Why Iraq Still Haunts Europe

by Richard Gowan (European Council on Foreign Relations)

The Iraq war will haunt not only U.S. policy-makers but also their European counterparts for years. The main players in the debate over the war -- Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder -- all lost power years ago. But the divisions over interventionism that surfaced around the 2003 invasion remain unresolved, as the Libyan crisis demonstrated.

The dividing lines over Libya differed from those over Iraq, with France now advocating interventionism. Yet it was clear that there was still no EU consensus on the criteria for the use of force. This breakdown -- highlighted by Germany's refusal to vote military action at the UN -- raises questions about what the European powers learned from Iraq.

After Saddam's defeat, there was a concerted effort to show that Europe was both a coherent actor and ready to use military tools. In 2003, France led an EU-flagged intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo to reinforce UN peacekeepers. European governments increased their contributions to the NATO force in Afghanistan.

EU advocates developed an upbeat narrative about Europe's role as a "good interventionist," using force in a legitimate fashion.

In 2006, EU members rushed peacekeepers to Lebanon. Two year later, they sent troops to Chad to assist refugees. It seemed possible that the Iraq crisis had been a blessing in disguise for Europe, inspiring the EU's members to define a common concept of when and how to use military power. But this was misleading. Many NATO units in Afghanistan were self-defeatingly risk-averse. There were differences in the EU over whether places like the Chad should be priorities. Equally seriously, all this global activism distracted the EU from Iraq itself.

From 2004 onwards, those European governments that had sent troops to Iraq began to disengage. For many, sending extra personnel to Afghanistan or Lebanon looked like a way to compensate for their withdrawal from Iraq and avoid criticism from Washington.

EU members and the European Commission donated huge quantities of aid to Iraq, but much of it went astray. The EU set up a mission to help train Iraqi police officers, but it was based in Brussels for safety reasons. Proposals that the EU should appoint a special representative for Iraq to coordinate diplomacy and aid were too sensitive to implement.

By 2007, when the U.S. "surge" brought some stability to Iraq, the European powers had a marginal role in debates over its future. It was clear that Iraq would play a pivotal role in the Middle East's future but the EU had no proper strategy towards the country.

The EU's efforts to define its strategic identity in theaters other than Iraq have also faltered. In 2008, the crisis over Kosovo's declaration of independence created rifts inside the EU. Its commitment to Africa was found wanting when the UN asked for reinforcements during a new crisis in the Congo but received no reply. As the Afghan war intensified, the Europeans started to agitate for an exit strategy -- as they had in Iraq.

The EU's attempt to play the "good interventionist" looks hollow. Libya underlined the extent to which debates over interventionism remain unfinished. Now the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, aftershocks from the Arab Spring and growing tensions with Iran threaten to spark new conflicts in the Middle East -- one that Europeans will not be able to ignore. We will see if they are more prepared for these crises than they were for Iraq.