Behind The Smiles

You can feel winter coming on, and it's not just a matter of snowstorms blowing down the mountains of Afghanistan. The international alliance against terrorism is entering a new and dangerous phase, opening hidden cracks and fissures--not unlike crevasses in a slow-moving glacier.

Without question, European governments stand squarely behind America and the war. But political parties, even those in power, are feeling the strain of a conflict that seems not to be going entirely well--and at the very least looks set to stretch through the winter and beyond. Public-opinion polls continue to be strong, though there is clear erosion. A survey by London's Guardian last week found that British support for the war had fallen from 74 percent to 62 percent, with more than half of those polled favoring a pause in the air offensive. A French poll reported that backing for the war has dropped from 66 percent to scarcely a majority. And things can only get worse, according to most reckoning. Across Europe emotions run high over Afghan civilian casualties. Elections are coming up in Germany and France next year, doubtless cooling support for a conflict without clear victories. Time is not on the allies' side, argues Victor Bulmer-Thomas, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Almost "inevitably," he suggests, today's unease will give way to tomorrow's doubts and, ultimately, outright disagreement.

It all began so well. Yes, there was that first frisson of anxiety, when George W. Bush initially seemed to be running from the crisis as he hopscotched across the United States in Air Force One. "Oh, my God, he can't handle this," one senior British official said afterward, recalling his (and much of Europe's) first reaction. But he has. From the quick-to-draw, unilateralist "cowboy" of six weeks ago, Bush has morphed into a statesman, winning not just praise but the admiration of the European allies for his restrained and deliberate handling of the crisis. The administration has been equally pleased (and no less surprised) by Europe's decisive supportiveness. Within 10 days the allies had evoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, all for one and one for all. They offered troops and logistics help to the measure of their ability. The European Central Bank pumped money into the financial system; there were quick promises of aid and trade concessions for Pakistan, not to mention helpful diplomatic forays to Iran, Central Asia and the Middle East.

But now? A sense of creeping reservation is in the air. Awkward questions are being asked: why is Tony Blair traveling the world, holding the tenuous multicultural coalition together, explaining what's at stake and why the war is justified? Where is Washington's leadership? Europeans also fear that the United States may be losing sight of the fact that the military campaign is only part of the war on terror, despite the administration's early rhetoric. "It's not all bombs and anthrax," says a German analyst, who does not see the same energy and focus being put into the financial, intelligence and public-relations offensives.

Above all, there is deep worry about the course the war could take. Few dispute the basic aim: to hunt down Al Qaeda and eliminate its Taliban ally. But many fear the means the United States has chosen will not achieve the desired end--risking social, political and cultural havoc. "It's going from bad to worse," says a senior EU official in Brussels. The very symbol of that mismatch, he believes, is the B-52. On a continent imbued with a deep sense of historical irony, the image of airplanes carpet-bombing the Taliban bring back memories of Strangelovian madness and the worst of Vietnam: the high and mighty raining death on the poor but brave. TV footage of desolated fathers burying dead children highlight a critical fact: America may (or may not) be winning the military war. But it's most certainly losing the propaganda war.

So it was that Blair once again took the lead last week, not only spending three days shoring up support in the Middle East but also seizing the initiative in setting up a network of new public-relations "war rooms." Officially, the round-the-clock news and information service is the joint effort by the White House and Downing Street to counter inflated Taliban casualty claims. Privately, British officials claim that it was the brainchild of Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell. Along with his boss, he worried that the White House had been so "overtaken" by the anthrax scare that it was unable to manage other vital issues effectively, notably fallout from a war that lasts through winter.

Europeans are voicing other concerns, as well. Many see Secretary of State Colin Powell as the single figure in the Bush administration who's actively working to make the coalition a bona fide partnership, rather than a public-relations exercise. Officials in Brussels report that Powell is on the phone several times a week with the EU foreign-policy czar, Javier Solana, working on "coalition maintenance." And with little fanfare (and only cursory involvement from Washington), Solana has been shuttling back and forth to the Middle East trying to calm the explosive Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. As one EU official sees it, the warring sides on more than one occasion in recent weeks nearly toppled into "the abyss" while U.S. attention was elsewhere. There is also the matter of Iraq. Will Washington find evidence of its involvement in September 11 or the subsequent anthrax attacks? If so, could the coalition hold together if the United States broadened its war to include Saddam? Few Europeans believe so. "Playing the Iraq card is highly offensive," says one British official. "Peddling it without evidence is rubbish."

The danger is great that otherwise important issues will be overshadowed, if not shunted aside altogether. Some Europeans speculate, for instance, that the United States will pay less attention to the Balkans, using the war in Afghanistan to neglect peacekeeping in Kosovo and Macedonia--or ask Europe to shoulder responsibilities that it may not be entirely ready to take on. Relations with Russia are a wild card. The upcoming summit in Crawford, Texas, will be key. If Bush and Vladimir Putin strike a deal on missile defense, the Europeans will follow. If not, they are more likely to sympathize with Russia. And let us not forget the issues dividing Europe and America that have nothing to do with terror: Kyoto, the germ-warfare pact, an International Criminal Court, how to deal with Iran. All have been made to seem small by September 11. In time, however, they will again loom large. Especially if a hard winter of American leadership in Central Asia does not yield to a pleasant spring.