Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 19, 2007

The German View

There has been much talk about the improvement in American-German relations since Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, took over as chancellor and Gerhard Schroeder, her oleaginous predecessor, who used anti-Americanism as one of his central campaign issues, left office to take a job as a shill for a Kremlin-owned oil company. There is no doubt a great deal of truth to this talk. But, as I discovered during a week as a guest of the American Academy in Berlin, the two countries’ perceptions remain as far apart as ever on a variety of foreign-policy issues.

In the U.S., the biggest issue at the moment is the Iraq war. In Germany it is missile defense—specifically an American plan to deploy a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to provide protection against Iranian missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though he knows the planned shield is far too small to interfere with Russia’s massive ICBM force, has vehemently decried this as an act of aggression against his country. (How can a defensive system be aggressive? To answer that question would require a long foray back into the arms-control theology of the 1970′s and 80′s.)

The Germans are in a tizzy because they don’t want to offend Russia. Many still see the country’s role as being a “bridge” between East and West, much as in the cold-war days of Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik. A cynic might note other German interests, such as keeping natural gas from Russia flowing. But whatever the cause, various German officials I spoke with anxiously inquired if there was some way to compromise on the missile-defense plan so as dampen growing tensions with Russia.

Read More

There has been much talk about the improvement in American-German relations since Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, took over as chancellor and Gerhard Schroeder, her oleaginous predecessor, who used anti-Americanism as one of his central campaign issues, left office to take a job as a shill for a Kremlin-owned oil company. There is no doubt a great deal of truth to this talk. But, as I discovered during a week as a guest of the American Academy in Berlin, the two countries’ perceptions remain as far apart as ever on a variety of foreign-policy issues.

In the U.S., the biggest issue at the moment is the Iraq war. In Germany it is missile defense—specifically an American plan to deploy a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to provide protection against Iranian missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though he knows the planned shield is far too small to interfere with Russia’s massive ICBM force, has vehemently decried this as an act of aggression against his country. (How can a defensive system be aggressive? To answer that question would require a long foray back into the arms-control theology of the 1970′s and 80′s.)

The Germans are in a tizzy because they don’t want to offend Russia. Many still see the country’s role as being a “bridge” between East and West, much as in the cold-war days of Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik. A cynic might note other German interests, such as keeping natural gas from Russia flowing. But whatever the cause, various German officials I spoke with anxiously inquired if there was some way to compromise on the missile-defense plan so as dampen growing tensions with Russia.

Germans are also anxious to compromise with Iran. A number of them wanted to know if the U.S. was serious about attacking the mullahs’ nuclear program. They have been reinforced in their preference for talk over military action by the quagmire they see in Iraq. They wonder why Americans can’t see the light too.

Germans are now willing to send their military abroad—but only if it won’t be used for combat. The Bundestag has just approved the deployment of six Tornado aircraft to southern Afghanistan following a wrenching debate, even though the Tornados will be used for reconnaissance only. As for German troops, some 3,000 of them are in Afghanistan, but they are not allowed to venture anywhere where they might get shot at; they are not even allowed to come to the aid of NATO allies who are under fire. The German officers I spoke with seemed eager to take a more direct role in the fighting, but the consensus of politicians and journalists was that this will never happen.

Why not? An American observer offered an interesting explanation. It is not so much that the Germans are afraid of getting their own troops killed, he said; they are more afraid of what their troops might do. They realize that counterinsurgency is a nasty type of warfare and that troops of any nationality are liable to commit some excesses. Germans, this American suggested, are deathly afraid that combat atrocities might revive old stereotypes about German militarism. Thus the Germans will continue to stress “soft” power while we (and, to a lesser extent, the Brits) perform the “hard” tasks.

Read Less

How Bad is Robert Gates?

America’s twenty-second Secretary of Defense came to prominence in the world of intelligence, having risen up through the ranks of the analytical division of the CIA. To anyone familiar with the intractable problems besetting that side of that agency, this was a background that at the very minimum raised questions about whether Gates would be a yes-man, a timid bureaucrat, or an empty suit.

But back in mid-February, Max Boot gave Gates a favorable review here, citing his handling of himself at a gathering of defense officials in Munich. We’ve now had another month of our new SecDef. It is time to ask again: how is he shaping up?

