Americans may wonder just what's going on as they watch the Europeans maneuver to avoid fighting alongside the United States in a possible war with Iraq.
After all, didn't America save Europe's bacon in World Wars I and II? Didn't America keep the Soviet Union from carrying out full-scale house invasion against them in the Cold War? More recently, wasn't it America that put out fires which Europeans themselves were unable to extinguish in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s?
So what is the problem now when we ask them to help with Iraq?
The Europeans are our closest allies and have been for the most part since, after watching the British and French nearly bleed themselves dry fighting the Germans from 1914 to 1917 in World War I, we went “over there,” invested America's fresh energy, firepower, and manpower, and brought that conflict to an end.
Later, reflecting America's reticence about overseas war, the United States watched Europe descend almost entirely under fascist control from 1939 to 1941, then jumped or got pushed in and ultimately was the primary agent in straightening out that situation.
The role of the United States was again central in the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union, exerting pressure at many points until the evolution of events brought about the end of the Soviet Union and the Communist threat to Western Europe.
The wildfires that accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia burned for years until, again, America became engaged. U.S. troops remain in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia, while the ashes of the fires in the Balkans burn out.
So what is the problem now? Some of it is European economic concerns. Some American observers see current European hesitation as the Europeans not wanting their cozy or potentially cozy trade and investment relationships with Iraq disrupted by war. The rest of that argument runs: If America leads the way in the war, American companies will claim the lion's share of the spoils of the war in Iraq in the form of oil concessions, for example.
The link between economics, politics, and military relationships is real and was amply illustrated in Europe by a contract awarded by Poland in December. Poland, a new member of NATO, will buy 48 F-16 fighter aircraft from Lockheed-Martin, rather than from competing French and other European firms.
The deal is worth $3.5 billion. Poland bought American to please the United States as well as to make its war planes inter-operable with American forces' equipment.
Another element in current European peevishness about an Iraq war is the fact that the European and American economies are closely linked and the Europeans see the U.S. economy continuing to lag, in part because of uncertainty over a war.
In the end, the Europeans - even the French and the Germans - will probably come along if America does decide to wage war against Iraq. That doesn't mean that the United States should abandon either the inspections process or the need for United Nations Security Council approval before biting into the very bitter apple that war with Iraq constitutes.
But it does mean that the United States should not let itself sink into rancor against what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignorantly called the “old Europe” as its leaders raise valid points about the wisdom of war at this juncture. Europe is old; the United States isn't.
The Europeans are America's principal allies. They will remain so. And they will be with us if we go to war.
At this point they are just not sure it is a good idea.