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Architects of Delusion

Architects of Delusion
Europe, America, and the Iraq War

Simon Serfaty

2007 | 184 pages | Cloth $55.00
History / Political Science
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Terms of Estrangement
Chapter 2. Terms of Endearment
Chapter 3. Terms of Disparagement
Chapter 4. Terms of Entanglement


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The alleged facts of "power and weakness" that characterized the transatlantic debate over the use of force in Iraq were theoretically flawed and historically misleading. Theoretically, the "facts" of American power appeared to reduce the concept of power to its military dimension at the expense of, or over, anything that might expose U.S. weakness. Historically, the "facts" of European weakness neglected the postwar transformation of Europe into a union that gives its members the nonmilitary power they lack individually. All together, the argument conveyed a sense of lasting American omnipotence for what was no more than passing preponderance, while providing a caricature of Europe as an avid consumer of American capabilities and a demanding producer of additional security responsibilities for the United States.

A conversation that starts with a cursory "Me Tarzan, you Jane" is not conducive to a dialogue. Absent a dialogue, there is little room for consultation, and without consultation there is no alliance of sovereign countries but, at best, coalitions: one coalition per mission, one mission per coalition, organized by the preponderant power—the "sheriff" in the posse—with states that are willing to join for reasons of their own, even if they are not sufficiently capable for, or directly relevant to, the mission.

This book is not about America's power and the weakness of its main European allies—Britain, France, and Germany—but about the power and the weaknesses of both, the United States in its prevailing condition of preponderance, and the states of Europe in their new but unfinished incarnation as a European Union (EU).

The facts of American power are not in doubt. At home, knowledge of these facts sharpened citizen anger at the horrific events of September 11, 2001, which could not be allowed to stand unanswered, and led most Americans to rebel against like-minded allies who grew unwilling to stand with their senior partner after the broad consensus achieved in Afghanistan collapsed over Iraq. Without a doubt, much that has been learned over the years has weakened the U.S. case for war in Iraq, as it was initially presented by the Bush administration and embraced by much of the country. By now the nation's anger is aimed no less at the decision proper than at its execution: more specifically, an incapacity to prepare for the aftermath of the war, on the basis of what was known at the time, and an unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and make related tactical adjustments until it proved too late. After a relatively easy, and remarkably effective, military campaign in Iraq in the spring of 2003, the U.S. failure grew out of a devastating combination of an inept postwar strategy for peacekeeping and an ill-prepared civilian management for peacemaking. Nearly four years into the war, the former was confirmed at the highest levels of the Bush administration in the days and weeks that followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's replacement in early November 2006, after the latter had been demonstrated repeatedly on the ground during the previous years.

The decision to wage war on Saddam Hussein—after the arithmetic of risk taking had been seemingly modified by the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon—was made by George W. Bush on behalf of America and with the nonpartisan support of Americans. In its immediate post-September 11 context, the war was widely viewed as the extension of the existential war that had begun with the earlier intervention in Afghanistan. Only subsequently did the mounting evidence of failure help turn it progressively into an "imagination war"—a war of choice rather than a necessary war. The progression is not without significance: this was an American war that received the near unanimous support of the U.S. Senate before it became Bush's war at home and a civil war in Iraq. Conditions were different in Europe, where the case for war never proved convincing, even in the countries that joined the coalition and as other acts of terror took place—Madrid on March 11, 2004, and London on July 7, 2005, among other such targets. Indeed, after a short-lived moment of collective mourning, the post-September 11 debate in Europe was an intra-European debate over American power before it became a Euro-Atlantic debate over Iraq; and even when it became the latter, the debate was narrowly limited to the war in Iraq rather than extended to its broader context of "the long war" of September 11.

The pages that follow, however, are not designed as a historical narrative of this multidimensional debate, both within Europe and with the United States, and its consequences. Rather, they present a historical interpretation of how and why the decision to wage war in Iraq came to be endorsed by some of America's main European allies (especially Britain) and opposed by others (especially France and Germany).

Written into that interpretation is the assumption that there was not much the allies could do unless they acted together, which, of course, they did not do. Bush and his administration understood that basic fact of transatlantic relations better than their interlocutors: no single European state can effectively derail, deflect, or assist an American decision deemed to be of vital significance to U.S. security interests because none can show enough weight to act decisively as an effective counterpart to U.S. leadership, let alone an adversarial counterweight of American power. That ability to influence America for the better can only be exerted by Europe as a union: it is that ability that was squandered by Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder, as their divisions left them with little tangible influence on the United States and, accordingly, on the war that became the centerpiece of the post-September 11 security agenda.

