28 June 2004
It may be the thinnest of fig leaves, but President Bush looks as though he will return from the Nato summit in Istanbul with what he wanted: a pledge that Nato would help train the new Iraqi army and police force. The agreement will be hailed as proof of the alliance's continuing relevance after the Cold War, but this has everything to do with US domestic politics and very little to do with the security needs of Iraq. Spooked by John Kerry's surge in the polls, the White House is interested in recruiting French, German and Ukrainian troops for the international legitimacy that they confer on the occupation. Voters, the political strategists say, will be more comfortable if allies are playing at least a theoretical role.
Bush arrived in Europe confidently declaring the "bitter differences" over Iraq were over. But all the sunny photocalls, bold rhetoric and vagueness of the document cannot disguise that he has been granted very few items on his original wish-list. Though France and Germany may offer practical assistance, it is still unclear whether their troops will actually set foot on Iraqi soil. It may well be that the training will take place in Turkey or even in Europe. The President's request for Nato help in protecting the UN mission, should it decide to return, was also rejected.
Far from extending the number of foreign troops deployed on the ground in Iraq, the US is having to use all its leverage to ensure their Italian, Japanese, Polish and South Korean allies stay the course until the Iraqi elections in January. The tortuous negotiations over the wording of the pledge show just how much bad blood remains. Chirac and Schröder, their eyes also fixed on the US elections in November, feel inclined to give Bush only minimal support. The divisions between most of Europe and America remain.
Nato's pledge, however, should be welcomed. Iraqis want security, and a functioning Iraqi army and police force will bring forward the day when outside forces can withdraw completely. And, with their experience of peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, European troops are better equipped to teach the value of restraint and mediation than the US veterans of Najaf and Fallujah.