GEORGE W. BUSH
People love to talk about George W. Bush. Being able to talk disgustedly, mockingly about Bush is the only bona fide that will pass muster with half of America and nine-tenths of the world. Otherwise, you're a "fascist." Global warming? Bush single-handedly started the industrial revolution, you see. Alternate answer: Nothing contributed to climate change that didn't happen in the United States of America AND after January 2001.
Pretty good work, wouldn't you say, for a "failed businessman?" That was one of the few things I knew about him in 2000. Failed businessman. I wasn't studying him closely then. I had seen enough to know I thought he'd be a terrible president, and I had no inclination to cast a vote for him, even though I was a registered Republican.
Not that "failed businessman" was one of those reasons. American history features a long list of private-life mediocrities and failures who became wonderful presidents and statesmen. Ditto men who don't read a lot of books. Of course, failing with your own money and failing with other people's are different things.
Now I know more about him. Now I think I see what kind of failed businessman he is. He's the kind of boss you'd love to have -- if you don't really care about your job. He's loyal to his people, not matter how bad they screw up.
He reminds me of Ernie, the amiable rotund Peruvian immigrant who managed the books-and-electronics department of an Abraham & Strauss store where I took a job in the early 1980s. It was all about the workday. You came in, you were cheerful, you tried to not screw up, but if you did, oh well, we'll fix it somehow. Tomorrow's another workday. It was great if you were only in it for the dope money, not a career, and you knew you were moving on eventually to something better. Abraham & Strauss is long gone.
There were, and are, many aspects of my dislike of George W. Bush as a president. In retrospect, the ones I weighted most in deciding whom to vote for in 2000 turned out to be the least important. His scary social conservative qualities mostly turn out to not amount to a hill of beans, and were about as authentic as Reagan's -- thank God. Who would have thought his biggest positive legacy so far would be "spent more money on AIDS in Africa than Clinton did"?
But those qualities, if taken sincerely into the brain, might have served him better. So many social conservatives shuddered to their core when they saw what had happened at Abu Ghraib. They did it quietly, as is their way in such matters, and they didn't pour out of their homes to pick up the picket signs and slogans that International A.N.S.W.E.R. was ready to hand them, as some fools did. But they felt it, and they felt it as a betrayal of something essential. Would that Bush had felt that, too, when he had the chance to prevent it.
In retrospect, I should have paid less attention to how he prayed and more attention to his business history. And in retrospect, Bush wasn't too much of a Christian patriot: He wasn't enough of one.
What else did I know about him then? The Bushes were ruthess campaigners. They won, and they won dirty, and they surrounded themselves with the sort of characters -- Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove -- who fight ruthless, scorched-earth wars against their opponents and bring them down hard.
I hated that quality in American politics, and it might have been the biggest reason I rejected Bush as a candidate. But in part that helped turn me around on the notion of toppling Saddam in 2002. I knew Bush was going to war for a different mix of reasons than I would use to justify it. But it seemed if there was one thing he knew how to do it was win, at all costs, with the help of an intense and creative team of generals. Paradoxically, one of the reasons I didn't want him as president in 2000 became one of the reasons I assented to his leading the country into a risky war.
Perhaps I should have paid more attention to Bush the First, and 1992. How, in spite of the aggressive team, he seemed to just lack the will to win. His fire was gone and he waged a desultory campaign, whose few sparks were nasty but feeble ones.
Yet there it was, in early 2003: The chance I had been waiting all my adult life for: To see America use its power and good will to clear a path for millions of people who had done nothing to earn the suffering that had been visited on them as a side-effect of the Cold War. To give them a chance to take hold of part of our lucky legacy of wealth of freedom. I had watched the grimy experience of Carter and Reagan's late Cold War policies around the world, seen and read the results of Kissingerite realism. I had traveled behind the Iron Curtain and had no illusions about our enemies. Yet I never resigned myself to a lifetime of simply backing our bastards, with guns and money and from a safe distance, just because I knew theirs were worse.
We ought to be better than that, or give up the notion and name of "America" and just settle for being Belgium or something. I don't think I'll see the chance again in my life. How that came about and how I feel about it is a matter between me and a great many people -- including Bush. How much I choose to say about it in public is my choice; it's not a sign of how I think you ought to live, it's how I choose to live.
But turn my back on all I've stood for, since I first followed the fall of Saigon in the "Inquirer" at age 13? Since I heard Desmond Tutu, then little known outside South Africa, speak at a college graduation? Since I saw the crosses at the Berlin Wall and drank with Kurdish refugees hiding out and waiting for black market passports? Just because some fool president also embodies the other great American virtue of mental laziness and screwing up a lot?
