Commentary Magazine


Topic: Germany

What a German Trial Says About Iran’s Aims

Jonathan Tobin has already noted that President Obama is lying about Iran sanctions. Not only does it stop short of previous demands of Tehran and deals with Iran when it comes to uranium enrichment and the fate of uranium already enriched, but it also apparently sidesteps the issue of plutonium work at the Arak heavy-water reactor. When Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry seal the deal, they might as well announce it with a declaration, “I have in my hand a piece of paper, signed by Mohammad Javad Zarif.”

The problem is that it’s not only a White House that is willing to embrace the fiction of caring if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, but also Germany. Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” Campaign reports:

Unexpectedly lenient penalties were imposed today against four merchants and entrepreneurs by the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg in the Arak trial in Hamburg… The convicts had supplied components for the Iranian heavy water reactor in Arak and falsified documents in order to mislead the regulatory authorities. If the reactor in Arak goes on line as planned next year, plutonium for two nuclear bombs per year would be produced there… The trial also revealed a blatant failure of the German supervisory authorities, in particular the Federal Office of Export Control (BAFA). The special components for the nuclear weapons program were delivered to Iran despite repeated warnings and evidence from the U.S., but also from the German intelligence service. While the BAFA issued a so-called “zero notice” clearance certificate, the foreign ministry also restrained concerns about the exports. The judge spoke of “misconduct” by the authorities.

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Jonathan Tobin has already noted that President Obama is lying about Iran sanctions. Not only does it stop short of previous demands of Tehran and deals with Iran when it comes to uranium enrichment and the fate of uranium already enriched, but it also apparently sidesteps the issue of plutonium work at the Arak heavy-water reactor. When Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry seal the deal, they might as well announce it with a declaration, “I have in my hand a piece of paper, signed by Mohammad Javad Zarif.”

The problem is that it’s not only a White House that is willing to embrace the fiction of caring if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, but also Germany. Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” Campaign reports:

Unexpectedly lenient penalties were imposed today against four merchants and entrepreneurs by the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg in the Arak trial in Hamburg… The convicts had supplied components for the Iranian heavy water reactor in Arak and falsified documents in order to mislead the regulatory authorities. If the reactor in Arak goes on line as planned next year, plutonium for two nuclear bombs per year would be produced there… The trial also revealed a blatant failure of the German supervisory authorities, in particular the Federal Office of Export Control (BAFA). The special components for the nuclear weapons program were delivered to Iran despite repeated warnings and evidence from the U.S., but also from the German intelligence service. While the BAFA issued a so-called “zero notice” clearance certificate, the foreign ministry also restrained concerns about the exports. The judge spoke of “misconduct” by the authorities.

Perhaps because they are after a legacy and consider a bad deal better than no deal, or perhaps because the Iranians have won the battle of endurance, it looks like the White House is willing to give up on the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program. It is, in effect, allowing Iran to have all the components necessary to complete a bomb when and if the Iranian government makes the decision to pursue that end. That the Iranians have been surreptitiously importing banned technology to process plutonium is simply the sad epitaph to any doubt about what Iran is after and the damage Obama and Kerry are prepared to do to U.S. national security and that of our allies throughout the Middle East.

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Falling for Snowden’s Delusions

It scarcely seems possible, but Edward Snowden gets more odious by the day. It’s bad enough that he has leaked to the world top-secret details of highly sensitive and important NSA surveillance operations, thus doing more damage to American national security than a baker’s dozen of previous spies. What’s even more galling is that, while hiding in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has the nerve to position himself as a saintly whistle-blower who is striking a blow for truth, justice, and the American way.

The reality is precisely the opposite: He is empowering freedom’s enemies, from Beijing to Moscow to the western frontier region of Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s top leaders shelter, by revealing to them the secrets of how the NSA monitors them. At the same time he is spreading dissension and disunity in the Western alliance by revealing how the U.S. spies on its allies–but without saying anything about how those allies spy on us.

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It scarcely seems possible, but Edward Snowden gets more odious by the day. It’s bad enough that he has leaked to the world top-secret details of highly sensitive and important NSA surveillance operations, thus doing more damage to American national security than a baker’s dozen of previous spies. What’s even more galling is that, while hiding in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has the nerve to position himself as a saintly whistle-blower who is striking a blow for truth, justice, and the American way.

