Europe's Knack for War

Americans "don't do nation-building," Bush officials famously declared. In Iraq, it shows. Ian Cutherbertson, a British counterinsurgency expert at the World Policy Institute in New York, sums up the difference between U.S. and European military tactics. "The American approach is to shoot first, and ask questions later," he says. "Europeans are willing to take more risks. They want to be seen less as an occupying force, more as partners. Unlike the Americans, they have a holistic mind-set that looks beyond the battlefield."

A clutch of recent military deployments has shown the strength of an Old World outlook that puts tact above brute force. Note the way British troops in southern Iraq used to patrol in soft caps rather than helmets, for example—more police than soldiers. In the dawning age of asymmetrical warfare, this leads to an interesting—and, for Washington, uncomfortable—conclusion. America may outspend Europe on defense by three to one. But when it comes to projecting power and fighting wars in the 21st century, in some areas Europe knows best.

French troops have won high praise for their performance under the U.N. flag in Lebanon, keeping on passable terms with both Hizbullah and the Israelis. An EU force has successfully replaced NATO in Bosnia, and last year a mixed European contingent from 19 nations oversaw U.N.-backed elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, newly emerged from a decade of civil war that claimed millions of lives. Says Dana Allin of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London: "With very small numbers, they organized elections that were almost a miracle."

What accounts for Europe's superiority? As former colonial powers, many European nations have plenty of experience pacifying communities in conflict without immediately resorting to violence. Europe's boosters also cite better training and a more experienced corps of officers and career NCOs. Exposure to the mix of cultures increasingly found in Europe helps counter prejudice. British recruits are less likely to see Muslims as dangerously alien when in some English cities they make up more than 10 percent of the population. You have only to read an eye-opening new book by Joshua Key, "The Deserter's Tale," to understand something of the debacle awaiting American soldiers indoctrinated to think of Iraqis as "hajjis" and "sand niggers."

Perhaps Europe's chief strength is a pragmatism that avoids high-flown rhetoric and unrealistic goals. In Afghanistan, says Cuthbertson, "European forces are much more likely than Americans to sit down with locals and work out a modus vivendi. It isn't democracy, but it's peace of a kind, and that's what the people want." Stop the shooting, and hearts and minds will follow.