I learned not only 'No more war', but also 'No more Auschwitz'.
~ Joschka Fischer after Srebrenica
Paul Berman's latest book, Power and the Idealists, or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and its Aftermath (Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, NY: 2005) is another demonstration of why he is one of the English-speaking world's most important intellectuals. It is at once history and prescription, leaping from the past to the present and then on into the future - it is, in other words, history as no historian could ever write it in his official capacity. Berman was both participant and observer in the events he describes, and his forceful arguments cannot be ignored by anyone on the basis of partisan prejudice.
He ended his last book, Terror and Liberalism, with an elegy to the shattered peace of the post-Cold War world. We've got problems and we're not facing up to them, he was saying. And these problems, really, are nothing particularly new (not to children of the twentieth century, anyway) - the incompetence of our leaders, absurd misunderstandings across cultural barriers as well as our own political spectrum, and totalitarian enemies. Both realists and isolationists have lost their way in the modern world. American power is seen as the solution to every problem by the former and its proximate cause by the latter. What we need is a Third Way (remember those?)
Such a way, he suggests, can be found by examining the lives and legacies of a few people who partook in the global student movement in 1968 and yet went on to outgrow its limitations - people like Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecines sans Frontiers and later Medecines du Monde; Andre Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Levy, veterans of France's New Philosophers movement; and Joschka Fischer, former Foreign Minister of a united Germany.
Former Foreign Minister of a united Germany - and former street-fighting revolutionary. Fischer's journey from one to the other serves as an example of the generational trajectory taken by some of the veterans of 1968. In 2001, a series of photographs were published in the German magazine Stern, showing a young Fischer savagely beating a policeman. The photos recalled Fischer's history in the New Left. From thug on the streets to partisan of the Kosovo war, seen by many as imperialist aggression by NATO. And by focusing us on this trajectory, questions were raised about not just him, but the movement as a whole - who had these people been? Who were they now? And what lessons can we learn from them?
Berman believes we can learn a great deal. But first I'd best describe what exactly we're learning about. The mainstream left wing in most Western countries is presently in an absurd and troubling situation, and when this happens we are all in danger. Fischer's story is a salient example of the power of the left to slaughter sacred cows and provide a dramatic new impulse to political life.
After the massacre at Srebrenica, Fischer declared that he had learnt that 'no more Auschwitz' was as important as 'no more war'. Srebrenica was able to happen because cynical realists and naive isolationists united in an unholy alliance seeking the perfidious aim of non-intervention in a European genocide. The realists we can well understand, and I trust not too many words will be needed here to prove their lack of both moral scruple and wisdom. If they were, the words I have written here and here ought suffice.
But what of the left wing, the heirs of so many previous battles with injustice and violence? The anti-globalizers carried on their march against globalization, and the peaceniks carried on their march against wars and rumours of wars. And what difference did this make to the dead in Bosnia or the dead in Iraq later in the decade? Not one jot. There was a time, earlier in the decade, when the left wing had declared itself in solidarity with the oppressed of the Muslim world. The New York Review of Books used to publish the anti-Ba'ath dissident Kanan Makiya, and Republic of Fear sat on many a bookshelf. The literature and reports on Muslim totalitarianism from the Middle East screamed their way north: here, they said, is evil. Here is an evil you Europeans have known, and conquered - at least at home.
This point is important and worth dwelling on. It was a central part of Terror and Liberalism. It's a big claim, and one many people on the left instinctively react against. It's hence worth substantiating (I never promised this would be short; but trust me, it is important). Anyone who has read about the Taliban, the Iranian regime, or the Ba'ath dictatorship can be left in no doubt that what we are examining is not really that novel to us. One must simply read My Forbidden Face by Latifa, the Afghan woman who bravely survived the Taliban's attempt to not only ban her from the public sphere, but to shape and ultimately destroy her private sphere. Just like the fascists in Europe. Or Azar Nafisi, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran describes how she rushed back to the glorious Iranian revolution to find only death, war and repression. Just like under the fascists. It need hardly be necessary to dwell on the nature of Saddam Hussein's rule, but if it is, Republic of Fear has not grown dull with age.
These movements may have a Middle Eastern mother, but they surely have a European father. Joshcka Fischer realized that fascism was abroad in Yugoslavia in the 1990s (alas, it still is), and Paul Berman is hardly the first to realize that it is now abroad in the Middle East. Fighting against tyranny and oppression are supposed to be what the left is all about. In 1968, the German students believed they were fighting against Nazism that was latent in their society and that of the West as a whole.
Their limitation was in identifying the West itself as the source of all the world's evil, and so action against our own political and social systems as the solution. An excellent example of this is the way that after the Khmer Rouge proved themselves to be genocidal maniacs, it was argued that this was only because the United States had driven the people of Cambodia to madness by their bombing: as if irrationality and cruelty do not exist in the world unless they are brought here by Western-launched wars. This was the meaning of 'no more war'. The achievement of Fischer and those like him was to move beyond this simplicity, criticizing the West when it was to blame, but also recognizing that the bulk of the work to be done in fighting global injustice lies outside our borders. This was the meaning of 'no more Auschwitz'.
Where have we lost our way? In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush launched a revolution in American foreign policy. He specifically denounced the realpolitik of the past and claimed he was launching a war in Afghanistan in the name of democracy, human rights, and women's rights. And, though many were incredulous, he went on to do just that. No tractable warlord was installed, but Hamid Karzai was voted into office.
And, although his goals were surely those of any liberal-minded and compassionate-hearted person, his procedure and his method were all wrong, as far as most of Europe was concerned. He wanted to change everything at once. His administration's conduct in 2001 - 3 was arrogant and inward-looking. They made little effort to reach out to the left, where they might have found allies. They made a fetish of unilateralism. They aliented Joschka Fischer, who might have been their great friend. Bush's goals and the goals of sophisticated leftist intellectuals and moderate Muslims were one and the same, yet he managed to alienate a great amount of his possible global base of support. What we are fighting is genocidal evil, and yet most people aren't on our side. Say what you like about principle, but this was a failure of public relations. A failure of politics.
Which leaves us where we are now, in an absurd situation where everything is once again reduced down to what gaffe George W. Bush has made this week or what error American forces have made. Anything that sounds like a call for freedom in the Muslim world is dismissed as crypto-neoconservatism - today, a high crime! Everything is a partisan struggle between ourselves rather than a struggle between fascism and the right for Muslims to live a decent and free life like any other human being on the planet. Not everyone can be expected to agree on exactly how we face up to the challenges of the world, but the interconnectedness of events means we must find a way. "No more Auschwitz," said Fischer, "no more genocide, no more fascism. All that goes together for me."
These are your words, heirs of the left. Earn them back.