serie berliner dialoguesThe "New World Order": From Unilateralism to Cosmopolitanism

Beitrag von Prof. Jeffrey Herf, Professor für Geschichte, Universität von Maryland

It’s a pleasure again to be participating in an event sponsored by the Center for European Studies, where I spent so many fine times in the 1980s at Harvard. Thanks are due to Abby Collins for this invitation and to Stanley Hoffmann, whose example for so many years in Cambridge inspired many of us to do our best to think both clearly and passionately about public affairs. I will approach this evening’s subject both as a historian and as a citizen with views about American-European relations since September 11, 2001 and the war in Iraq. I have two key points to make. First, it been a disappointment that after a half century of a vital and important, if often unpopular, tradition of Vergangenheitsbewältigung , a left of center German government refused to participate in – even if supported by the United Nations – a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the most dangerous regime rooted in the aftereffects of European fascism and anti-Semitism to appear on the world stage since 1945. Second, however, this same tradition may offer a foundation for German contributions to the democratization of post-Baath Iraq and to a coming to terms with the Baath past in that country.

In the spirit of Harvard’s Center for European Studies, I want to shed more light than heat and foster civil discussion and debate about important and difficult issues. I am not here to make the case for the Bush administration in general. I am what has been called a "liberal hawk," that is, someone who supports the Bush administration’s foreign policy since September 11th but takes sharp issue with its economic, social and cultural policies. I realize that these views, expressed regularly in The Washington Post and The New Republic are minority views among activist Democrats but it is important that you know that we exist and that there is an American counterpart to the general "third way" views eloquently expressed by Tony Blair but, unfortunately, not by Gerhard Schröder.

As a historian of the public memory of the Nazi period in Europe and in Germany after 1945, I was not surprised that France and Russia opposed a possible war in Iraq. In both of these countries, the traditions of facing, respectively, the Vichy era, and the Gulag and Stalin era were late in coming and, weak in comparison to Germany’s public reflections on the Nazi era. So it was not surprising that few French politicians, journalists and intellectuals wrote about the contribution of French fascist ideology to the foundation of the Baath Party in Iraq or that few in Russia probed the links between the nature of the Stalin regime and Saddam’s prisons and secret police apparatus.
Yet I had thought that the political and intellectual establishment in Germany would act as Tony Blair has and subordinate differences of substance and style with the Bush administration when the issue was the threat posed now and in the future by a regime which so clearly advocated ideas with deep roots in the era of European totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s (and for Stalin up to the 1950s). The problem with the German response was not that it was, as Habermas and Derrida suggested this year, cosmopolitan in comparison to the unilateralism of the Bush administration. Rather, Germany and much of Europe suffered from a deficiency, rather than an excess of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans are not fools. They do not equate understanding other cultures with necessarily liking or admiring them. Cosmopolitanism is perfectly compatible with perceptions of threats as well as of opportunities. With some important exceptions in the press and politics, the bulk of the German political establishment refused to acknowledge that by the late 1990s, we were living in the second great era of totalitarian politics in modern history. This totalitarian wave was no longer rooted in Europe but in Europe’s aftereffects combined with indigenous currents coming from both secular Arab radicalism of the Baath, and the religious Islamic fundamentalism.

Understanding that wave would have been much advanced by more sober cosmopolitanism and the knowledge of Arabic and Islamic cultures, phenomena which were in too short supply in the United States and even more so in Europe. So if Germany, France and Russia had been more cosmopolitan in this sense, if they had paid close attention to what leaders of Al Qaeda, and of the Baath regime had said in Arabic over the past several decades, I think the chances they would have joined the United States and Britain (but also Spain, Italy and Poland) in Iraq would have been more rather than less.

