- What can the consensus makers
- of Europe do for Iraq?
is the subtle and laborious process of haggling and compromise amongst
participants of dissent, so that everyone can walk away from the table
with a net gain. A necessary chore in any democracy, it is especially
critical amongst the heads of government across Europe.
An American president enjoys constitutional powers inherent of his own
office. While his actions can be checked by an elected assembly, his agenda are
his own, not subject to consensus amongst the members of Congress. This is not
the case in, say, London, where the prime minister is a member of
parliament, whose executive decisions must always be approved by a majority vote. The presidencies of Italy and especially France are closer to
the American system, but even they do not wield exclusive authority, but must
form a government via a prime minister, usually with a coalition of diverse
political factions as mandated by a general election.
AP / Ron Edmond
Standing firm: US
President George W Bush speaks before journalists with Secretary of
State Colin Powell.
||Because an entire government hangs on the the balance of just so many
parliamentary votes, consensus is of paramount importance to an Eurocrat. His own voice is
seldom heard above the din of parliamentary debate; her ideas are often
obscured in diplomatic vagary to accommodate everyone.
America, speaking plainly and standing up for one's own values is a virtue; in
Europe it is an eccentricity. Indeed, the uglier aspects of governing by
consensus inevitably involve compromise of one's moral convictions for the sake
of political expediency, or endemic corruption amongst politicians who form a
Governing by consensus does have an advantage: it is a defense
against demagoguery, precisely because consensus builders obligingly subvert
their personal charisma into mutual benefit. In a continent that has seen Napoleon's rampant
warmongering in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, or the insidiously
legitimate ascendancy of Adolf Hitler, Europeans are wary of any overbearing
politician who wishes to impose a private agenda upon a consenting populace.
By sheer personal will, and without the encumbrance of
consensus at every step, George W Bush could push for war in Iraq as far
as he has done, earning the admiration of many and the loathing of many more
from around the world. Neither he nor, for that matter, Saddam Hussein is the
most interesting character in this unfolding crisis. To the very end, both are
apparently giving a very predictable performance, acting quite unerringly to the
scripts handed to them since day one.
Quoi que se passe, la
France votera 'non': During a television interview on March 10,
2003, French President Jacques Chirac commits his government to a veto
of any UN Security Council resolution that would authorize a war
||In this drama, two players deserving more scrutiny are
Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair. The former
is noted for his unabashed challenge of consensus politics; the latter for
his commitment thereto despite its unfavorable outlook.
Chirac won his current term in 2002 as a popular mandate against the
reactionary right, in a harrowing run-off election against the xenophobic
candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. A decades-long veteran of the nasty rancor that is French
politics, Chirac did not survive his last election completely unscathed, as
he is still dogged by unresolved allegations of fiscal impropriety, which he had
brushed aside on the ground of "presidential immunity."
from the uneasy "co-habitation" with defeated Socialist prime minister
Lionel Jospin at long last, Chirac is now free to personalize the
condescending and demagogic rhetoric of "ideals" and "moral
standards" to bolster his formidable political stature.
When a leader finds consensus politics unnecessary, either due
to his privilege of power or simply because everyone appears to agree with him,
it becomes more difficult to tell whose interests he is actually
serving. Why Bush really wants to attack Iraq will always be open to
speculation: there is Bush Jr's vendetta-like mentality regarding Saddam and his
dad George H Bush over the first Gulf war in 1991, as well as the cabalistic
alliance between the Bush-Cheney administration and the American big energy
companies, which naturally covet the world's second largest oil reserve in Iraq. (VP
Cheney, to this day, refuses to disclose how he and other fellow energy tycoons
have deliberated upon the nation's energy policy behind closed doors back in
2001.) The point here, though, is that Bush is entitled to act on those unstated
agenda, so long as he can argue that he does so in the interest of international
security. For a world still reeling from 9-11, it is a cheap argument.
Here is another. For most people on earth, the notion that America (the
world's sole superpower) and Britain (formerly Iraq's colonial overseers) would
forcefully violate the sovereignty of an impoverished, pacified and non-hostile
Arab state is absolutely intolerable. One can find no cheaper political capital in this,
as Gerhard Schroeder demonstrated in his narrow victory last year, promising the
German voters not to get involved in Iraq. It was a classic play of consensus:
without the anti-war stance, the chancellor would not have been able to get the
votes for his feeble center-left platform, and form a coalition government with
Joshka Fischer and his Green party.
Reuters / Ives Hermann
The peacemakers: From
left, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, German Foreign
Minister Joschka Fischer, French President Jacques Chirac, and German
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
||Chirac, already safely ensconced at Champ Elyssee, could afford not to
redeem this political capital. Had he sided with US and Britain, he would have
angered much of his electorate -- including an economically marginalized Muslim
population, the largest in Europe -- but could also have staked additional interests in Iraqi oil, for which the
French energy sector had invested heavily. Since Spain and Italy were
already in favor of the Anglo-American initiative at the onset, doing so would
consolidate European support and minimize any dissent, averting a diplomatic
crisis in the UN Security Council and NATO.
On the other hand, opposing a war
that might never happen can keep more people alive, lead a favorable
majority at the Security Council, win a Nobel peace prize, and secure the oil
interests with far greater certainty.
