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A nation must think before it acts.
Thanks to an invitation from the American Academy in Berlin, I’m in Germany— with the air warming, the flowers blooming, and the antiwar marches humming right along like so many hives of busy bees. Yet, despite all the evidence of palpable nature around, I do feel sometimes as though I am in a slightly surreal world. Herewith five slices of recent experience as exemplars.
This past Sunday’s Der Tagesspeigel Morgenpost carried a photo of the previous day’s large antiwar rally in downtown Berlin, and above it the headline reads “82 percent of Berliners oppose the war.” All the newspapers here focus intently on antiwar rallies, speeches, supporting op-eds and the like, not just in Germany, but all over the world. The print and electronic coverage of the war itself is highly professional and without any obvious bias, but the war narrative of the ruling Red-Green coalition government is everywhere to be seen and heard. That narrative is clearly in consonance with majority opinion, and helps mightily to shape and reinforce that opinion. Angela Merkel, the leader of the opposition CDU who supports the U.S., is more than just busy; she’s downright thoughtful most of the time. She connects the strategic dots pretty well. The papers here don’t ignore her entirely, but they seem sometimes to be trying.
If you talk to people at the antiwar rallies, it is clear that most are engaged in a votive rather than a political act. (Sometimes these acts are not exactly voluntary; teachers in colleges and high schools bring their classes with them to rallies, but everyone pretty much seems happy to be released from studying and teaching.) The sense of a religious offering is in the air; the mood is intense but calm and celebratory. Everything is extraordinarily orderly. It reminded me of a old story by Efraim Kishon, one of Israel’s greatest humorists, about a trip he and his wife took to Zurich, where everything was so insanely clean that it seemed a cardinal sin to try to throw away a paper ice cream wrapper, for even the waste bins were forbiddingly spotless. I swear that antiwar rallies in Berlin end with the streets being cleaner than when they began.
Of course, this shouldn’t come as such a surprise. This is a country where no pedestrian dares cross an intersection against the light, even at 3 o’clock in the morning, and where dogs are allowed into restaurants and bars with their owners because they’re better behaved than most people in other countries. (They really are, too.)
So one hears at antiwar rallies, and in op-ed columns, and in cross-talk in bakeries, busses and bars, that war is bad because it kills people. Period and full stop most of the time. In their never-ending search for the appearance, at least, of holding the moral high ground, most Germans reason in simple moral categoricals about war. This is very handy, for it makes the fact that most people know little about the Middle East, Iraq, or the nature of weapons of mass destruction fairly irrelevant.
In short, average Germans are a lot like average Americans in this respect, only more so. But while Americans can look at the uses of American power over the last century and be more or less comfortable with the outcome, Germans cannot. They know that war is bad because Germans started and lost two of them in the 20th century, with no little amount of breakage in the process. Thanks to two popular recent books, they also tend equate all bombing with what the U.S. and British air forces did to Dresden on February 13, 1945. A church down the street from here bears a sign out front reading, “Krieg ist immer der falsche weg.” This pretty much sums up the majority attitude, as does the large sign on the local theater in Potsdam, which reads “Kein Krieg. Nirgends.” Anyone who doesn’t share it risks being thought of as atavistic and even vulgar.
This attitude toward the use of force persists despite some recent and significant changes here. Perhaps surprisingly, the Green Party has moved a long way from outright pacifism— more than the SPD— some of this movement the result of the Kosovo War and its aftermath. Some Germans, at least, now credit the concept of a “just war.” Most Germans know that there are now German military forces in Afghanistan, that the German navy has patrolled off the coast of Somalia, and of course that there are German units in the Balkans. Most are not embarrassed or upset by this, but most Germans conceive of the use of force as police work, not war-fighting. For the apparent majority, of all political persuasions, the “just war” concept remains unacceptable in polite conversation. This is what has led Peter Schneider, one of Germany’s leading writer/intellectuals, to pronounce his country “peace-drunk.” Those who accept the concept of a just war are considered, he says, worse than murderers and rapists in chic circles.