The heads of state and government that are at the center of this book were the architects of the most serious crisis in transatlantic relations since the mid-1950s, when an agonizing debate over the terms of Germany's rearmament, soon followed by a dramatic clash over an Anglo-French attempt to reassert their status and influence in the Middle East, threatened to derail the Atlantic Alliance and kill any serious prospect of European integration. Each of these men, however, was an agent of his country's traditions, interests, attitudes, and policies. They were all, therefore, the victims not only of their own delusions but also of their nations' illusions.

To be sure, more than any of his predecessors, a domineering and righteous George W. Bush gave his critics in Europe a target that proved particularly conducive to hostility and even bellicosity. Surfacing after Europe's pledges of "total solidarity" that were extended over the attacks of September 11, Bush found such an antagonistic tone understandably offensive, first coming from Schroeder during the German elections of September 2002 and next coming from Chirac during the weeks of confrontation in early 2003. Yet reducing the crisis that followed to issues of personalities would neglect a more decisive element—the fact that neither Bush and Blair nor Chirac and Schroeder changed the established terms of their countries' relations with one another: "terms of estrangement" between France and either the United States or Britain, "terms of endearment" between the United States and either Britain or Germany, "terms of disparagement" between Britain and either Germany or France, and "terms of entanglement" between them all. As a result, all four men played the hand that their countries had handed them—the forceful hand of preponderance for a righteous America, the principled hand of acquiescence for a faithful Britain, the determined hand of intransigence for a quarrelsome France, and the ambiguous deutscher Weg of a recast Germany that cannot yet provide a convincing explanation of what is precisely the new "German way."

That hand, however, was not well played by any one of these four heads of state and government, especially because it proved to be weaker than each one of them seemed to assume.

* * * *

Unlike the situation for U.S. allies in Europe, territorial vulnerability to external attacks is not a condition that history has taught America well, and it is not one, therefore, that Americans can feel comfortable with for long. After September 11, any other president of the United States would have taken the same position as George W. Bush and would have been deemed equally right by an overwhelming majority of the populace: the position, that is, that America was at war. But having said that with the appropriate tones of inner fortitude and external confidence, Bush was wrong, by his own admission, to swagger his way into inviting America's new adversaries to "bring it on," hatred and all, and he was ill-advised to follow them in a world that was changed further by the scope and inefficacy of American power after the world had rebelled against the horror and criminality of the acts of terror that inspired its use. It is unto that world that neither Chirac nor Schroeder dared to venture.

Blair understood the risks, but better than anyone outside the United States he also understood and shared Bush's anguish. Like Winston Churchill, whom he sought to emulate, Blair assumed a "blood right to speak" on behalf of "the all-conquering alliance of the English-speaking people" that had been so dramatically challenged in the New World. As had also been the case between Churchill and Roosevelt after America's entry into World War II in December 1941, the events of September 11 brought Bush and Blair together into a genuine and warm friendship based on a mutual appreciation of the truth they had uncovered and now shared to the fullest: Blair's tones were passionate because he personally felt the emotions of that somber moment. Like Bush, Blair reasoned that "we have to act not react" because, as Vice President Dick Cheney put it, "the risks of inaction are far greater now than the risks of action," including, Blair insisted, a requirement for "pre-emptive and not simply reactive response[s]" that would be decided "on the basis of prediction not certainty."

Thus Bush and Blair were genuine comrades-in-arms. Strategically, they were both the stepchildren of the 1930s, and the images of appeasement they had of that decade colored their shared vision of the future, Blair admittedly more deeply and more coherently than Bush, and Bush admittedly more spontaneously and more passionately than Blair. Politically, they both belonged to the 1980s and hoped to duplicate the pictures of strength and resolve left by their respective predecessors, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who had most influenced them and who had also shared a similar intimacy at the close of the Cold War as Bush and Blair would share at the start of a new global war.

