The Magazine

Europe's Non-Strategy

From the May 10, 2004 issue: The E.U. isn't taking terror seriously.

May 10, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 33 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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IN THE WAKE of the March 11 Madrid train bombing, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said, "It is clear that force alone cannot win the fight against terrorism." Prodi was hardly the first continental leader to implicitly criticize U.S. policy as short-sighted and to suggest that there are clear and compelling alternatives to America's strategy in the war on terror.

Soon after 9/11 itself, French prime minister Lionel Jospin traced terrorist acts to "tension, frustration, and radicalism," which in turn "are linked to inequality," which would have to be addressed. In 2002, France's foreign minister famously termed U.S. policy toward terrorism "simplistic" precisely because it did not look to "root causes, the situations, poverty, injustice." Norway's prime minister, Kjell Bondevik, insists that "fighting terrorism should be about more than using your military and freezing finances," and convened two international conferences on the root causes of terrorism in 2003. And after Madrid, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder said that "terrorism cannot be fought only with arms and police. We must also combat the roots of terrorism."

This view isn't restricted to the other side of the Atlantic. John Kerry said in January 2003 that President Bush "has a plan for waging war [on terror] but no plan for winning the peace" over the long haul. "We need more than a one-dimensional war on terror," he went on, requiring us to "recognize the conditions that are breeding this virulent new form of anti-American terrorism."

There are only two things wrong with this line of criticism. The United States is mounting a long-term strategy against terrorism. And Europe isn't offering any alternative.

American conservatives may not be famous for their "root causes" explanations of terrorism, any more than of crime. But in several major speeches that echo neoconservative thinking on the subject, President Bush has articulated what amounts to a root-causes theory of terrorism. "As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger," he says, "it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends," because dictatorships incubate "stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." And his administration has begun to implement a strategy based on this theory. It has outlined a far-reaching "greater Middle East initiative" aimed at offering incentives for political reform and democratization in the region. More pointedly, the United States invaded Iraq in no small part to create a new democracy which the administration thinks might catalyze liberalization throughout the Middle East.

The United States doesn't exactly have the strongest track record when it comes to transformational policies in the Middle East. And there are grounds to be skeptical of the "tyranny" theory of the origins of anti-Western extremism. But it cannot be denied that this administration is trying something bold and serious, something expensive and risky, to solve the terrorism problem from the roots up. Britain, Poland, and several other European countries have of course joined in the Iraq initiative.

By comparison, what are European critics offering as an alternative? All European countries have mounted assertive intelligence-gathering and law enforcement policies against terrorists and plotters in their midst. And several have military forces in Afghanistan. But both those measures are parts of the bombs-and-bullets strategy they insist is not enough. So what major initiative have they--say, the governments of France, Germany, Belgium, and Scandinavia--launched to address what they consider terrorism's root causes, whether alone, jointly, or through the European Union? No such initiative is anywhere in sight.

Is it too early to expect more? It's only a little over a month since Islamist terrorists attacked a major E.U. capital, killing 191 people and wounding 1,500. But Europeans have had two and a half years since al Qaeda put terrorism on everyone's agenda. Moreover, they have had major domestic terrorist problems for decades, unlike the United States. So there has been ample time to formulate what French president Jacques Chirac has called for: a "European plan against terrorism." And Europe has the means. The E.U. countries have a total GDP of around $8 trillion, and they stand at the crossroads of both international diplomacy and the global economy.