Reports of a transatlantic rift have been greatly exaggerated

European officials are reportedly "miffed" that President Obama isn't going to attend an EU summit in Spain this May. The Times says that the summit may be postponed, and England's Guardian refers to a "diplomatic row," says the summit might be canceled entirely, and quotes one unnamed envoy saying "if there is no Obama, there is no summit." By contrast, the Financial Times takes a more measured view. Instead of a headline emphasizing a riff, spat or snub, the FT headline says "EU Leaders Play Down Obama Decision on Summit," and the story quotes EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton describing U.S.-EU relations as "warm" and "good" and refusing to turn this into a big diplomatic incident.

I see the whole thing as a positive development all around. EU leaders will be making a big mistake if they postpone the summit, as Obama's absence is an ideal opportunity to show they are beginning to stand on their own two (I mean, fifty-four) feet after a half-century of supine dependence on Washington (De Gaulle notwithstanding). Americans have always been ambivalent about European unity (we like Europe to act as one, provided it is doing exactly what we want), but Europe and America would all be better off if Europe were a) more capable of shaping world events on its own; b) better equipped to give the United States sound strategic advice, even if it sometimes differed from Washington's current whims, and c) less reliant on residual U.S. protection. I might think differently if America's strategic judgment was infallible, but who believes that anymore?

Obama is doing the right thing here by staying away. He's got plenty of other problems to deal with these days, and Europe is perhaps the one major part of the planet that doesn't need his attention right now. It's a a set of stable, democratic, market-based societies facing no external threats that it lacks the wherewithal to handle, including the overblown threat of a resurgent Russia. (According to the IISS, NATO's European members spent $310 billion on defense in 2007; Russia spent about $36 billion). So if the United States is looking for places where it can reduce its current commitments without imperiling global stability, surely Europe is the place to start. And remember that all we are talking about here is a decision by the White House to forego another trip to Europe (where he's already been several times).  Furthermore, putting Europe on the back burner may even encourage Europe to do more on various common projects, to remind Washington that transatlantic relations should not be taken for granted.

So Obama's decision to stay home is the right call, and Ashton's response is the right reaction. Let's hope the FT's measured response carries the day, and not the somewhat overheated interpretations put out by the Times or the Guardian.


Stephen M. Walt

The Lobby versus Iran (revised edition)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).

But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.

But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):

The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program.  Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat.  ... There is also some possibility ... that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate.  If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”

Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we've made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn't inevitable. But if it does happen, you'll know who played a key role in bringing it about.