The war is issue number one. Prior to getting his job, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, which counseled begging Iran and Syria for assistance—“dialogue” was the code word for this used in the report—in extricating ourselves from the conflict and abandoning Iraq to the wolves: the U.S. “must adjust its role in Iraq to encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny.”

Read More

America’s twenty-second Secretary of Defense came to prominence in the world of intelligence, having risen up through the ranks of the analytical division of the CIA. To anyone familiar with the intractable problems besetting that side of that agency, this was a background that at the very minimum raised questions about whether Gates would be a yes-man, a timid bureaucrat, or an empty suit.

But back in mid-February, Max Boot gave Gates a favorable review here, citing his handling of himself at a gathering of defense officials in Munich. We’ve now had another month of our new SecDef. It is time to ask again: how is he shaping up?

The war is issue number one. Prior to getting his job, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, which counseled begging Iran and Syria for assistance—“dialogue” was the code word for this used in the report—in extricating ourselves from the conflict and abandoning Iraq to the wolves: the U.S. “must adjust its role in Iraq to encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny.”

But Gates was on CBS’s Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer yesterday and made a convincing case for national patience with another direction entirely—the current troop surge:

The way I would characterize it is so far, so good. It’s very early. General Petraeus, the commander out there, has said that it’ll probably be summer before we know whether we’re being successful or not. But I would say that the Iraqis are meeting the commitments that they have made to us. They have made the appointments, the troops that they have promised are showing up, they are allowing operations in all neighborhoods, there is very little political interference with military operations. So here, at the very beginning, the commitments that have been made seem to be being kept.

On Face the Nation, Gates was also exceptionally deft in disarming Democratic calls for withdrawal, as called for in a bill before the House of Representatives. His posture here was disarmingly respectful—even as it threw a punch.

I believe everybody involved in this debate is patriotic and looking for the best thing for America. I think most people agree that, across the political spectrum, that leaving Iraq in chaos would be a mistake, a disaster for the United States, and so we’re all wrestling with what’s the best way to bring about a result that serves the long-term interests, not only of the Iraqi people but of the United States. . . . With respect to the specific bill in the House, the concern I have is that if you have specific deadlines and very strict conditions, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for our commanders to achieve—to achieve their objectives. And frankly, as I read it, the House bill is more about withdrawal, regardless of the circumstances on the ground.

Then there was a side issue that, to judge by the intensity of Schieffer’s questioning, was to CBS not a side issue at all. Last week, General Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that homosexual acts are immoral. Gates was pressed hard about this by Schieffer: “a lot of gay people are saying that that is a slur on thousands of people who are serving in the military right now”; and shouldn’t the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy be revised?

Gates got a bit testy answering this, but acquitted himself well:

Look, I’ve got a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, challenges in Iran and North Korea and elsewhere, global war on terror, three budget bills totaling $715 billion. I think I’ve got quite a lot on my plate.

What Gates said about progress in the war on Iraq can be said about him: “So far, so good. It’s very early.”

Read Less

Why Sontag Switched Off

Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

Read More

Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

This is a curiously old-fashioned argument, which didn’t hold water even in 1936 when her hero Walter Benjamin first wrote about the impact of mechanical reproduction on the appreciation of art. All the evidence suggests that television and the Internet, far from rendering serious literature obsolete, have vastly increased its popularity. Indeed, the Internet has brought about a renaissance of some literary genres—the letter (email), the diary (blogs), the little magazine (webzines)—that had seemed to be almost endangered species. The advent of narrowcasting has allowed specialized TV channels to multiply, giving artists unprecedented access to their publics. And the insatiable hunger of all mass media for “content” means that there are now more people earning a living by writing than ever before.

These phenomena signify only the vulgarization of high culture to Sontag. She falls back on a weak argument, a vaguely Marxist form of alienation based on a patently false dichotomy: “Literature tells stories. Television gives information. Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances—immures us in our own indifference.”

There is something preposterous about Sontag’s alienation from the media that have, for better or worse, helped to keep her books and her memory alive. She is absurdly fatalistic about modes of communication that are certainly bad masters, but may be excellent servants, of the intellectual life.