BUSH as HITLER
The German media enthusiastically draws parallels between the American abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Nazi concentration camps. The Bushitler thing is so old it's hardly shocking anymore. But now "modern America = Nazi Germany." Even the conservative, mainstream "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" writes about "a pile of naked men that reminds us of pictures from the concentration camps."
Overlook the fact that the concentration camp photos showed piles of dead bodies. Apparently that difference doesn't register in the German media. Overlook, too, the fact that the German media had zero interest in Abu Ghraib under the prison's previous owners. Pictures exist from that phase in the prison's history. The only reaction I have to those of them I've seen is a line from Max Liebermann, the Jewish art gallery owner, watching a 1933 Nazi torchlight parade in Berlin from his apartment: “Kann jar nich soviel essen, wie ich kotzen möchte”: "I couldn't eat enough to puke enough."
But overlook it, because I will say, in Abu Ghraib, Americans got a glimpse over the precipice that leads to a Death Camp.
I haven't read many books more cold-blooded than Christopher Browning's "Ordinary Men" (1992). He tells of a group of average German civilians who mustered into the military as Reserve Police Battalion 101, shipped off to the Eastern Front, and methodically rode from village to village across the plains of Poland, marching the Jewish men, women and children of each place out to the woods and shooting them individually to death.
This book paints the horror with an everydayness that makes it the more horrible.
On their first assignment to kill Jews, in the Polish village of Josefow, the battalion's major gave his troops the option of "excusing themselves" from the task. Of the 500 in the unit, only about a dozen did so. They were not punished. The rest slaughtered 1,500 women, children and old people. They became one of Nazi Germany's most efficient extermination units; by the time Police Battalion 101 disbanded in late 1943 "the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews."
[If this sounds familiar, but you haven't read Browning, realize that his research was a key source for Daniel Goldhagen's bestseller "Hitler's Willing Executioners."]
Browning's new book, "The Origins of the Final Solution," explores how the Holocaust came to happen. It was not Hitler's plan all along; it evolved. The racial policy shifted as the military campaigns in the East rolled up huge successes. There was no direct order from the Führer to exerminate. "But local commanders, whether SS officers or administrators in occupied territory, always sensed that more extreme action on the ground would find approval above them," a reviewer of the book observes. Hitler is portrayed as a leader who "filled the air with fearsome innuendo, but left it to junior figures to put into practice what they sensed he wanted -- and what they wanted too." In the end, "[t]he Wannsee Conference of January 1942 only made the German bureaucracy complicit in what was already being done."
Among Browning's revelations in the new book, one seems to have caught the eye of British reviewers, in publications that take a dim view (at best) of the war to overthrow Saddam. "The decisive impulse (to the Final Solution) was not defeat but the euphoria of victory in Russia, in the summer of 1941," a reviewer writes. "It was the sense that they were invincible which persuaded the Nazis that the genocide of Soviet Jews, which they were already carrying out, could be extended to the Jews of every nation they controlled."
Euphoria of rapid victory ... war crimes that begin with low-level decisions, implicitly sanctioned from above ... something seen at first even by Himmler as "un-German" becoming a fact, then a policy ... the mix of semi-professional soldiers with loutish tendencies and leaders willing to turn a blind eye to brutality.
Yes, it's there. The parallel is there. If you only look at it through a drinking straw.
Now put the straw down and look at the whole scene. What came before? In Germany, whole generations of demonization of Jews -- they were vermin, disease, the focus of a century of legal restrictions and social exclusion. This was approved in the churches, in the universities, and in the political parties of all stripes.
In the U.S., we have a welcoming culture that is aware of its own mongrel, immigrant origin. Some cartoonish Arab bad guys in a few Hollywood movies hardly are the equivalent of "Der Stürmer's" vicious blood-libels. Imams visit the White House. Courts uphold muezzin chants. After 9-11, in town after town, neighbors protected Muslim women who were afraid to walk in the street in their distinctive garb. The list goes on.
What came after? Were the American abusers sent off to the next prison, to continue their work? Were their bosses promoted and their leaders pleased? The criminals have been sacked and await punishments. The whole system has been shaken by the revelation. Civil and military tribunals convened, the chain of command exposed and scrutinized. Even though the recently released memos show Bush rejecting any interrogation methods that don't meet Geneva standards, the outcome of all this very likely will be the defeat of his entire administration.
The German fighting force of 1940 was the finest professional army in the world. And before it was over, even the proudest outfits had been tainted by war crimes. Americans are not better than Germans. American National Guard prison units from Pennsylvania are not inherently morally superior to German police battalions from Hamburg. What is the difference? Start with transparent institutions, free inquiry, a cultural sense of right and wrong that had not gone completely mad over a demonized enemy, and, yes, a media that is willing to expose crimes.