The reality is precisely the opposite: He is empowering freedom’s enemies, from Beijing to Moscow to the western frontier region of Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s top leaders shelter, by revealing to them the secrets of how the NSA monitors them. At the same time he is spreading dissension and disunity in the Western alliance by revealing how the U.S. spies on its allies–but without saying anything about how those allies spy on us.

It is hard not to gag while reading Snowden’s overblown “manifesto for truth” published in Der Spiegel. “Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance,” he writes. “To tell the truth is not a crime.” True, but citizens don’t have the right to reveal on their own authority highly classified information that they have pledged to keep secret.

If he had wanted to be a whistleblower, Snowden should have notified the congressional intelligence committees of the activities he objected to. The fact that he did not do so is, of course, because there was nothing to blow the whistle on–there is no evidence that NSA has done anything it is not authorized to do or that it has acted in any way for ulterior personal or political motives.

However he tries to spin it, Snowden is a traitor to the United States who is under the effective control of the FSB. This is the successor agency to the KGB, and still one of the world’s most illiberal intelligence services–and one whose electronic surveillance activities rival those of the NSA and are far more malignant because they can result in the incarceration of political dissidents. It is sad to see all too many well-intentioned people in the West fall for Snowden’s self-serving delusions, which do so much to harm not only the security of the U.S. but also of allies such as Germany.

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Reality Intervenes in NSA Debate

Outraged Europeans would prefer to think that when it comes to privacy issues, they are the good guys and those nasty Americans are the bad guys. We have even been treated to the dubious spectacle in recent days of being lectured by the Germans, of all people, on how much they respect civil liberties and how little regard we have for them—which conveniently elides the inconvenient fact that the only reason that Germans have any civil liberties to enjoy is because of the U.S. Armed Forces which overthrew the Nazis and protected them from the Communists.

More to the point, the narrative of European innocence on state-sponsored snooping can only be maintained by a complete denial of reality. The details are of course classified, but some tantalizing tidbits are now seeping into public discussion. For example this Wall Street Journal article: “Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services—not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.”

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Outraged Europeans would prefer to think that when it comes to privacy issues, they are the good guys and those nasty Americans are the bad guys. We have even been treated to the dubious spectacle in recent days of being lectured by the Germans, of all people, on how much they respect civil liberties and how little regard we have for them—which conveniently elides the inconvenient fact that the only reason that Germans have any civil liberties to enjoy is because of the U.S. Armed Forces which overthrew the Nazis and protected them from the Communists.

More to the point, the narrative of European innocence on state-sponsored snooping can only be maintained by a complete denial of reality. The details are of course classified, but some tantalizing tidbits are now seeping into public discussion. For example this Wall Street Journal article: “Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services—not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.”

Or this AP story: “A former foreign minister of Greece says the U.S. is not the only country eavesdropping on foreign diplomats: his country’s secret services did that to U.S. ambassadors in Athens and Ankara in the 1990s.”

What a surprise: The Europeans engage in espionage and surveillance too. And, as it turns out, their spy agencies often operate with less oversight than our own.

So perhaps, just perhaps, we will hear fewer smug lectures from across the Atlantic about the horrors of the NSA and more recognition of the complex realities, including the fact that NSA surveillance helps to protect the Europeans from terrorism and other threats.

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Obama Throws Intel Community Back Under the Bus

The revelations about NSA spying on allied leaders are now officially a scandal. No, that scandal isn’t that the U.S. spies on its allies–all nations do that and some go further than that. See, for instance, this report claiming that South Korea has been stealing U.S. military technology. No, the scandal is that, faced with embarrassing allegations, President Obama is trying to throw General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community under the bus by claiming that he had no idea what was going on.

Not surprisingly, anonymous leakers in the intelligence community are pushing back to shred the White House alibi. According to the Los Angeles Times:

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The revelations about NSA spying on allied leaders are now officially a scandal. No, that scandal isn’t that the U.S. spies on its allies–all nations do that and some go further than that. See, for instance, this report claiming that South Korea has been stealing U.S. military technology. No, the scandal is that, faced with embarrassing allegations, President Obama is trying to throw General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community under the bus by claiming that he had no idea what was going on.