Read Less

Lucie Aubrac’s Fictions

Lucie Aubrac has died at the age of 94. She certainly lived an adventure in World War II, but what sort of an adventure even now nobody can say with certainty. Perhaps she was a heroine who took part in armed struggle against the occupying Germans. That was her view of herself, as expressed in her 1993 autobiography Outwitting the Gestapo, and as shown in Claude Berri’s film Lucie Aubrac in 1997. President Jacques Chirac uttered what might be called the official eulogy for her, saying, “A light of the French resistance has been put out tonight. Lucie Aubrac embodied the commitment of women in the resistance.” The obituary in the Times of London took the story of her heroism at face value, with no mention at all that an alternative version ever existed.

Lucie and her husband Raymond Aubrac, both Communists, joined the resistance group known as Libération-sud in Lyons after the fall of France in 1940. In June 1943, leaders of the resistance met in a house in Caluire, a suburb of Lyons, in order to receive orders from Jean Moulin, parachuted in from London as the representative of General de Gaulle.

The Lyons Gestapo was headed at the time by Klaus Barbie, a hardline Nazi and a sadist who personally tortured his victims. He and a Gestapo detachment burst into the house at Caluire, arresting Jean Moulin and eight others, among them Raymond Aubrac. According to Lucie’s story, she then visited Barbie in his headquarters and persuaded him to let her see her husband. During a visit, she and Raymond planned his escape, which took place that October when Lucie led an ambush on the prison van escorting her husband and others to a different prison. Moulin died under Barbie’s torture without giving away any secrets.

Read More

Lucie Aubrac has died at the age of 94. She certainly lived an adventure in World War II, but what sort of an adventure even now nobody can say with certainty. Perhaps she was a heroine who took part in armed struggle against the occupying Germans. That was her view of herself, as expressed in her 1993 autobiography Outwitting the Gestapo, and as shown in Claude Berri’s film Lucie Aubrac in 1997. President Jacques Chirac uttered what might be called the official eulogy for her, saying, “A light of the French resistance has been put out tonight. Lucie Aubrac embodied the commitment of women in the resistance.” The obituary in the Times of London took the story of her heroism at face value, with no mention at all that an alternative version ever existed.

Lucie and her husband Raymond Aubrac, both Communists, joined the resistance group known as Libération-sud in Lyons after the fall of France in 1940. In June 1943, leaders of the resistance met in a house in Caluire, a suburb of Lyons, in order to receive orders from Jean Moulin, parachuted in from London as the representative of General de Gaulle.

The Lyons Gestapo was headed at the time by Klaus Barbie, a hardline Nazi and a sadist who personally tortured his victims. He and a Gestapo detachment burst into the house at Caluire, arresting Jean Moulin and eight others, among them Raymond Aubrac. According to Lucie’s story, she then visited Barbie in his headquarters and persuaded him to let her see her husband. During a visit, she and Raymond planned his escape, which took place that October when Lucie led an ambush on the prison van escorting her husband and others to a different prison. Moulin died under Barbie’s torture without giving away any secrets.

How did the Gestapo know that Jean Moulin and the others were in that house in Caluire? That someone tipped them off has always been evident. Suspicion fell on the Aubracs, but in preliminary investigations they were cleared. They were also unpopular because of the zeal and frequency with which they had accused people, after the war, of collaboration with the Nazis.

And then Klaus Barbie was captured in Bolivia, and brought to trial in France. He declared that Lucie Aubrac had, in fact, tipped him off. Prisoners did not escape the Gestapo, he emphasized with authority, unless the Gestapo wanted them to escape.

The Aubracs then submitted the issue to a group of French historians led by Moulin’s former secretary and biographer, Daniel Cordier, a keeper of the flame of the resistance. This panel rejected the accusation of outright collaboration, but pointed out numerous inconsistencies and peculiarities in the Aubracs’ version of events. Cordier expressed “profound disappointment” and dismissed Lucie’s book as fiction. The British writer Patrick Marnham, in his book Jean Moulin, examines the evidence very thoroughly. The book’s brilliant ending reconstructs that moment in Caluire and the underlying motives for the betrayal. Marnham does not say so in so many words, but lets it be clearly understood that he too suspects the Aubracs.

How difficult and dangerous were those times! Equivocal behavior was indeed forced on many in the French resistance. The truth of what happened that day in Caluire will surely never be known, and certainly not from listening to Chirac or reading the Times.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.