When Peter Schneider and Daniel Cohn-Bendit— the former Danny the Red of 1968 Paris, and now a member of the German Greens— accept the concept a just war, you know things are changing. But if you sample street opinion during this war, you can see how difficult and slow that change is. If you suggest to the typical demonstrator— anyone of the 82 percent at random— that Iraq is a dangerous country, has been proven so by its track record, and will only get more dangerous if it isn’t stopped, the standard reply is that Iraq isn’t a threat because Hans Blix said so. They don’t believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction more than has already been identified or destroyed, because Mr. Blix would have found them. So why, then, are America and Britain going to war? They answer without a hint of hesitation: Oil; it’s all about oil, greed and imperialism.
What about America’s determination to bring democracy to the Middle East? They laugh. Those who accept its sincerity are aghast at America’s infantile idealism. Most will tell you that Europeans had grand and beautiful ambitions for the world, for which they saw themselves as leaders and builders above the rest— and look what happened. Expressions of American idealism tend to evoke a “been there, done that” sort of response. Something to think about, because there may well be something to it.
Most people, however, don’t believe that such talk about democracy is sincere in the slightest, anymore than they believed a word of what Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Taking their cue from mass circulation magazines like Der Speigel, they all know that George W. Bush is a stupid cowboy who got elected president through corruption and stealth.
Much of the mass-circulation press in Germany, though not all, has long been in the hands of the 68er generation, and it has not been charitable, to put it mildly, to all things American. The most popular cameo here, on t-shirts, handbags and heaven knows what else, is Che Guevara. His picture adorns the cover of the latest issue of the biggest gossip magazine in the country— the German version of People. This helps to explain the size and popularity of current antiwar sentiment, which is partly anti-Bush but also partly anti-American in motivation. As is true in the United States, the antiwar rallies and activities in Germany resemble a large gaseous planet in structure. Most of the visible circumference is made up of light, orbiting elements, but the solid organizing core is much harder. The role that ANSWER (a.k.a. the Workers World Party) has played in the United States is played here by the Communist Party, the residua of former West and East German factions, which has taken the lead in organizing the demonstrations. With the Red-Green coalition government against the war, nothing much here “pushes back,” so to speak, against this organizing. Within both the antiwar core and the government, there is also a good deal of mostly sub rosa anti-Americanism that has nothing to do with the Bush Administration or the post-9/11 world. These elements in Germany have been anti-American for decades, fearing that American Cold War policy might have to be validated at Germany’s expense, and they are using the present context as a vehicle to advance that view in a new forum (that the American war on terrorism might harm Germany’s security)— with very considerable success, it must be said.
The President’s overt, old-timey religiosity makes most Germans feel particularly creepy, and this also helps to explain the tone of German feeling. Many Germans identify standard issue religion as having been an accomplice in the crimes of European colonialism, militarism, racism, and disaster— not without at least some justification, it should be noted. German churches today, Protestant and Catholic both, are epicenters of pacifism, but polls tell us that only about 15 percent of Germans attend church services more than once or twice a year. In smaller towns, that number seems low— at least according to my own first-hand experience. Still, George Bush’s kind of Christianity strikes the majority of Germans as something akin to a freak-show act from a previous century. His acknowledgement at a news conference that he prays daily, and that he appreciates deeply the prayers of others offered on behalf of himself and his family, stuns most viewers here into baffled silence. They cannot imagine any continental European head of state saying such things in public because, in fact, none of them do.
But these are the attitudes of a mere 82 percent of Berliners, or maybe only 72 percent, adjusting for journalistic inflation. Not every German thinks like this, including, it seems, increasing numbers of younger Germans. I attended a competition among young journalists— mostly in their mid- to late-20s— vying for working fellowships in the United States. Most of the several dozen competitors had been to the United States and wanted very much to go back. I shared a podium with a distinguished German civil servant, an elder middle-ranking diplomat, who was most judicious in his comments. He was skeptical of the then not-yet-begun war on prudential grounds, but critical of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s diplomacy, which had isolated Germany from America and within Europe. I expressed my support for the war on prudential grounds but criticized the Bush Administration’s new expressions of “liberation theology” and other signs of hubris and impending overreach.