Not surprisingly, anonymous leakers in the intelligence community are pushing back to shred the White House alibi. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”

If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books.

The intel community isn’t happy about being blamed for conducting what Obama implies is a rogue operation: “People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”

Not only is Obama blaming the intel community for doing something wrong, he is leaking word that he will order a ban on spying on allied leaders. One wonders how “allies” will be defined since no nation stands with the U.S. on every single important issue. Germany, for example, supported us in Afghanistan but not in Libya. (I am tempted to say Germany didn’t support us in Syria either but since we have no coherent policy on Syria it is hard to say whether they support us or not.) If he is serious about it, Obama’s actions will result in a loss of valuable intelligence and will hardly appease the NSA’s critics who think that all data-hunting operations except perhaps those focused on Ayman al-Zawihiri’s emails should be shut down.

Obama was aware earlier in his administration of the danger of stigmatizing the hard-working intelligence professionals he needs to keep America safe; that’s why the administration shut down attempts to prosecute CIA personnel over the use of torture. But now, in a frenzy to appease European critics, the president is demoralizing the intel community and sending them a signal that aggressive collection efforts will not be rewarded. That’s a bad tradeoff.

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Multilateral Counterterrorism and the Sovereignty Objection

Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

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Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

Any threats to the free-trade negotiations would reek of excuse-making: France has already threatened the viability of trade talks over its insistence on protecting its glorified soft-core pornographers from international competition. Torpedoing negotiations over security concerns would just enable them to put a more respectable gloss on protectionist impulses. Attacking cooperating private-sector behemoths like Google comes off as petty and punitive, and Britain successfully stepped in to ensure cooler heads would ultimately prevail on that score.

Counterterrorism efforts are likely to remain the focus of the controversy, since that’s the overarching point of contention. Yet it won’t be easy to disentangle aspects of the NSA’s program in Europe that France and Germany can do without from those on which they, too, rely. Today’s CNN report on the rift explains the bind the Europeans have found themselves in when seeking to protest the alleged phone-tapping of European heads of state:

The Europeans have been very grateful to share the benefits of the NSA’s immense data-gathering abilities in counter-terrorism and other fields. U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks show Germany was enthusiastic in 2009 and 2010 for closer links with the NSA to develop what is known as a High Resolution Optical System (HiROS) — a highly advanced “constellation” of reconnaissance satellites. One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said: “Germany anticipates that their emergence as a world leader in overhead reconnaissance will generate interest from the USG and envisions an expansion of the intelligence relationship.”

The 9/11 attacks changed espionage beyond recognition, leading to massive investment in the U.S. in “technical means” — the flagship of which is the enormous NSA data center being completed in Bluffdale, Utah. Its computing power, according to the specialist online publication govtech.com is “equivalent to the capacity of 62 billion iPhone 5s.” But 9/11 also shifted the balance between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties, with the U.S. federal government acquiring new powers in the fight against terrorism — some sanctioned by Congress but others ill-defined.

The technology that allows such enormous data-harvesting cannot be put back in the box, but the limits to its use pose an equally huge challenge. Ultimately, the Europeans need to collaborate with the U.S. on intelligence-gathering, to deal with international terrorism, cyber threats and organized crime. But the Snowden allegations, whether reported accurately or not, have changed the public perception and mood in Europe, obliging leaders like Merkel to take a tougher stand.

This duality is not limited to Europe. The United States is repeatedly accused of violating the sovereignty of nations in public with whom they are colluding in private. Public opinion on this score is seen as something to be managed by leaders who must carefully tend to domestic populist instincts with rhetoric that contrasts sharply with their actions.

Just this week Bob Woodward and Greg Miller reported on how Pakistan fits into this picture. Here is their lead: “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.”

