Europe's Hour: Come and Gone?

In 1992 a certain Jacques Poos, the unknown foreign minister of Luxembourg, announced grandly that "the hour of Europe has come." Surely the newly baptized European Union could stop a little matter of ethnoreligious mass murder in the Balkans, just two hours' flying time from EU capitals?

Er, no. The hour of Europe came and went. It took U.S. airstrikes and diplomatic arm twisting at Dayton to slow the Serbian killing machine in Bosnia in 1995, and again in Kosovo in 1999. So I was struck, on a recent visit to Washington, by how Euro-friendly senior U.S. officials have become. "We are all Europeanists now," said one. Why? Because ever since Washington decided that "war-war" was for men and "jaw-jaw" was for wimps (read Europeans), the United States has been a spent force in the Middle East. Amid the latest crisis, is it time for a new power broker to arise--Europe?

Pardon my skepticism. Tony Blair was first to step up, appealing at the recent G8 summit in St. Petersburg for international troops to go in and enforce U.N. Resolution 1559, disarming Hizbullah. But his Defense minister demurred; overstretched in Iraq, no British troops were available. So it was elsewhere. Germany, committed in Afghanistan, also balked. Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero donned an Arafat-style kaffiyeh, the symbolic Palestinian scarf, while terror rockets were pouring down on Israel. But the man who withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq is in no rush to relocate them to Lebanon. Ditto for Poland's Kaczynski twins, with their odd mixture of homophobia and anti-Semitic politics--not to mention their isolationism and contempt for the European Union. Their predecessor, President Aleksander Kwasniewski, raised Poland's place in the world with astute plays on Iraq and Ukraine. But he's history.

That leaves Jacques Chirac, in his last 10 months as French president. His knowledge of Lebanon goes back decades. He was a personal friend of the murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Recently he told Le Monde that he considered Iran and Syria responsible for the near-simultaneous two-front attacks on Israel launched by Hamas and Hizbullah. Sounding almost like George W. Bush, he accused them of supplying weapons, even intimating that they might be calling the shots militarily.

Perhaps Chirac has one eye on his legacy. A heroic stand on Leba-non might help him exit France's political stage, after so many decades, with his head still high. Still, there's no doubting his conviction. His vision of what must be done to save Lebanon from disintegrating as a nation--force a ceasefire, disarm Hizbullah and help the government project its authority throughout the country--is clear. And who knows? Maybe Chirac can indeed inspire a muscular European diplomacy.

He has been reaching out to Blair, to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sharing his thinking in a way European leaders were unable to do during the Iraq crisis. His message: that if Lebanon (and the broader Middle East) is to have any future, it must at this moment come from Europe. More, any European presence must be strong. It cannot be UNIFIL Plus, a beefed-up version of the impotent U.N. force now sitting in barracks waiting to be blown up by suicide bombers (as in 1982) or Israeli artillery (as in the death of four U.N. observers last week). Europe's core values are at stake, he exhorts. Either Lebanon develops as a stable democracy or it will fail--and become a sort of Islamist free-enterprise zone for exporting terror and fundamentalist ideologies.

Seventy years ago, European democracies did nothing when Spanish fascists aided by Hitler and Mussolini overthrew an elected government and plunged Spain into a caldron of violence that took the country out of European history and development for decades. In 1992, Europe puffed itself up against Slobodan Milosevic. A million refugees left the Balkans for northern Europe; a quarter of a million people died. The destruction of Lebanon by Hizbullah, abetted by Iran and Syria, is but a prologue to a more aggressive exterminationist campaign against Jews in Israel. Lebanon therefore poses the same challenge for Europe as the Spanish Civil War or the Balkan bloodbath.

Tony Blair in Washington last week told the U.S. president that Europe is ready to act, but that America must immediately stop Israel from turning Lebanon into a desert of bombed buildings. The United States has been compromised in the Arab world beyond near-term redemption. Who, then, but Europe can possibly intercede? As the August holidays beckon, will its leaders head for the beaches, hiding under parasols as Israeli howitzers and Hizbullah rockets claim more lives? Let us see.