The young journalists were electrified by these two presentations. They were not used to hearing analytical as opposed to moral opposition to war expressed in German by a German with gray hair. And they were not used to hearing support for the war expressed in prudential rather than idealist terms from an American with a beard. Their reactions were divided, however. One fellow began his response by saying that, “As a German, I see war as only a very last resort…” When he finished I asked him whether he had really thought through his “last resort” thesis. “Are you aware,” I asked, “of Winston Churchill’s efforts before September 1, 1939 to rally the world to stop Hitler before it was too late, before a war broke out at a time and place of Hitler’s choosing that would be maximally long and destructive to all concerned? As a German, you aren’t happy in retrospect that Churchill failed, are you— or happy that antiwar isolationists in America kept the United States out of the war against the Nazis effectively for another two and half years? So why do you argue now that war should only be a last resort?”
Before he could attempt an answer, one of his female colleagues spoke up to praise my elder German colleague, and said: “Why can’t our leaders think realistically about matters of war and peace as you have just done? If our leaders spoke realistically, it would enable the people think realistically as well.” Later, at the luncheon table, this young woman answered her own question for me: “The 68ers,” she said, “who run this country’s politics and media, collect as much German war guilt as they can, and they deny arguments saying that British, French, and American appeasement made the war longer and worse. They deny that America achieved German reunification against British, French and Russian opposition, that American power had anything to do with a positive outcome for Germany. They do this because their guilt is the seedbed for their pacifism and escapism, without which they wouldn’t know what to think, without which they would have to engage the real world with its real dilemmas.” I froze in mid-chew. A shock of insight from an attractive 24-year old woman can do that.
She and those who think like her will have to swim upstream here— that’s for sure. In the Berlin Wall Museum, right next to Checkpoint Charlie, for example, success in the Cold War is directly equated to personal bravery, people power, and non-violent resistance. Positively depicted, in addition to all of the brave Germans who escaped from East Berlin, are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the anti-nuclear demonstrations in Germany in the 1980s. So are the uprisings in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, Romania in 1989, and Russia in 1991. NATO is never mentioned.
Die Welt’s executive offices are at the top of the Axel-Springer Verlag building in Berlin, built just adjacent to where the Berlin Wall once stood. Some of these men may be, technically speaking, members of the 68er generation, but they do not act or think like that generation.
The editorial leadership of the paper hosted me at a private lunch, and the conversation was most edifying. There clearly are people in Germany who can get to the second paragraph, and well beyond, of an analytical treatment of the war and related security issues. They may have prudential misgivings about American policy, but they know that the collapse of the U.S. position in Southwest Asia before Saddam’s petty imperialism would harm Europe far more than the United States. They know that Chancellor Schroeder’s “unilateral and pre-emptive” electoral diplomacy last August— their words, not mine— opened the way for Jacques Chirac to hijack German interests and prerogatives. They know that it is American strength in the world that allows Europe’s experiment in peaceful, federal unification to go on without risk, and that it is American economic strength— the engine of global economic expansion— that allows the EU’s protectionism and stultifying managerial conservatism at home to persist.
They are concerned about Atlantic relations, and about recent polls showing that only 11 percent of Germans consider the United States to be Germany’s closest friend (down from 50 percent in 1995), while France ranks at 30 percent.
So why don’t you say all this in your editorials, I asked? I learned that sometimes they do, and so does Die Zeit and some other papers. These positions are supported by many German diplomatic and military professionals, and by many businessmen with international experience. But the majority of Germans, I was led to understand, don’t read such things. They are not interested in politics— except sometimes the insular politics of EU federalism. International politics are about power, armies, nationalism, corporate interests and war, and these are all things Germans have been anathematized to in school and later in life.
Germany was also enfolded in both an inner and an outer multilateralism— the EU and NATO— and its sense of independent policy formulation was minimized by more than 50 years of being thus enfolded. Those relatively few Germans who can think strategically, and are not embarrassed to do so, do it well; the majority, however, don’t wish to think this way and are disinclined to listen to those who do. The political environment today, during the war, reflects both currents. Serious people do air their views, but with the ambient level of political attention raised and colored by the war, and with the sitting government catering to the populist know-nothingism of the day, they are, by and large, failing. I have heard, too, from some elder Greens that the political-psychological dynamic set in motion by this war has set back the maturation of German views that had begun with the Kosovo crisis.
