Commentary: Bush and Europe: It's Reagan Redux

We've been here before. The President was Ronald W. Reagan. Donald H. Rumsfeld was already a former Defense Secretary. A congressman named Richard B. Cheney was a Capitol Hill hard-liner. Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz were running policy planning at the Pentagon. America was the warmonger.

On Apr. 4, 1981, the largest peace demonstration since Vietnam took place in Bonn, Germany, against Reagan's demand that five European nations install nuclear-tipped Pershing and Cruise missiles aimed at Moscow. Vice-President George H.W. Bush was dispatched to sell the policy. The State Dept. sent a team to Europe with blue-covered books called Western Values. The Europeans scoffed. Nations have interests, not values, they said.

You could easily have labeled Reagan's move a case of "staggeringly bad diplomacy," "arrogant America," or "diplomacy in ruins." When Reagan, in an apparent slip, told reporters that he thought it might be possible to have a tactical nuclear war in Europe that spared America, Europeans believed it.

There was a face-saving compromise, the equivalent of today's Hans Blix inspection teams. Had the U.S. accepted a deal that left an imbalance of missiles in the Soviets' favor, it could have declared a successful arms-reduction agreement and cool Europe off. Reagan's arms controllers said sign. Hard-liners opposed. Reagan backed the hard-liners. Strife-torn European governments accepted the missiles. NATO unity survived.

Was this the litmus test that ended the Cold War? No, just as Iraq is not the war that will end terrorism. But along with Star Wars and the Reagan defense buildup, the decision to install tactical nukes in Europe drew an inflexible line against the Soviet threat. A decade later, that threat was gone.

What does this have to do with Iraq? It shows that taking a principled stand isn't wrong and can work, whether diplomacy succeeds or fails. In Bush's case, of course, his success depends on the war. But if it goes well, there will be newfound allies and perhaps a chance to remake the creaking institutions of the Cold War, from the U.N. to the World Bank.

Nor is Bush's inability to connect the dots between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda necessarily a failure. Bush says the terror groups Saddam helps are "al Qaeda-like." Not good enough? Well, it was only after the files of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, were uncovered that we learned how the East German machine aided and abetted terrorists of every sort, from the Red Brigades to Carlos the Jackal to the Irish Republican Army. Are there files in Baghdad that prove it was a mother ship for Middle East terrorism? We may soon find out.

Reagan horrified Europeans with "evil empire" talk. Bush horrifies with his high-handed rejection of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty and the International Court of Justice and declaration of a unilateral security policy. Yet the Kyoto Protocols, which would have hurt the U.S. economy most of all, were a political nonstarter. So was the International Court. No President was going to run these through Congress. As for unilateral security, every nation believes that if all else fails, it can act on its own to protect itself. Bush's sin was to be in-your-face about it.

In contrast, Bush's critics point to his father as the kind of diplomatic, committed internationalist who could bring reluctant allies along. He did in the Gulf War. But again? "No matter what the [current] President did, it wasn't going to matter," says Bush's father's Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger. It may simply be that the great Gulf War experiment in collective security was a one-time event.

American is not isolationist and is hardly alone in the world. It needs to pay close attention to what other countries are saying, but it doesn't have to respect a hostile European press and the echo effect it creates in some stateside newsrooms. It also needs to lead in streamlining or replacing the rusted machinery of international peacekeeping. And this time, the odds really favor new faces and alliances.

By Bob Dowling

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