Pakistan is a hotbed of anti-American sentiment in part due to the mutually beneficial security cooperation that Pakistan both conducts and undercuts as it seeks to protect itself from the very terrorist groups it enables. The Washington Post article nods toward Pakistani cooperation with the drone program as a “poorly kept” secret, which it is. But the documents show, the Post notes, “the explicit nature” of the bilateral agreement on drones.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told the Post that a new day has dawned and the current Pakistani government is united in its opposition to drone strikes. It’s plausible, however, that the revelations will have the opposite effect. “I think people knew it already, but this makes it much more obvious, and the [Pakistani] media and others will have to cool off,” a retired Pakistani general told the Post. That’s because it’s not so easy to portray it as a violation of sovereignty when it is very much not a violation of sovereignty–a lesson the Europeans should keep in mind.

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Why We Spy

I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

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I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

In the pursuit of their interests, all states need as much information as possible about the actions and (even harder to fathom) the intentions of other states, even (or perhaps especially) those with whom they are allied at the moment. There is pretty much no state on whose automatic loyalty you can count. Witness how our close allies the French refused to support the Iraq war but took the lead in Mali. Or how the Germans chose to sit out Iraq but participated in Afghanistan. And that’s only looking at security policy; economic policy is also a big deal. The reason why all advanced nations spend a lot of money on intelligence is, in part, to help them answer such questions.

Sure, a much bigger part of the intelligence budget goes, as it should, to analyzing the actions and intentions of enemies, but even if you are narrowly focused on bad actors such as Iran or al-Qaeda, you must have accurate information on the actions of your allies: Will the Germans support tougher sanctions? Will the Italians cooperate in a rendition? And so on. That’s why nations spy on each other in private, even while pledging eternal friendship in public.

That’s why the U.S. intelligence community fears penetration by the intelligence service of Israel (an ally) at least as much as it fears penetration by the intelligence services of avowed enemies such as Iran and Cuba. And with good cause.

There is a partial exception: the “five eyes” alliance between the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those nations, which have been sharing sensitive signals intelligence since World War II, probably don’t spy on each other’s leaders–but they do spy on each other’s citizens. In fact this intelligence sharing allows them to do an end-run around prohibitions on domestic surveillance: the Brits can spy on our citizens, we can spy on theirs, and then we can share the results.

Everyone else–every other country outside the “five eyes”–is fair game for American spying, and we are fair game for theirs. Of course the leaders of France, Germany, Brazil, et al. know this. But their voters don’t. Much of their anger is faked for public consumption. The only outrage is that anyone is outraged.

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Nixon’s Ghost and the Specter of Hypocrisy

In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

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In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

Now in fairness, the video also includes appearances and commentary by Oliver Stone, so perhaps it’s not meant to be taken seriously anyway. But it’s a good example of the cognitive dissonance this president has inspired in his followers. Nixon, who takes a starring role in the video, remains the mascot for government intrusion and overreach.

At the rally, Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash will join such luminaries as Noami Wolf and Dennis Kucinich to speak about the dangers of, presumably, the Nixon administration’s crackdown on domestic liberty, his failing strategy in Vietnam, his belligerence toward Cuba, and his outdated anti-Communism. Oliver Stone does not appear slated to speak at the rally, so Harry Truman will be spared the Nixon treatment.

But at least Cusack and Co.’s outrage seems genuine. While the ACLU rallies against Nixon, our allies abroad are complaining about more phone-tapping allegations, specifically against France and Germany. Marc Ambinder throws some cold water on the outrage there too:

Of course, Brazil, France, Germany, and Mexico do exactly the same thing. They want their leaders to gain a decision advantage in the give and take between countries. They want to know what U.S. policymakers will do before the Americans do it. And in the case of Brazil and France, they aggressively spy on the United States, on U.S. citizens and politicians, in order to collect that information. The difference lies in the scale of intelligence collection: The U.S. has the most effective, most distributed, most sophisticated intelligence community in the West. It is Goliath. And other countries, rightly in their mind, are envious.

“The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us,” former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

The difference, he added, is that “we don’t have the same means as the United States — which makes us jealous.”