Isn’t it odd, I said, that at just the moment when Germany is of necessity emerging from the outer enfolding of the Cold War era, it has a government least capable of engaging in independent strategic thought. “Odd, perhaps,” they replied, but better “sad.” A senior editor of Die Welt took me over to the great plate glass windows facing east and west and said to me that, a dozen years ago, one could look out of these windows and see two different worlds. To the east was in a kind of shabby black-and-white, to the west a scene in technicolor. Little by the little, the differences disappeared, and now the view to the east from the 18th floor doesn’t look much different from the view to the west. Inside people’s heads, however, things have been slower to change. Here is a case, he explained, where what you see is not necessarily what you get— at least not yet.
I thanked him for lunch, and for more than that.
A minister of the current government, a member of the Green Party, came to Wannsee, to the American Academy, for a private session with an American “group of seven.” To make a long and somewhat strange episode a bit shorter, this minister made Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean seem like Machiavellian realists by comparison. The minister insisted that Iraq was no threat to its neighbors or to the United States— because Hans Blix said so. He insisted further that Iraq was not special among its neighbors, that there were lot of undemocratic states in the area, so why pick on Iraq, and why pick on it now?
This was much too much for the Americans assembled. Iraq not special? Did the minister not remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and its attack on Iran before that? Could the minister think of any other local state with such a record? Did the minister not recall the 16, now 17, unrequited UN Security Council resolutions, chapter 7 resolutions at that, that Iraq was in violation of, and could the minister name any other country in a similar circumstance? Did the minister forget somehow that, according to Ambassadors Rolf Ekeus and Richard Butler— not just according to the U.S. government— Iraq had manufactured enough nerve agent, anthrax and other toxins to kill literally every man, woman and child on the planet? That it had actually used WMD to murder thousands of its own citizens? Could the minister name any other country in such a category? Had the minister forgotten that when inspectors last worked in Iraq, in 1998, missing growth media and chemical weapons precursors were listed, literally by the ton, that have never been accounted for? Did the minister think that in the four years since 1998 Iraq has come to have less such prohibited materials, and, if so, what would be the logic for such a conclusion?
These questions made nary a dent. The minister simply said that war should always be a last resort and that the inspections were working. Did the minister think that “progress” in the inspection process, asked another participant, was owed to anything other than the threat of force — but then again, how could there be “progress” if, as he claimed, if there was probably no WMD there to be found in the first place?
Whereupon another American, who happens to be against the war on prudential grounds, argued that had the U.S. Navy sunk one Serbian ship off the coast of Dubrovnik in 1992, a quarter of a million civilians would probably still be alive. Is surgery the “last resort” in the face of cancer known to be growing? How could Germans, who know that Hitler could have been stopped earlier, who saw with their own eyes the way the Euromissile debate played out in the 1980s, who watched the way the Cold War was won and Germany reunified, conclude that strength, including the threat and “other-than-last-resort” use of force, was not an asset in a serious diplomacy?
But it was Mikhail Gorbachev, as all the Greens and SPD supporters know, who ended the Cold War. That’s why Germany has since made him an honorary citizen.
This remark, even more than several others, temporarily removed most of the oxygen from the room. It had by then become clear that the minister was living in a world other than one we recognized. It may be true, as some critics say, that the Bush Administration inner circle lives in its own closed world of logic in which Al-Qaeda and the Ba`ath Party are imagined somehow virtual subsidiaries of one another. But such a circle has nothing on the world of SPD-Green coalition, where senior members of government cannot seem to reason their way out of a mini-mart.
This past Friday morning, I agreed to do a “conversation interview” for Die Welt. I was to talk with Ahmed Berwari, the German representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Journalists from Die Welt were to ask questions, guide the conversation, and take down the results. We met at a chic restaurant just a few yards from Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall Museum, an Italian spot called Sale y Tabacci. The journalists knew that Mr. Berwari was an Iraqi national, and that in previous weeks he had been quoted widely as having opposed a war. The journalists invited along a photographer, who had with him little flags, one American and one Iraqi. It was fairly clear that they expected some sort of debate, with me as an American supporting a war and Ahmed as an Iraqi opposing it.
What a surprise they were in for.