A compromise between the two camps, in the spirit of consensus building,
could also be feasible: France could abstain from rather than veto against any
vote in the Security Council that authorizes war, while agreeing to provide the
US and British forces with intelligence and logistical support befitting a NATO
Had a compromise taken place, Americans would not be ordering
"Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast." Chirac chose, as the Bush did, to stand his ground. For
that he is to be
commended, perhaps not as a matter of conviction, but as an ostentatious
departure from politics-as-usual in Europe. Discarding vagary and compromise,
Chirac became the definitive -- and dominant -- advocate against the war.
AP / House of Commons TV
The debate goes on: British
Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the House of Commons. Seated to
his right is Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
the bully pulpit is used by the French president and the British prime
minister is a study in contrast, not just for their obvious differences of
opinion. Chirac, along with his Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin,
appear serene and magisterial before the world, as assured of their
righteousness as Bush and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. When the
cameras turn to the haggard features of Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack
Straw, however, it is the image of two overworked bureaucrats against
the backdrop of a contentious House of Commons.
than anyone else, Tony Blair tries to make consensus politics work in
favor of the Anglo-American initiative against Iraq. He has no choice: his
central-left Labour Party, already split over the issue amid public
opposition to war, can evict him from 10 Downing Street at any time
with a vote of no confidence.
rise to the top job is attributed both to his resilience under the long
shadow of Margaret Thatcher, and a complacent Conservative
Party perennially mired in sex and money scandals. Blair did not turn the clock back
to a socialist Britain, but diligently campaigned to convince the British
electorate that his party was better qualified to carry on the fiscally
and socially conservative policies indelibly established by his
Theoretically, a British prime minister has broader sway
over policy than an American president, because the PM is necessarily the
majority leader amongst the lawmakers of the land. Blair never truly
enjoyed this advantage, however. The New Labour did not start their reign with a pompous
manifesto, a la Newt Gingrich, et al's "Contract with America"
when the Republicans took over both houses of Congress for the first time
since anyone can remember. Such a grand gesture would be
counter-productive in a party that was, in effect, a coalition of
Labour's traditionally-left elements (the labor unions and the public
sector) and those much further to the right (business interests).
Well before Bush's "axis of evil" speech, well
before 9-11 itself, Iraq was already a large blip on the British radar
screen. Britain made a bid -- ultimately futile, in light of subsequent
developments -- for "smart sanctions," easing limitations on the
trade embargo that devastated the Iraqi economy as a whole, but left
Saddam's regime intact thanks to its control of oil. Blair and Straw
traveled all over Europe and the Middle East, trying to build consensus
for a policy that was certain to become an effort of compromise.
It was a little something to appease Western conscience for having made
the lives of an oppressed people even more miserable.
AP / Hasan Sarbakhshian
they pay the price: Iraqi Kurdish refugee Resan Bahadi (right) and
others traveled from Kirkuk to the Kurdish enclave of Qushtapa, in
led many to believe that, unlike Bush's suspected vendetta or oil
interests, Blair genuinely wanted to oust Saddam for the deliverance of the
The British certainly did not need Iraqi oil as badly as the
Americans, or to recover their investment in Iraqi oil as much as the
French and the Russians. In Europe, Blair bore the brunt of much criticism
for being subservient to foreign policies issued from Washington, even as
the PM insisted that he was not taking orders from the White House,
directly or otherwise. A continent that is generally anti-war simply cannot
accept the idea that any enlightened European leader would sincerely
desire a war in Iraq.
it really all matter in the end? If the Europeans feel it is not in
their interest or moral rectitude to fight a war in Iraq, what can they
do when the Americans do go to war without them, anyway? (Of course, the
Americans are never alone. Britain will begrudgingly keep its
commitment, Spain, Italy, Denmark and far-away Australia will give their
token support, and then there are the new and prospective EU members like
the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, who are eager
to associate themselves with -- and reap benefits from -- the United
States. And yes, don't forget the Iraqi opposition, the vengeful Kurds of northern Iraq and the
Kuwaitis.) The entrenched positions taken by Iraq and the US are
apparently beyond compromise, give or take another day for Saddam to
"reconsider" disarmament and resignation (and for the 62,000
American troops initially bound for Turkey to cruise down the Suez, the
Red Sea and around the Arabian peninsula). What good can Chirac's hauteur of peace or Blair's quixotic quest for consensus do?
A lot, actually.
Assuming the invasion is indeed swift, fierce and
decisive, France, Germany and other hesitant allies -- the whole of UN
-- must then come together to rebuild Iraq. Tasks such as peacekeeping,
repair of Iraq's main infrastructures, and the transition of political
institutions must be dealt with the utmost urgency and care. The Iraqi
people might be more receptive to the assistance of those who refrained
from dropping bombs onto their homes in the first place, but are there now
to give humanitarian aid.
Here, then, the skills of consensus building would be
needed once again, to piece together a defeated, divided and restive
coalition of southern Shiites, central Sunnis, northern Kurds and Turkmen
under the auspices of the United Nations. The victorious allies must convince
themselves, and their own constituents, to commit sufficient resources for
this daunting endeavor. There will indeed be more haggling, compromise and
unrealized aspirations amongst needy and the well-intended.
The consolation is that the daily new headlines will be
more palatable. George Bush can holster his guns, bringing home the hundreds of
thousands of servicemen and women. Jacques Chirac can act on
his superior sense of morality. Tony Blair -- if he's still residing at 10
Downing by then -- can resume doing what he does best, building consensus
where none seems possible.
Charles Weng, 14 March 2003