But there’s a limit to the utility of pointing out others’ hypocrisy. A Foreign Affairs essay making the rounds today is from Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, arguing that the real damage from the WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations is that they will expose America’s hypocrisy. And acting hypocritically, they write, is a crucial and underappreciated strategic necessity:

Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

I remain skeptical, however. It’s not just that our allies act hypocritically; it’s that they want us to act hypocritically. If nations cater first and foremost to their interests, then they care about the policies of the United States, not the gap between public rhetoric and action. The same is true for the domestic audience: most Americans were happy that President Obama continued many of the anti-terrorism methods used by the Bush administration, because they are vital to national security.

Obama’s hypocrisy was and continues to be noted by conservatives. But conservatives don’t oppose the policies that result from that hypocrisy, because the policies matter more than campaign promises. That is not to say that the public approves of politicians being dishonest to gain office: Obama may have genuinely thought what Bush was doing was wrong and unnecessary until he began getting intelligence briefings. Politicians who don’t have access to all the information are not liars just because they later discovered that their initial instincts were wrong.

Likewise, our allies abroad benefit tremendously from the American national-security infrastructure. They might be angered by the Snowden leaks, but that’s because they’re hypocrites too, and the leaks open them up to domestic criticism for their own hypocrisy. The leaks are plenty damaging to national security, but it’s unlikely they’re going to lose the U.S. the cooperation and support of allies who rely on American power projection and won’t presume to pretend otherwise.

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Germany Shows EU Lack of Iran Resolve

Turkey may be the West’s biggest leak on Iran sanctions, but as has unfortunately been a frequent theme of mine here at COMMENTARY, Germany is the greatest example of Europe’s cravenness and lack of resolve toward Iran’s nuclear program. Alas, it seems, despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his promise to rework diplomacy, the trend continues. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

The Institute of Religious Studies in Potsdam and the URD in Qom declared the beginning of cooperation in 2011. In September, a delegation of the University of Potsdam and the Goethe University Frankfurt / Main will travel to Iran… The cooperation is backed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding last year, in order to strengthen academic relationships with Iran. The fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology at the time, was on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work, was ignored.

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Turkey may be the West’s biggest leak on Iran sanctions, but as has unfortunately been a frequent theme of mine here at COMMENTARY, Germany is the greatest example of Europe’s cravenness and lack of resolve toward Iran’s nuclear program. Alas, it seems, despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his promise to rework diplomacy, the trend continues. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

The Institute of Religious Studies in Potsdam and the URD in Qom declared the beginning of cooperation in 2011. In September, a delegation of the University of Potsdam and the Goethe University Frankfurt / Main will travel to Iran… The cooperation is backed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding last year, in order to strengthen academic relationships with Iran. The fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology at the time, was on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work, was ignored.

There’s a myth out there that people-to-people dialogue is always positive. Perhaps that’s true if you’re a fan of the Dennis Rodman school of diplomacy, but it is unsupported by evidence. Rogue regimes seldom serve up ordinary people to such dialogues, but rather transform well-meaning foreign activists and academics into useful idiots. The University of Potsdam and DAAD’s willingness to work not with free Iranians, but rather respectively with a clerical propaganda center and a sanctioned official shows just how empty German resolve can be.

European Union countries—especially Germany—may talk a good game when it comes to diplomacy but, time and time again, they show that their diplomacy is pro forma and their rhetoric empty. German officials and businessmen worship at the altar of the status quo divorced completely from the human rights idealism and security responsibility for which they claim to stand. Let us hope that the United States never ceases to lead, because the European Union’s largest country is simply not up to the task.

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Germany Again Seeks to Cheat on Iran Sanctions

Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

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Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

Alas, it seems that the erosion of American credibility has occurred not only among U.S. adversaries but also with regard to U.S. allies. What to do? Germany wants its defense minister to take the helm of NATO. If the Obama administration wanted to be taken seriously, it would make German seriousness regarding one of the greatest collective security threats the West faces a condition of signing off on any such appointment. Alas, it seems, Obama’s strategy appears to assuage Berlin by undermining U.S. credibility even further.

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How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold War

It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

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It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began. There were no surprise attacks, no declarations of war, no severing even of diplomatic ties. There was, however, a growing sense of insecurity at the highest levels in Washington, London, and Moscow, generated by the efforts the wartime allies were making to ensure their own postwar security.

