When not publicly attacking the Bush Administration, European statesmen tend, at least on the quiet, to deprecate their American counterparts as the rude products of a "cowboy" culture. These days, however, they would do well to recall the long-forgotten words of one of those rude products. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln noted that "all the armies of Europe and Asia, with a Bonaparte to lead them, could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction is to be our lot, we ourselves must be its authors." This sense of strategic optimism has undergirded American foreign policy and permeated our political culture. To be sure, during the second half of the 20th century, the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States challenged America's erstwhile strategic invulnerability. Yet, an important segment of American people and elites never accepted this state of affairs and, instead of striving to maintain indefinitely the "balance of terror", sought to win the Cold War. By 1991, the demise of the Soviet Union had ushered in an era where Lincoln's assessment seemed justified again.
Unfortunately, on September 11, 2001 Osama bin Laden demonstrated that a determined terrorist group, equipped with the tools of modern technology, could prove Lincoln wrong. While the United States remains the primary terrorist target, this attack was part and parcel of a broader civilizational gauntlet that, at the dawn of the 21st century, challenges the security and even the very survival of democratic states. The threat is real and requires a concerted response by the same Atlantic alliance that has won the Cold War.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of Britain, Europe's post-September 11 "unconditional solidarity" has proved to be short-lived. The Europeans have questioned, albeit mostly soto voce, whether we are really at war. For many of them, the search for absolute security is just another example of American strategic hubris and terrorist threats--even of the most awesome variety--are just a fact of life, to be endured and managed indefinitely, rather than something to be defeated once and for all.
In part because of these differences in threat assessment, the Europeans have been mostly lukewarm in their support of the American military operations in Afghanistan, and outright hostile to the idea of a regime change in Iraq. These military disputes, coupled with other highly visible diplomatic estrangements - e.g., the jurisdiction of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol - have put considerable stress on the Atlantic alliance. This situation is further exacerbated by yet another brewing contretemps--this one over the investigation, prosecution and extradition of accused terrorists--which pits Europe against the United States.
This matter has already ignited a fierce and continuing firestorm in the European press. The initial focus has been President Bush's November 13, 2001 order, permitting the use of military commissions to try captured members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Europe's editorial pages have blazed with rhetoric accusing the United States of abandoning its own constitutional ideals. At least one European government, Spain, has suggested that it will not extradite suspected terrorists to the United States if they are subjected to trial by military commissions. Of late, the European media has broadened its attacks in criticizing numerous law enforcement aspects of the Bush Administration's war against terrorism, including the detention of enemy combatants, crackdown on immigration law violators, alleged excessive secrecy and the like.
While a lot of this is standard anti-American rhetoric, the key underlying issue is Europe's "progressive" agenda, and especially its determination to force the United States to abolish the death penalty. Over the last year, Germany, France, Britain and other European governments have carefully scrutinized various American extradition requests, raising all sorts of objections (from an alleged insufficiency of evidence to various death penalty-related concerns). Germany and France have even suggested that they would not share law enforcement and intelligence information about various Al-Qaeda suspects already in American custody, unless the United States promised not to execute them. This point was made with particular vigor by the recently dismissed German Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, a well-known anti-death penalty advocate, who subsequently acquired considerable notoriety for comparing President Bush with Adolf Hitler.
The flair-up of these tensions is not a manifestation of random or issue-specific trans-Atlantic disputes. Rather, it is emblematic of the long-term fundamental disagreements between the United States and our European allies over a broad range of major policy issues. The fact that these disagreements have not been muted by an emergence of a new common strategic threat--terrorist groups seeking the destruction of Western civilization--demonstrates the width and depth of the intra-alliance rift.
Military Commissions & European Justice