PARIS — On the ground in Saudi Arabia and on the waters of the Persian Gulf, the United States carries the biggest stick in the showdown with the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
But in terms of economic and political risk, Western Europe probably has more at stake in the gulf conflict, particularly if it erupts into a fighting war. This is particularly true of France, which for 20 years has pinned its Middle East foreign policy on Iraq. It is least true of Britain, which is the only net exporter of oil in the European Community.
In general, however, the European countries are far more dependent on the Persian Gulf for oil than is the United States, which receives only 7% of its total supply from the region. In contrast, the 17 European members of the International Energy Agency, the West's answer to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, receive more than 24% of their total oil supplies from the gulf.
The geographic proximity of the volatile Middle East and Arab North Africa also produce anxieties in Europe that do not exist as strongly in the United States--particularly, fears that a gulf conflict could spark another Arab-Israeli war and unleash a new generation of weapons.
Christoph Bertram, diplomatic correspondent for Die Zeit newspaper in Hamburg, commented: "People here have been drawing maps measuring the range of the new Israeli and Egyptian missiles. They are horrified to see that it takes in a sizable chunk of Europe. Although the gulf is far away, in our political subconscious it is the proximity of a potential Arab-Israeli conflict that worries us."
Concerns about security include fears that a gulf war would create a new wave of terrorism on the Continent, like those that swept through France, Italy and West Germany in the 1980s. Europeans are acutely aware that although terrorist activity is directed against American foreign policy, the most serious attacks usually occur outside the United States.
"If the war breaks out, the first risk is terrorism," warned Gilles Munier, a French pro-Arab militant active in the Iraq lobby in Europe. "There will be many repercussions. In any case, the bombs never explode in your country (the United States), they are always planted in Europe."
Several of the European countries also have large Arab and Muslim minorities that react sensitively to events in Muslim lands. In both France and Britain, several leading Muslim clerics have condemned the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Talk programs on Europe's Arabic language radio stations are inundated with callers supporting Saddam Hussein.
So far in the tense standoff that the French call the drole de guerre-- the "phony war"-- the United States and European allies have shown impressive solidarity in both military and political terms. Except for a few dissenters, notably French Minister of Defense Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Europeans and the Americans have spoken with one consistent voice. (Chevenement, a founding member of the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Assn. in his country, embarrassed French President Francois Mitterrand by publicly opposing French participation in the naval blockade of Iraq.)
More important, the Europeans have been willing to back up the talk with military hardware and personnel. Fourteen European warships are already in the gulf area, compared to 23 for the United States. Another 26 European vessels are on the way, representing military commitment from seven European countries.
"We are witnessing a very considerable buildup," said John Roper, director of the research institute for the Western Europe Union. "It may be that before long there will be as many European vessels in the gulf as there are American."
Still, critics like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher contend that most European countries have done only a minimum. "It is sad that at this critical time Europe has not fully measured up to expectations," she told a gathering of European conservative party leaders late last week.
"We cannot expect the United States to go on bearing major military and defense burdens worldwide, acting, in effect, as the world's policeman if it does not get a positive and swift response from its allies when the crunch comes--particularly when fundamental principles as well as their direct interests are just as much at stake," Thatcher said.
And European analysts interviewed by The Times warn that the allied front could crack if Hussein continues to weather military and economic pressures from the international community. If the drole de guerre stretches into months and years, they said, the differences in American and European interests would be exacerbated, undermining the consensus on economic sanctions.
Here are some of the main European interests that influence continental policies on the gulf: