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Europe

Opinion: Eastern Europe and the 'Coalition of the Willing'

The formerly communist eastern European countries took a huge risk by aligning with Washington rather than Paris and Berlin in the war against Iraq. But some are finding the mid-Atlantic to be a cold and lonely place.

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Eastern Europe's contribution to the war on Iraq has been small but symbolic.

In his speech before United States troops at a Florida military base on Wednesday, U.S. President George W. Bush praised Washington's newest military allies, singling out four formerly communist future European Union members that were actively involved in military operations in the Persian Gulf. Though those countries are making marginal contributions to the war effort in Iraq, Bush singled them out because they have provided Washington with a stronger hand in its feud against Paris and Berlin over Iraq.

The Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have mainly sent small units of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialists. And most of them are stationed in Kuwait, relatively far away from the front. Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine are also participating in what Bush has dubbed the "coalition of the willing."

A goodwill gesture from Central Europe

What's important to the Americans and Brits is the good will and symbolic value that Central Europe's participation brings -- regardless whether or not it plays any decisive role in the outcome of the war. The fact that in most of these countries the majority of the population opposes the war against Iraq has been virtually ignored. Even the Pope, a highly respected authority throughout Central Europe, has sharply criticized the war.

Still, the former Eastern bloc countries are continuously campaigning to convince their people to support the war using myriad tactics that sometimes even include the employment of erroneous historical arguments. A favorite seems to be that, had the U.S., Britain and Central Europe joined forces in the late 1930s to resist Hitler, World War II never would have taken place. Above all, they like to say, the United States brought down the communist regimes singlehandedly, which is why -- even according to some former dissidents -- Central Europe is obliged to help to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator.

But those analogies don't really ring true. The United States did not triumph over the Soviet Union on the battlefield per se. On the contrary, avoiding direct military conflicts of any kind was the basis of the former adversaries' relations. The Soviet Union was not brought to its knees until the arms race reached its peak, which contributed to its financial crumble.

The comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler misses the mark, too. The Iraqi leader last expressed his expansionist tendencies more than a decade ago when he invaded Kuwait. Since then, he hasn't threatened or attacked any country.

Diffuse gratitude

Ultimately, the main reason Poland and the others support the U.S. in the war against Iraq is a diffuse feeling of gratitude. But the Central European states are also motivated by a sense of unease with the Paris-Berlin peace axis that awakens fears of Franco-German hegemony in Europe.

However, Central Europe's leaders have begun to realize that Washington is a lot farther away than Paris or Berlin and that Warsaw, Prague and Budapest think more like the latter two than the former.

That is probably part of the reason why the Czech government recently announced that its position on Iraq actually lay somewhere between Europe and America. But it isn't likely to stay there because the mid-Atlantic is too cold and wet and, above all, lonely.

Vladimir Müller is an editor at Deutsche Welle.