Mr. Berwari was frank about the recent evolution of his views about war. Both major Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq had opposed a war because it threatened what was, for the Kurds, about the best situation they had ever known. Saddam’s forces, or the Turks, would be in a position to smash Kurdish autonomy in a war. But since the Americans had made it clear that they intended to destroy the Iraqi regime, restrain the Turks, and protect the Kurds with a northern front, the Kurds were now in nervous but still enthusiastic support of the effort.
“Why?” asked the journalists, seemingly genuinely disappointed and puzzled. Ahmed did not know what to say. So I asked them: “Have you ever heard of what happened at Halabja?” Vaguely, they had; somehow, however, they could not put the pieces together to explain why the Kurds would be happy to see Saddam dispatched to the other world.
One journalist asked me if the war was legal. I said it was as far I understood the doctrine of self-help in international relations. The preamble to the UN Charter contains the relevant language; I suggested they review it. Then there are, I reminded them, the 17 Security Council resolutions holding Iraq in contempt of world opinion, most of which, being chapter 7 resolutions, justified the use of force. But German experts, I was told, hold that without Security Council authorization for the use of force, all such uses are not legal. I was also told that never before, since 1945, had force been used to depose a government without UN Security Council authorization. Recalling what happened in Panama, Grenada, Kosovo— and not to speak of how many African governments have been made and broken by France and French troops— I found this a pretty astonishing claim. Pretty soon, too, I was told that Iraq was not a threat to anyone, since Hans Blix said so— and isn’t this really all about oil?
Ahmed then suddenly got quite animated about the matter of what is and is not lawful in the eyes of the United Nations. Tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered by Saddam and his henchmen, and no one brought the matter before the UN Security Council. Does that, he asked them, with some heat in his otherwise calm voice, make it alright? Hundreds of resolutions brought against Israel in the General Assembly for its supposedly terrible treatment of Arabs, but not one resolution brought calling attention to far worse Arab treatment of non-Arab minorities in Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and elsewhere.
Ahmed then pointed out in some detail how about half of the efforts of the Iraqi regime in the war were directed against its own people. Hospitals had been used in Nasiriya and Najaf to hide tanks, ammunition, chemical weapons suits and, more ominously, nerve-gas atrophine antidote injectors. One journalist asked me how I knew that Iraq possessed any chemical and biological weapons when Hans Blix said he could not find any. I asked in return: Why do you think the Iraqi regime would send chemical weapons suits and antidote injectors to the south of the country if they didn’t have such weapons, and maybe even intend to use them again? I got no answer.
As if oblivious to most of what went on, the tag-along photographer at session’s end suggested that I hold the U.S. flag and Ahmed the Iraqi flag in a joint photo. Ahmed took one look at the Iraqi flag and make it crystal clear that he had no intention of identifying with it. At that point, if the Mad Hatter himself had emerged to pour tea, neither Ahmed nor I would have been terribly surprised. When the interview was published on Sunday, March 30, it nevertheless had large letters reading “Irak” under Ahmed’s photo and “USA” under mine. Go figure.
If Germans feel any sense of Schadenfreude over America’s early difficulties in the war, they aren’t saying so in public. The popular magazine Focus calls the war a “debacle” on the cover of its current issue, but doesn’t gloat about it. It is galling, however, to know that many do express such sentiments in private— galling because someone’s being superficially right for unserious or plain wrong reasons is far harder to take than their being right or wrong for any set of sensible reasons. Chancellor Schroeder’s use of last summer’s floods and the threat of war in his re-election campaign amounted to help from two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and it turned out that two of four was enough for the purpose at hand. But for Schroeder to make still more political capital out of Anglo-American difficulties is just plain unfair, especially in light of his otherwise plunging popularity since his re-election. The Chancellor is therefore in some ways the guy who got it all wrong, and prospered anyway.
Will he continue to prosper? It’s hard to say. Opposition contenders seems to be taking turns trying to undermine Angela Merkel. On the other hand, the SPD party in Hamburg, where it is very strong, and has been for decades, is making trouble for Schroeder. The key, perhaps, is the declining economy— but the opposition CDU/CSU doesn’t yet seem to have found any better solutions to the problem. The coalition is very unlikely to fall and the next election is years away. Chancellor Schroeder will be around for a while, it seems. Whether George W. Bush will, too, is less clear.”