Making such a statement is certainly unfashionable at the moment, faced as we are with the failure of American, (but also European) intelligence agencies to correctly ascertain the current status of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs and weapons on hand. Beyond saying that I still believe that at the time that there was sufficient grounds to justify a war, I am not this evening going to engage the increasingly lively debate about prewar American intelligence. Rather I want to return to the question of why opposition to this war was so pronounced in Germany, a country which has reflected so much on fascism and Nazism. In 1984, I published book whose title became among scholars who examine such things, a famous phrase. "Reactionary Modernism" referred to the coincidence in Germany of an ideological embrace of modern technology combined with rejection liberal democracy.
Ralf Dahrendorf hinted at the issue when he called Germany’s mix of technological modernity and political illiberalism, "the first new nation" that pointed to a future of dictatorship outside Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s, Karl Bracher, with Nasser’s Egypt in mind, noted that the blend of nationalism and socialism found new expressions in the developing world. I wrote Reactionary Modernism as the Ayatollah Khomeini used tape cassettes from Paris to urge Iranians to return to the Middle Ages. From this historical perspective then, Europe’s and Germany’s reactionary modernist suggested that as subsequent mixtures of technological modernity and anti-modernity emerged outside Europe in the 21st century, they could constitute the greatest threat to international security. It is through these lenses that I have viewed the emergence of Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam’s Iraq. While the Bush administration did not use the phrase "reactionary modernism" in its strategy paper of fall 2002, it did draw attention to the dangerous mix of the spread of technology for weapons of mass destruction combined with fundamentalism as the primary global security threat of this period. Although Dahrendorf and Bracher gave all the hints needed for German historians to pick up the point, it was disappointing that so few did so.

As there is broad of trans-Atlantic agreement regarding the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda and related Islamic fundamentalist groups, I won’t dwell on this issue. Suffice it to say that Paul Berman, in Terror and Liberalism has made a compelling case linking the legacies of European fascism, Nazism and Stalinism to the ideological currents of the Moslem Brotherhood and then Al Qaeda. In deed and word, the radical Islamists declared war on the United States, Israel and modernity in general. Given their distinctive attitude toward their own death, there has been no alternative but for the United States to go on the offensive and fight a war against terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism. the war to them and defeat them. Their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and attitude toward death and suicide, reveal a greater affinity to the fascist and Nazi than to the Communist variant of totalitarianism. While the stand-off with Soviet Communism could end with its peaceful implosion, the only way the threat of terrorism inspired by radical Islam can end is, as was the case with fascism and Nazism, through its military defeat, and with the democratic transformation of the part of the world from which it comes.

There are voices in Germany, for example of Mathias Küntzel’s fine essay, Djihad und Judenhaß , who are aware that we are living in a period in which the legacies of Nazi anti-Semitism has diffused into the Islamic world and into the mood of too much discourse in Europe. Neither the Islamists, nor the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades, as the campaign of suicide terrorism against the Israelis following Ehud Barak’s offer of a negotiated two-state settlement made abundantly clear, made any distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. They killed Jews as Jews. Their attacks on the "Zionist-Crusader alliance" in word and deed rest on a paranoid conspiracy theory, one which found its way into respectable European opinion in attacks on the presumed Jewish inspiration of the Iraq war. As Berman has recently pointed out, the Islamists made quite clear that an apocalyptic war was both inevitable and desirable. A police state dictatorship based either on the reign of Shariah or Koranic law (the Islamists) or the reign of brotherly Arab love (the Baath) was necessary to launch such a war. In the course of such a war with the decadent and degenerate West, a martyr’s death for thousands of people would strengthen the cause and offer to the fortunate deceased a step on the path to heavenly paradise.
Europe, Germany included, assumed that because totalitarianism had come to an end after 1989 it had ended globally as well. This provincial view failed to acknowledge that totalitarianism had revived as Baathist and Moslem forms. It spoke new languages, marching in different uniforms, operating in different parts of the world with however, a remarkably similar list of enemies: modernity, liberal democracy, capitalism, equality for women and yes, again, the Jews.

Because the radical Islamists represent a radicalization of attitudes towards death and foster a cult of martyrdom, it became quickly apparent that containment and deterrence were no longer sufficient. Though the Communists fostered a cult of martyrdom, they did not make a virtue of death itself. Soviet leaders believed that they had more to lose than to gain by unleashing a nuclear war with the United States. Hence it was possible for the West to arrive at a nuclear stalemate with Moscow for half a century. The leaders of the Western Alliance during the Cold War assumed that the Soviet leaders placed a very high value on survival and that as a result an actual nuclear war was always highly unlikely. The fundamental strategic message of September 11, 2001 was that no amount of deterrence and containment could defend the United States against terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism.