That in opposition to Blair or Bush, Chirac took the lead in organizing Europe's anti-Anglo-Saxon brigade should not come as a surprise, but, however predictable, that did not help moderate the conflict that followed. Over the years, France has been America's most outspoken, most reluctant, and most frustrating ally—and, by French standards, so was America to them. Paradoxically, each, as will be shown, has also been the other's most rewarding and effective partner. Yet, even in the context of such a history of bilateral discord and cooperation, and notwithstanding the clichés that either country uses to define the other, the French and Chirac bashing, as well as the anti-American and anti-Bush discourse, that erupted in 2003 were unprecedented and troubling: a display of ill will, hostility, and even anger that paradoxically unveiled the passion that the United States and France feel for and about each other when either fails to live up to expectations. No less than America's relationship with Britain, France's relationship with the United States is therefore "special," although clearly with opposite consequences.

In the midst of this public quarrel, the French kept their sight on America's power, but Americans seemed to lose sight of their interlocutor's. Yet, and as had been apparent throughout the Cold War, the nature of French influence should have been obvious. France, as a middle-size to small power, matters to the United States to the extent that France matters to Europe, whose elevation to an integrated union in turn matters to the United States as a like-minded ally of choice. Subsequently, Robert Kagan, the godfather of the power-and-weakness argument, also discovered an "embraceable EU" and, in a belated afterword written for his earlier work, insisted that "to address today's global threats Americans will need the legitimacy that Europe can provide." That came late, however, though it is not without a touch of irony that by early 2007 the architects of such grand intellectual constructs as the famous conversion of "French fries" into "freedom fries"—designed to reflect the U.S. bitterness over France's obstructionism at the United Nations—were deserting their own party to vote against President Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq.

Even though the U.S. need went beyond the vague idea of "legitimacy" to include the more tangible but nonmilitary dimensions of EU power and influence, renewed concern in the United States that "Europeans may well fail to provide" that power, however defined, is justified. As a matter of historical fact, Europe's capacity to do so is highly dependent on France, whose relations with the United States thus determines, to a significant extent, the future of U.S. relations with the European Union. In other words, while France can act most decisively if and when it speaks with and on behalf of Europe, the United States can also best depend on Europe when the European allies act collectively as a union that includes France, as well as Britain, but also Germany. In short, without Europe, France may not count for much, but without France, it may not be possible to count on Europe for much.

* * * *

Years later, a main regret written into this bookis not, or not only, that Chirac and Schroeder, unlike Blair, openly attempted to stand in the way of Bush's decision. Nor is it that Blair, unlike his two main counterparts across the English Channel, was an uncritical follower of Bush for too long. The regret instead is that neither the opposition of Chirac et al. nor the support of Blair et al. produced much effect. However directed, a common European position would have had more influence in helping the United States avoid or correct mistakes heavy with consequences for all. But Chirac or Schroeder's opposition was no better stated to, and no more readily understood by, Bush than the latter's decision was communicated to, or acknowledged in, Paris or Berlin. As to Blair, he neither gained enough influence in Washington nor showed sufficient motivation relative to Paris and Berlin to convince either side otherwise: not enough influence, that is, to convince Bush that Chirac and Schroeder were not wrong in seeking a postponement of the war, but not enough motivation in convincing Chirac and Schroeder that Bush was not wrong in wanting a war that would at last topple the "evil regime" in Iraq.

Ironically, each of these men had previously anticipated a different policy course aimed at reversing the paths taken by their respective predecessors: Chirac, who had hoped to make of France America's best ally; Blair, who had planned to restore Britain's leadership in Europe; Schroeder, who had wanted to reduce Germany's dependence on France by achieving unprecedented intimacy with Britain; and even Bush, who had spoken of ending the false divisions that remained after the Cold War both within Europe and with the United States. Whose fault it is that each man ended at the opposite end of the spectrum from his initial goal can be debated. The contention here is that, as none was entirely right, none was entirely wrong either in his approach to the others but also to the issues, before and during the war as well as after the war's major combat operations in the spring of 2003. More important, however, and most specifically, their conflict over Iraq confirmed that political unity in Europe now depends on effective cooperation between Britain and France no less than it does on France's cooperation with Germany. Absent Anglo-French cooperation, Europe's ability to influence the United States—or, to put it more bluntly, to constrain America's preponderance while asserting Europe's own relevance—is weakened.