Just an ominous cloud that kept advancing until it was right overhead. And now, it seems, Obama is embracing reality and pushing back. Today he spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but with a slight adjustment: he spoke from the eastern side of the gate, to revel in the absence of despotism and division. He was joined at the speech by 92-year-old Gail Halvorsen, the former Air Force pilot known as the “original Candy Bomber” during the heroic Berlin Airlift exactly 65 years ago next week. And he paid tribute specifically to the crucial symbolic role played by the West’s willingness to establish in West Berlin the free world’s superior answer to the subjugation of East Berlin:

During that time, a Marshall Plan seeded a miracle, and a North Atlantic Alliance protected our people.  And those in the neighborhoods and nations to the East drew strength from the knowledge that freedom was possible here, in Berlin — that the waves of crackdowns and suppressions might therefore someday be overcome. 

No moral relativism there. What we had was better than what the proponents of dreary and brutal socialism had to offer. Our system was just and theirs dishonorable. Our side was the future, theirs the past. Where once Obama’s rhetoric smacked of “peace dividend” complacency, he told Berlin that “complacency is not the character of great nations.  Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity — that struggle goes on.  And I’ve come here, to this city of hope, because the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”

The president would like to reduce nuclear stockpiles in a negotiated agreement with Russia, but the prospects for such cooperation aren’t great. And of course he wants to harness this new anti-complacency, in part, to stave off global warming and promote political activism. But he also defended the anti-terror programs currently in the news and when he spoke of Osama bin Laden’s death, he added that “Our efforts against al Qaeda are evolving”–a less triumphal but more realistic approach to understanding and waging the war on terror.

The onset of the Cold War was both disappointing and understated because the world seemed to have been at war for half a century, and many had no desire to accept the reality that war would continue. If you think Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan, just imagine how they felt after two world wars. And they got off easy–World War II arguably didn’t really end in Poland when it ended for the West, tyranny having continued seamlessly there.

But reality always intervenes. And it has once again. Obama may not have been interested in the history and lessons of the Cold War, but to paraphrase Trotsky, the Cold War was interested in him. Gone seems to be his dismissive attitude toward the conflict, replaced with a disdain for those who still look east for strength or salvation. It remains to be seen whether this will have any significant implications for the president’s foreign policy, but if it doesn’t, it will be due to stubbornness, not cluelessness.

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France’s Outrageous Double Standard on Hezbollah and Terrorism

For anyone who still thinks Europe’s widespread anti-Israel sentiment is purely a reaction to Israel’s policies, completely untainted by anti-Semitism, consider the unblushing announcement made by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today: France, he said, is now ready to consider listing Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, because “the fact that it has fought extremely hard against the Syrian population” has caused Paris to reverse its longstanding opposition to the move. 

Naturally, I’m delighted that France has finally seen the light about Hezbollah. But France had no problem with the organization during all the years it was conducting cross-border attacks on the Israeli population. Lest anyone forget, these attacks continued even after Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from every last inch of Lebanese territory in 2000; it was one such cross-border raid that sparked the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006. In other words, France has just declared that cross-border incursions to kill Jews in Israel are perfectly fine, but cross-border incursions to kill Muslims in Syria are beyond the pale. If that isn’t an anti-Semitic double standard, I don’t know what is.

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For anyone who still thinks Europe’s widespread anti-Israel sentiment is purely a reaction to Israel’s policies, completely untainted by anti-Semitism, consider the unblushing announcement made by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today: France, he said, is now ready to consider listing Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, because “the fact that it has fought extremely hard against the Syrian population” has caused Paris to reverse its longstanding opposition to the move. 

Naturally, I’m delighted that France has finally seen the light about Hezbollah. But France had no problem with the organization during all the years it was conducting cross-border attacks on the Israeli population. Lest anyone forget, these attacks continued even after Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from every last inch of Lebanese territory in 2000; it was one such cross-border raid that sparked the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006. In other words, France has just declared that cross-border incursions to kill Jews in Israel are perfectly fine, but cross-border incursions to kill Muslims in Syria are beyond the pale. If that isn’t an anti-Semitic double standard, I don’t know what is.