As a consequence of the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the globe combined with the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, a policy of preemption needed to be added as a potential element of American (and I believe also European) security policy. The less controversial aspect of preemption, evident in the war in Afghanistan, concerns the need to take the offensive in the war against terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism. Were Al Qaeda to possess weapons of mass destruction it could not be deterred by the prospect of nuclear retaliation. In Surprise, Security and the American Experience , a work forthcoming in March, John Gaddis, the leading American historian of deterrence and containment, makes the case for adding this component to our security policy. He argues that September 11, 2001 was a historically significant in the history of American foreign relations as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Both were followed by a burst of American military power that enemies then underestimated. Both led to a new policy adequate to new threats. Just as the attack on Pearl Harbor wrought the Roosevelt revolution in American foreign relations that introduced sixty years of containment and deterrence, so September 11, 2001 made preemption one necessary component of American security policy. Those who denounce these changes a challenges to international law or as a plan for empire, fail to acknowledge that they after September 11th, they are indispensable to components of a policy of American–and I would argue European--national defense.

The deeper source of trans-Atlantic disagreement concerns the war in Iraq. By its very nature, every preemptive war will be controversial as it must rest on a set of political judgments and intelligence assessments, almost always about dictatorial regimes whose expertise lies in deception and terror. I am not an expert on intelligence assessments. There remain literally thousands of documents in Iraq to examine. The Iraqi regime had a great deal of time to destroy evidence of its weapons programs. The argument for a preemptive war against Iraq rested on the best intelligence at the time, on Saddam’s continued refusal to display what his government had been doing but also on the nature of the Iraqi regime, its past policies and misjudgments but also on the potentially enormous financial resources at its disposal due to the possession of the world’s second largest reserves of oil. In my view, the nature of the regime received far too little attention from opponents of the war.
The most important book and the most important author to influence liberal opinion in the United States about these issues was the 1989 work, The Republic of Fear: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by Kanan Makiya, then writing under the pseudonym, Samir Al-Khalil. Unfortunately it has not been published in German translation. The Republic of Fear did for liberal understanding of tyranny in the Middle East what Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism did for the liberal understanding of Nazism and Communism after World War Two. Just as Arendt drew out the intersection of terror and ideology,. Makiya (al-Khalil) examined the melange of ideology and terror, French fascism, Stalinism and anti-Semitism which defined Baathist Iraq. He discussed both the human rights catastrophe which Saddam’s torturers were inflicting on their fellow Iraqis as well as the disaster of the Iran-Iraq war and revealed the horror of this regime even before it attacked Kuwait. Lost in the focus on UN arms inspectors was the obvious point that over time a regime of this nature in possession of vast oil reserves would eventually, without repeating the blunders of invading Iran or Kuwait, would use the money from the sale of oil to build weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Iraq could then confront the world with the fait accompli at which point any thought of a preemptive war would be precluded by the prospect of Iraqi nuclear retaliation.

The essential dilemma of a policy of preemption is that it must rest on a set of political judgments made in conditions of uncertainty defined by intelligence estimates about tyrannical governments and murderous terrorist organizations who specialize in deception and secrecy. It cannot rest, as the Gulf War of 1990 did, on a response to aggression already undertaken. To judge by the howls of protest coming from many in Germany, one might think that debates about preemption did not play a role in thinking about German history. It seems that indeed, they have played a much too small a role. Though Saddam Hussein was not a carbon copy of Hitler, the dilemmas of preemption in the late 1930s remain relevant for the recent decision to go to war in spring 2003. Unfortunately, neither Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm , and, more recently in the scholarly literature, Williamson Murray’s The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939: The Path to Ruin appear to have made an impact on the German debate over Iraq. Everyone remembers that Churchill was a critic of appeasement but fewer recall that he labeled World War Two "the unnecessary war."
He meant that if the democracies and/or the democracies in alliance with the Soviet Union had made a credible threat of force in the late 1930s, Hitler might have been overthrown by a military coup in 1938 and would have been deprived of the opportunity to launch a war at the time and place of his choosing. Williamson Murray, in his important but not widely read work, made a powerful case that a preemptive war by Britain and France in 1938 or 1939 at a time and place of their own choosing would have caught Nazi Germany at a vulnerable moment well before it had the resources necessary to defeat them. Murray offered an abundance evidence that Nazi Germany before the aggressions and expansion of 1940 was in a precarious economic position, lacked access to natural resources vital for armament in depth and was thus vulnerable to a preventive war. But, he continues, Britain and France consistently made the wrong strategic choices, minimized the reality of the Nazi threat and exaggerated German military capabilities. The clear implication of Murray’s detailed and far too neglected analysis is that Britain and France could have defeated Nazi Germany with a preemptive war which would have been far shorter than World War Two. Had they done so, there would have been no Holocaust as Nazi Germany had not yet occupied the rest of Europe along with its mineral and agricultural resources and did not have control over those areas of the continent, especially Eastern Europe, where the great majority of Europe’s Jews lived..