* * * *

As an intra-European debate over the use of American power in and beyond Iraq, the debate over Iraq was also an Anglo-French debate about Europe. "Should England and France agree to act together," de Gaulle told Churchill as he was urging an Anglo-French alliance in November 1944, "they will wield enough power to prevent anything being done which they themselves have not accepted or decided." However wishful that sort of thinking may seem, it persisted: after September 11, no less than after the Cold War and as had been the case after World War II, bilateral relations between France and Britain have continued to define largely the sort of future available for the European Union and its relations with the United States. Like Josephine Baker in the old postwar days, Blair had deux amours—mon pays (and Britain's privileged relationship with the United States) et Paris (meaning, the making of an integrated Europe that he knew he could influence only by endearing himself to the French). The fault for Blair, for which history will hold him especially responsible, was to allow Bush's conviction and faith to prevail over his own judgment and related concerns. Only Blair could have influenced Bush enough to modify the course of U.S. policies. Although the British prime minister understood that influence, he stubbornly refused to make use of it. The price for him was not insignificant: not only a loss for Britain but also for Europe—the former because of the leadership Britain failed to gain and the latter because of the cohesion Europe failed to achieve.

For Blair to follow Bush, both in his policies in Iraq and over his broader vision of the post-September 11 security normalcy, was no more surprising than for Chirac to resist him. Aside from Anthony Eden in 1956, whose premiership barely lasted the time of the Suez crisis, this is what Britain's prime ministers have done since Churchill: a choice of the New World across the Atlantic over the Old World across the channel. There were moments of doubt, to be sure, from Macmillan, who seemed ready to give up on President Kennedy and embrace de Gaulle in December 1962, to Blair, who seemed tempted to distance himself from President Clinton and embrace Chirac in December 1998. Even Thatcher, who did not like Bush as much as she loved Reagan, had her moments of ambivalence about the desirability of Britain's close partnership with the United States, over Germany's unification, for example, as did her successor, John Major, who was not averse to showing that he had liked Bush better than he did Clinton. But on the whole, Britain remained faithful, because as a rule, the French were no more trusted in London than in the sort of Europe they wanted to build.

When persuading the stronger, which is the better way for the weaker: going alone or going along? When listening to the weaker, which way is better for the stronger: hearing the voice of the faithful or listening to the quarrelsome words of the critic?

Britain and France each had their own question to which they both had different answers. "There is no more dangerous policy in international politics," observed Blair in June 2003, "than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitive powers; different poles around which nations gather." Blair's point was not about the need for balance in an emerging multipolar age: instead, his point was about the need for solidarity in an age of U.S. preponderance. For the French, conversely, the strong "can only lean on something that offers resistance," which, in de Gaulle's view, demanded from France an intransigence that grew out of its character no less than out of its capabilities. Bridging the gap between these two views was made even more difficult during a unipolar moment when accommodation was viewed as an unnecessary sign of weakness by the strong and an undesirable sign of subservience by the weak.

* * * *

In any case, and just in case, with the United States estranged from France and not always in unison with Britain, the United States could always view Germany as its fallback position of choice—as an ally that could be tempted by a special partnership with the United States, the only country that fully embraces rather than disparages signs of a renewed Germany, united and strong. Blair's personalized embrace of Bush and Iraq was a matter of national tradition but also one of personal conviction; for Chirac, opposition to America and Iraq was not only a matter of tradition—France's "instinctive fear of giants"—but also a matter of geopolitical convictions. As to Schroeder, his opposition to Bush, America, and Iraq, while also a matter of tradition nurtured during the short postwar life of the new Germany, was also a matter of personal dislike and political opportunism.

Throughout the Cold War, the Germans said little about their own future; after the Cold War, they thought little about their past. Their allies did, though—especially Britain and France, whose constant disparagement of a German nation said to have brought shame to Europe and the world did not quite end when a divided Germany joined its two victorious powers in the West. As Germany was thus recast within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the emerging European community—a winner at last, for the first time in the twentieth century, marveled Chancellor Helmut Kohl—it gained a voice that, notwithstanding a distinctive French accent, was nonetheless encouraged by the United States. After the Cold War, Bush and Clinton both wanted to make Germany America's new privileged partner—a copartner in peace. But power over, rather than with, Europe—and against, rather than with, France—is neither what Germany wants nor what Europe needs. Instead, Germany's new postwar(s) normality responds to a logic of minimal appropriateness and maximal adaptability: the lesser the better.

