Defending Germany's anti-war foreign minister.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 14 2003 12:43 PM

Why Germany Isn't Convinced

Joschka Fischer is wrong to resist the Iraq war. But he's not evil.

Like many Americans and all Turks, I am in despair right now over the Germans, the French, and the Belgians and their NATO machinations. Here are the Turks, facing Saddam Hussein across the border with his terrifying weapons. And, through no fault of their own, the Turks, members in good standing of NATO, might well end up under the most ghastly of attacks. NATO ought to be rushing to Turkey's defense, right? What can those Europeans be thinking in refusing to do any such thing? The temptation to bop the Europeans over their high-minded heads is overwhelming under these circumstances. But then, I can imagine what at least some of those people may be thinking.

There is the case of Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, whose views were discussed in Wednesday's Washington Post by the columnist Michael Kelly. Kelly points out that in the dark days of the radical New Left, 30 years ago, Fischer, the left-wing militant, participated in many a ferocious and violent escapade. Fischer beat up a policeman in 1973 in a street battle in Frankfurt. He was friendly with some of the guerrillas of the German New Left, the Red Army Fraction, aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang, which was the main German terrorist group during the last 30 years. He participated in a conference of Yasser Arafat's PLO in 1969 where the destruction of Israel was contemplated. The young Joschka Fischer was, in short, a New Left firebrand—which, by the way, made him no different from many millions of young Europeans and Americans of his generation.  

Kelly is right about these facts. I know that he is right because he draws his information from a long article of mine that ran in the Sept. 3, 2001, NewRepublic. Kelly concludes that Fischer used to be a creep, a knave, a thug, and generally a bad guy. And Fischer's knavishness of the past explains his resistance to American policies of the present, to wit, his riposte to Donald Rumsfeld last week—"Excuse me, I'm not convinced"—on the topic of war with Iraq. Kelly cites my article a number of times in arriving at these conclusions, which I suppose was generous of him. Yet I worry that Kelly's citations may have led his readers to suppose that I share his estimation of Fischer's knavish character. I do not.

Fischer and a good many Europeans of his generation became militants of the New Left in the late 1960s and '70s because, among other motives, they considered themselves to be fighting a war against the lingering Nazism of German life and of Western civilization as a whole. This anti-Nazism of theirs turned out to be foolish in many ways—sometimes criminal, sometimes even Nazi-like at its most grotesque moments, which is why the New Left finally disintegrated. But the anti-Nazi motives were sincere, for all that. The impulse to go fight against totalitarian legacies had a large and (on balance) mostly positive effect on German and European society—or, at least, a great many Germans and Europeans believe that to be the case today. Fischer is by far the most popular politician in Germany right now, and that is partly because many people do credit him with having had moral and admirable motives in the past, even if they (and he) acknowledge that, in his youth, he went off the deep end from time to time.

In my own judgment, Fischer and his fellow thinkers in Europe and even in the United States are making a mistake in failing to press for a harder line against Iraq—a harder line that might bring about Saddam's collapse more or less peacefully or, if need be, not peacefully. It should be obvious that, in the Arab world, fascist and Nazi-like movements—political tendencies that call for random mass murder in the name of paranoid and apocalyptic ideas—have gotten completely out of hand. In the last 20 years, Baathist and Islamist movements—the two branches of what ought to be regarded as Muslim fascism—have killed millions of people and might well kill many more, and not just in the Muslim countries, as we have reason to know. A war against Muslim fascism ought to be seen as a continuation of the long struggle against Nazism and fascism in Europe—a continuation of the same decent and necessary cause that people like Fischer have always wanted to support, even if they have not always known how to do so in a sensible way. 

I am sorry that Fischer doesn't seem to look on the present conflict as a new episode in that longer and honorable war. But I don't think he is a knave for failing to do so. If a columnist at the Washington Post is going to sneer, he ought to spread his sneers—or at least his criticisms—a little more widely to include President Bush. Bush has failed to present the current war and its impending new Iraqi front in terms of a democratic struggle against totalitarianism. He has failed to discuss in any serious way the moral aspect of the war, has failed to present the war as an act of solidarity with horribly oppressed Iraqis and other victims of Muslim fascism, has failed to show the humanitarian aspect of the war, has failed to present the war in the light of the long history of anti-totalitarianism. The president has failed, all in all, to present the kind of arguments that might enlist the enthusiasm of people like Fischer, not to mention the enthusiasm of people in the Muslim and Arab world. 

"Excuse me, I'm not convinced," Fischer said. We should listen carefully. Maybe Fischer is not convinced because the Bush administration has presented a series of side arguments about weapons, U.N. resolutions, and dark terrorist conspiracies and has failed to present the main argument, which is the single huge argument that has always sustained the Western alliance. This argument is the one about totalitarianism. It is the argument that says: The totalitarians are dangerous to themselves and to us, and we had better fight them. Fight wisely, of course, which the New Left notoriously managed not to do long ago, but fight. Why can't Bush make that argument? I won't speculate. But he could change. He gave up drinking long ago. Let him give up his arrogance, small-mindedness, and aversion to large and idealistic ideas today. It might help.

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.

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