The uncertainties and imponderables surrounding such a war would have been considerable. There would have been no construction blueprints of gas chambers for victors to discover as these had not been drawn by 1939. There would have been few, if any, planning documents for Operation Barbarossa, such as the "Kommisarbefehl." The enormous paper trail of meetings and decisions by Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich of summer and fall 1941, minutes of the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942 and speeches by Goebbels informing the world in 1941 that Hitler’s prophecies about exterminating the Jews were "now" being realized, all this would not yet have existed for the victors to demonstrate what it was they had prevented.
Indeed, if the British and French had attack before January 30, 1939, Hitler’s infamous "prophecy" about the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe would not have been publicly uttered at all. In the aftermath of a successful preemptive war, there would have been legions of German nationalists and unreconstructed Nazis who insisted that Hitler had been a man of peace who merely the latest the latest in a long line of victims of British and French imperialism, and/or of Soviet Communism. In short such a preemptive war, which could have spared Europe the Second World War it got and prevented the Holocaust, would have been extremely controversial resting as it would have on a set of political judgments about what Hitler would do in the future if he had the opportunity to do so. The only things Churchill could point to was a set of political judgments, hunches, assessments, informed opinions based on a determination to assume that Hitler meant what said and wrote, a prescient close reading of Mein Kampf combined with a worst case assessment of the relationship between Hitler’s intentions and German armament programs in the 1930s.

I do not raise this hypothetical to assert an identity between the threat between Hitler and Saddam though there are more of such similarities than the war’s opponents have been willing to acknowledge. Rather I do so to point out that even faced with the Nazi regime, a preemptive war, which would have been the right thing to do, would have rested on political judgments and intelligence assessments that were subject to great uncertainties. The grim option of a smaller war now rather than a larger and more terrible war later was, unfortunately not taken in 1938 or 1939 but fortunately was taken in the spring of 2003.

There is another comparison to the 1930s which concerns international organizations. The League of Nations lost credibility in no small degree because it failed to use force to check the rise of the fascist dictatorships. The term "United Nations" emerged during World War II as the name given to those countries which were united in alliance against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Had the UN failed to see its resolutions enforced in Iraq, it too would have been deeply weakened. It would have been only a matter of time before France and Russia gutted sanctions completely and Saddam or his sons could resume armament programs with oil flowing without interruption. Had Saddam, with help from France, Russia and yes, Germany, successfully faced down the United States and the UN Security Council, he would have been even more lionized both by the secular Arab nationalists as well as by Islamic fundamentalists. The radicalization of the region would have been enhanced. Sooner or later he would have built an arsenal able to make credible threats of military blackmail to other oil producing states. The prospects of a nuclear armed Iraq would put Israel’s security at risk thus adding tension to the region and increasing pressures for other Arab states to acquire weapons of mass destruction, this in a region with more political fanatics per capita facing less stable regimes than anywhere else on the planet.

As Makiya revealed in 1989, the regime of Saddam Hussein was torture chamber. While weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found, graves of over 300,000 people have been, many machined gunned to death in ways reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front in World War II. Can there be any real doubt that if such a regime could do such things to its own citizens, it would comprise a grave threat to the world should it have acquired the arsenal Saddam was seeking?

What is clear beyond dispute is that Saddam’s dictatorship is over. No longer with the vast oil reserves under the ground in Iraq be available to the Baath Party and its visions of dominating the region, threatening Israel, blackmailing the world economy through influence over oil supplies and possibly attacking the United States either alone or in association with radical Islamists. The possibility now exists for the first time of establishing a liberal democracy in the Middle East and to overcome its backwardness not only in relation to Europe and the United States but to democracies in Asia and Latin America.
The successful democratization of Iraq is a goal which I hope Europeans share with the United States. German journalists, lawyers, scholars and policy makers could draw on Germany’s experience dealing with the Nazi past after 1945 and the Communist regime after 1989 to help the Iraqis tell the truth about the Baath era. Kanan Mikaya is now in Iraq and directs the Iraqi Memory Foundation . While disagreements about the Iraq war will continue, I hope people in this country will draw on its experience with Vergangenheitsbewältigung of the two German dictatorships to liberal democratic government in Bagdad, restoration of the rule of law, emergence of a vital civil society in Iraq and public revelation in trials, oral histories, journalism and historical scholarship of the truth about the past regime’s crimes.

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