Indeed, until now, France has consistently billed Hezbollah as a legitimate political force that contributes to stability in the Levant. That was always nonsensical: Starting a war with your southern neighbor that devastates large swathes of your own country, as Hezbollah did in 2006, is not exactly stabilizing behavior. But apparently, in France’s view, fighting Israel does contribute to Middle East stability: It’s only because Hezbollah is now fighting Syrians instead that Paris suddenly sees the organization as a destabilizing force.

If other European countries think the same thing, they had the decency not to say it aloud. Germany, for instance, said it has reversed its longstanding opposition to blacklisting Hezbollah due to evidence that the organization was behind last summer’s terror attack in Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian, and had been collecting information in Cyprus in preparation for additional terror attacks against Israelis and Jews on European soil. I’m no fan of the German approach, which essentially says terrorism is fine as long as you keep it out of Europe, but there’s nothing anti-Semitic about it; it’s perfectly normal for Europeans to care more about attacks on European soil than they do about attacks in the Middle East.

France, in contrast, has just said it cares deeply about attacks in the Middle East–but only if they’re directed against (non-Israeli) Muslims. You want to kill Jews in the Middle East? Go right ahead, says France: We’ll even help you do it, by keeping you off the EU’s list of terrorist organizations and thereby ensuring that you can fund-raise freely on our territory. Just don’t make the mistake of turning your arms on Muslims instead.

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Germany Again Betrays Iranians’ Human Rights

It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.

Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:

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It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.

Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:

Sheikh Attar is accused to being directly responsible for numerous killings in the Kurdish areas of Iran. Michael Spaney, spokesperson for STOP THE BOMB Germany, asks the Evangelische Akademie to follow the example of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Saxony and the Neuhardenberg Foundation, which have canceled similar events with the Iranian ambassador due to protests.

Iranian-German activist Saba Farzan is absolutely correct when she writes, “To pretend that this conference is designed to strengthen the Iranian civil society is a mockery of the young Iranian generation and their courage.” In his first Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to the Iranian people, Obama broke with tradition to conflate the regime with the people. The Iranian regime’s crushing of the 2009 post-election protests should have put an end to the illusion that the regime had anything to do with civil society. Why the Germans refuse to learn that lesson probably has less to do with ignorance and more with a cynical drive to ingratiate themselves to Iran’s leadership in the hope of making a quick buck, consequences be damned. Even if that is too cynical an interpretation, this conference shows the notion that either the German government or the Lutheran church (which owns the Evangelische Akademie Loccum) care about human rights is risible.

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Eurozone Unemployment Crisis

Whatever the U.S. unemployment figures turn out to be on Friday, they will be far better than what the eurozone—the 17 countries that use the euro currency—released today. The eurozone economy is contracting, which is to say it’s in recession, and the overall unemployment is a dismal 12 percent, up from 11.9 percent last month.

But the spread among the 17 countries is far, far wider than among the 50 American states. Unemployment is a mere 4.8 percent in Austria and 5.4 percent in neighboring, but far larger Germany. Both figures are much better than U.S. unemployment, which is at 7.7 percent. Germany and Austria are adding jobs, not shedding them like the rest of the zone. That includes jobs in manufacturing, an economic sector that is bleeding jobs elsewhere. The purchasing manager activity index, a measure of manufacturing strength, dropped sharply last month to 46.8 from 47.9 the month before. Anything less than 50 is an indication of economic contraction.

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Whatever the U.S. unemployment figures turn out to be on Friday, they will be far better than what the eurozone—the 17 countries that use the euro currency—released today. The eurozone economy is contracting, which is to say it’s in recession, and the overall unemployment is a dismal 12 percent, up from 11.9 percent last month.

But the spread among the 17 countries is far, far wider than among the 50 American states. Unemployment is a mere 4.8 percent in Austria and 5.4 percent in neighboring, but far larger Germany. Both figures are much better than U.S. unemployment, which is at 7.7 percent. Germany and Austria are adding jobs, not shedding them like the rest of the zone. That includes jobs in manufacturing, an economic sector that is bleeding jobs elsewhere. The purchasing manager activity index, a measure of manufacturing strength, dropped sharply last month to 46.8 from 47.9 the month before. Anything less than 50 is an indication of economic contraction.