Schroeder's objections to Bush—his insubordination and betrayal, deplored his critics—were also motivated by his understanding of September 11 in the context of Germany's changed appreciation of force as a legitimate tool of action in the world. For Germans of all persuasions, the events of September 11, 2001, were not those of a global war of such unprecedented nature as to demand a radical preemptive strategy of regime change—meaning, in Iraq. Rather, this was a specific crime whose direct perpetrators had to be punished—meaning, in Afghanistan. Seemingly Bush neither understood nor welcomed Schroeder's new Germany, born during the Cold War, matured since reunification, and now eager to show how to use and respect its power and its institutions within the limits set by its new traditions and commitments. Chirac did. As a result, bilateral relations between France and Germany grew closer while the gap between Germany and both Britain and the United States grew wider. Yet, in each of these cases, Schroeder enjoyed an autonomy that none of his predecessors had dared assume: this was Schroeder's hidden battle. Compared to those who had preceded him and whom Schroeder viewed disdainfully as trained parrots, the German chancellor viewed himself as a true patriot—now at last, a "partner without restrictions," explained his chief diplomatic adviser during Schroeder's initial encounter with a newly elected President Bush.

* * * *

Schroeder is gone, as are Chirac and Blair, both of whom left long past their time. Surprisingly, it is Schroeder who was able to leave office most honorably in the fall of 2005, a near winner in an early election that he had been reportedly sure to lose. By comparison, Chirac and Blair fared quite poorly during their closing political lap in 2006. Apparently, dissenting from Bush did not serve the French president at home any better than following him served the British prime minister's political fortunes. In 2007, Chirac could not run for a third presidential term, as he had hoped, and Blair could not complete his own third term, as he had wished. Yet it is on the U.S. president that instant historians render their harshest verdict. The charge of incompetence is heard, with unusual bipartisan tone and no longer from Europe, where the Chirac-Schroeder coalition of the discontented has overwhelmed the Bush-Blair coalition of the willing, but in the United States, where the ranks of the discontented have also swollen to include three-fifths of the public. "The thing I know now that I did not know then," noted an especially competent military historian whose writing had earlier provided an education for Bush and his most senior advisers, "is just how incredibly incompetent we [Americans] would be." And another neocon figure added, notwithstanding a known and long-standing friendship with Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.: "what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman . . . turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era."

Like Reagan, but unlike Blair and Chirac, Bush did not conceive all of the American policy on Iraq, but no policy could have been conceived without him leading the way. But unlike Ronald Reagan, who did not know much but knew enough "to find his way from an ideological instinct to a practical course of action," George W. Bush did not know enough to respond to the changing exigencies of the war because too many of his key advisers, who did all of the policy making, surprisingly showed that they did not know enough themselves. Whether upon their election or after the horrific events of September 11, there was neither a plot nor a plan for Iraq—only an attitude that sought out the facts to the extent that these facts might confirm their assumptions. In short, the new mandarins of the post-Cold War era of U.S. preponderance had grown so very comfortable on an ideological level with the idea of intervention as the fulfillment of the American role in the world—as "a nation uniquely trusted by others . . . a superpower with a conscience"—that they allowed their strategic responsibilities, of which they were fully aware, to be overwhelmed by their moral convictions, to which they were fully committed.

Still, why stop with the United States? There is plenty of blame to go around. Not only Bush and his administration, individually, but also all of his European interlocutors qualify collectively for such a harsh assessment—and sharing the blame, too, are all those who chose to follow or to object, meaning Blair and Chirac and Schroeder and others, too many to be reviewed in this book. The significance of the war in Iraq is such, and the fluidity of new security conditions in the world is such, that there will be ample opportunity for history to pass a more comprehensive and conclusive judgment—and pass it anew and differently when another generation of historians, dubbed revisionist, revisit the issue, as will surely be done many times in the future. For the war in Iraq was not a small event. Its consequences, already evident in 2007 even before the war has run its course, will linger for a generation to come, most directly attributable to a U.S. president who had the time and the fortitude to change the world before his critics, in Europe and at home, were able to change him.

What may remain the same, however, is the tale about Europe and its relations with the United States: That for America and Europe to work together, the United States and France must end their estrangement; that for Europe to work together as a union, France and Britain must resolve their differences; that for the European Union to act as a world power, Germany must carry its weight relative to both France and Britain; and that for the European Union and NATO to resurrect a strong and cohesive West in the emerging new multipolarity that lurches ahead, the United States must exert the same visionary and bold leadership for the twenty-first century that it showed during its rise to preeminence

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