The German press probably should not push this line too hard. It could lead to some embarrassing comparisons.
BUSH as NAPOLEON
The U.S. can invade Iraq, overthrow its dictator, and in time rebuild the country into a free, modern, open nation living under the rule of law.
To those of us who have asserted this, Germany in World War II is a recurring comparison. But is it the right one? Iraq today seems little like the Germany of 1945 -- a shattered nation that before its defeat had been tightly bonded by social organization and a strong nationalist tradition.
Instead, what I read and see from Iraq reminds me of the Germany of 1815: Regionally fragmented, partially liberated from its native petty tyrants, but with urnresolved issues of religion and politics. It has a civil service in its infancy, systems still corrupt, and a growing middle class restive for rights and reforms. It is a nation vulnerable to neighboring powers, with citizens increasingly maddened by the clash of their foreign liberators' egalitarian rhetoric and the humiliating realities of occupation.
Americans, as we work to put Iraq in its rightful place in the world and give the country to its people for the first time, would do well to look back, not to ourselves in 1945, but to the French of 200 years ago. There we can learn by example many mistakes to avoid, and at the same time we can take pleasure in learning them from our dear friends the French ruling class.
France in the Napoleonic era was not in the same superpower class as America today. It had achieved a sudden dominant position in the European power game, but still it could not fight all its enemies at once, or even certain combinations of them. And, in the era when the God of victories marched with the biggest battalions, it needed to continually swell its armies with ranks of conscripts from conquered lands. Yet a brief description of the French experience in the Rhineland is bound to set off bells of recognition for a modern observer of the U.S. in Iraq.
The Grand Army poured into the German Rhineland in 1792, rolling up cities and individual states whose armies were no match for it. Prussia and Austria, the two regional powers that could have stopped the invasion, were preoccupied with carving up and digesting Poland, and made only half-hearted attempts to fight a two-front war. By 1797, the French conquest was complete.
Contemporary French accounts emphasize that they were welcomed as liberators by the Rhinelanders. The French made the Rhineland a laboratory for their experiment of exporting Enlightenment and French Revolutionary values. They rapidly transformed the political and social landscape. They suppressed the local nobility and abolished serfdom. They enacted universal male sufferage and installed elected governments. They secularized ecclesiastical principalities, reformed the legal system, spurred industrial development, and modernized the infrastructure.
"[T]he French rebuilt occupied Germany from its foundations, particularly the Rhineland," Steven Ozment writes in his excellent short history of Germany, "A Mighty Fortress" [2004, p.159]. "The Code Napoléon encouraged comparatively open societies with greater social equality and individual rights (peasants were emancipated throughout the Rhineland), free trade, and religious tolerance."
There was an element of pragmatism in the French project. Not all the old power-structures were overthrown; some were co-opted. Larger states, for instance, were consoled in their defeat by being permitted to absorb smaller neighbors.
The reforms even had a liberalizing effect on the Rhineland's neighbors -- France's rivals in central Europe -- especially Austria and Prussia. The leaders of those nations knew they could more readily mobilize their populations to resist the French if the freedom France offered were not so tempting, and if the people felt a greater stake in their homelands.
But the positive effects of the French occupation were soon outweighed, in the minds of the occupied people, by its baleful aspects. And these were beyond anything the U.S. has done in Iraq or is likely ever to do there.
Unlike Iraq, the Rhineland found itself annexed outright to the nation that had delivered it. In many places, the French plundered outright, and overall they conscripted tens of thousands of Germans into the French army. International trade was restricted to focus on France's markets. A powerful current in the Rhineland's turn against the French, according to Ozment, was "the personal treatment Germans received at the hands of the French ...." He writes that "the French army was its own worst enemy," and tells of "frequent contact with quartered French soldiers and high officials, who stood over Germans as lords and masters, disdaining native culture and religions," which had a corrosive effect on the locals' attitudes.
The U.S. army has been nowhere near as bad as the French were (that's not a claim of national superiority; the crudeness of the times and the desperateness of the French situation together can account for it). But even the best-mannered occupiers will become an annoyance at last.
Ozment also notes that the practical Germans were "historically ill-disposed to reforms that pursued impossible ideals and utopian goals."
Conscripted Germans made up one-third of the army of 700,000 that Napoleon led into Russia in 1812. When the remnant straggled back, defeated, the German states rose up against the French, and, joined by Napoleon's other enemies, they together broke his power at the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in 1813.
"For all their appeal to Germans, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Code Napoléon were not the cure-all for what ailed Germany. If Germans were to make a great leap forward, more French instruction was not what they required. What was needed most after 1813 was the freedom to make that leap out of their own history and on their own feet." [Ozment, p.161-2]
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