way. Of course we need international law and the UN.   But international law has to adapt. A networked world maybe needs to look again at what is reasonable, proportional self-defence. We need the UN. But the UN has to do better. Its performance in Kosovo has not been distinguished. It has to clean up its own act on corruption. The emerging Oil for Food scandal will not be pretty.

Our policies must be Achievable.

Europeans and Americans and other democracies need allies in defending the global network against today’s barbarians. If we want India, Russia and China to throw their full weight behind protecting the network, we have to offer them a new quality of partnership for decision-making. This is not just about Europeans and Americans.

Our policies need to be Wise.

A few people armed with AK 47s or a hijacked jumbo jet can murder hundreds of people or cause incredibly costly disruption and panic. We need to mobilise moderate people round the planet against these extremists. But moderates are not going to be stronger or more intelligent than we are.

The planet’s masses are not stupid. They know that the West means democracy, cool gadgets and higher living standards. They may well accept Western and US leadership if it is explained in a fair-minded way. But they can’t be pushed around any more. Policies which are contradictory or unfair or done badly aren’t convincing.

Wisdom is all about keeping perspective. Policies which are unpopular today may be wise and far-sighted when seen over a ten or twenty year period.

Millions of Europeans and Americans alike thought that President Reagan’s call for Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’ was a dangerous provocation. But his firmness of purpose matched by a readiness to talk helped bring about extraordinary things. Such as the unification of your country.

And our policies must be Done Well. No scandals. No abuses. Careful planning.

But let’s also remember that even a policy which in important respects is not Done Well may well be better than doing nothing at all, saying that it is all too complicated, leaving problems to get worse and worse – but complaining when someone else does try to do something.

* * * * *

If you want a stereotype, here is mine tonight. Americans are strong but too short-term. Europeans are long-term but too weak. Neither is good enough.

Europeans’ patient inclusive methods have a lot to offer. But so has US capability to move fast and hard against criminal extremists attacking democratic life all round the planet.

In Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo we are trying to replace repressive leaderships and build a decent society. I have lived in countries devastated by Communism and Apartheid. Promoting a decent society is a cause worth supporting. A decent society is not new laws and new rules, although they help. It means mobilising energy and creativity. It means letting markets – not bureaucrats – take decisions. Here US instincts are better than ours.

It means patiently building a new consensus between people who may hate each other. Having sympathy with history. Listening as well as doing. Here European instincts are better than American.

My message to Mars: Being strong is not the same as being right. My message to Venus: Being right is not much use if you can’t do anything.

 I think the word is teamwork.

Some of the time we live on Mars, some of the time on Venus. Most of the time we live between Mars and Venus, namely here on Earth.

A planet where things are getting complicated but have to be explained in 18 second sound-bites. Where free societies which depend on each other need to work together on what really matters.

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Comments (1)

  • Nutritionist/ Reply September 23, 2020

    Thus by the summer of 2002, the United States had not yet made a decision about invading Iraq, but attitudes about Europe — and European attitudes about the United States — had already taken shape. I t was against this backdrop that Kagan’s essay appeared on computer screens at the nsc. There were many wonderful images — the United States is from Mars and Europe from Venus, for example. But there was one image that I remember even ten years later. This was the image of the United States as sheriff, taking risks, gunslinging, and acting alone if necessary to keep the peace — and the image of Europe as the saloonkeeper, who keeps his head down, benefits from the imposition of law and order, and also benefits from the commerce of villain and sheriff alike. And the last thing a saloonkeeper wants is a shoot-out.

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