In France, the second largest economy in the eurozone, the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent, double Germany’s. In Spain it’s a staggering 26.3 percent, about what American unemployment was at the very bottom of the Great Depression. In Greece, the youth unemployment rate is 58.4 percent. In other words, nearly six out of ten of the young in Greece have nothing better to do than riot in the streets. Now that the weather is improving, they might well do exactly that.

Together with the crisis of the euro itself, most recently manifested in the bail out of the banks in tiny Cyprus, Europe is in deep economic trouble and the solutions are not easy to see.  And Europe is this country’s largest trading partner. The collapse of the euro, or even a severe recession, will not be confined to Europe.

As Bette Davis famously advised, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Halabja’s Lessons

Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

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Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

The German government has been dragging its feet for more than 20 years now and systematically plays down its responsibility for the build-up of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Yet, German assistance in building up a chemical weapons production was essential: Without German economic aid the Iraqi chemical weapons production would not have been possible… Many documents and sources, though, not only suggest that German cooperation was essential for the Iraqi poison gas program. They also show that there was already some awareness about this in Germany back then. All the same, the relevant goods were delivered… 70 percent of the equipment for Iraqi chemical weapons plants were delivered by German companies. German foreign intelligence service personnel had been present in at least one of these companies. Most parts to enhance Iraq’s rockets, grenades and missiles were delivered from Germany. The military-economic cooperation was backed politically by export credit guaranties. The armament of Iraq was wished for.

Western officials—and human rights activists—should push for the German government and German businesses to acknowledge their role in making possible Saddam’s weapons program if only because the same pattern appears to be repeating today with regard to Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may talk a good game, and German Green Party members may cynically shroud themselves in the rhetoric of human rights, but when push comes to shove German officials across the political spectrum appear to put profits above the fight against the most genocidal autocrats. Hence, rather than curtail German businesses investing in Iran, Berlin seems to be encouraging them.

It is time to shine light on Germany’s dangerous cynicism. That German officials and businesses continue to shirk responsibility for their role in enabling Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign suggests the West can have no confidence that German officials are serious about denying a potentially genocidal regime the weaponry to act upon their ideological impulses.

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Germany Helps Companies Evade Iran Sanctions

Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:

The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.

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Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:

The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.

Despite the opposition of President Obama—and his defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel—it has been the U.S. and European unilateral sanctions toward Iran’s central bank and energy sector that have proven most effective. And contrary to the insistence of some Iran experts and anti-sanctions activists, China hasn’t simply filled the gap. How unfortunate that the weak link in sanctions meant to avoid military action against Iran is coming from Germany. Perhaps detecting President Obama’s own lackluster commitment to preventing Iranian nuclear breakout, Germany figures now is as good a time as any to make a quick buck.

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Have Patience with the Arab Spring

Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

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Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

France, after all, transitioned from absolute monarchy by way of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. This was followed by numerous further upheavals that Berman does not mention, including the Bourbon restoration from 1815 to 1830, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1851, the creation of the Third Republic in 1870, the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and, finally, in 1958 the overthrow of the Fourth Republic and the birth of the Fifth Republic which has lasted to this day.

Germany, for its part, was forcibly created by Bismarck out of numerous smaller states in the decades leading up to 1871 and democracy did not emerge until after World War I—only to be snuffed out starting in 1933 by Adolf Hitler. Out of the post-war rubble emerged a West Germany that was democratic and an East Germany that was not. A unified, democratic Germany was not created until 1990.

As for Italy, it, too, did not emerge as a unified state until relatively late (1870). And it, too, saw its nascent democracy usurped by a fascist (Benito Mussolini), and it did not become a true liberal democracy until after World War II.

Nor was the process of democratization painless in the United States: It took two outright wars (the War of Independence and the Civil War) to establish self-government and another period of violent upheaval (the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-60s) to realize the potential of the Constitution.

Considering the tribulations suffered by the U.S. and Europe on the road to democracy, it is hardly surprising that the process of political reform is proving painful in the Middle East. As Berman reminds us: “Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries.”

She is right. Anyone who reads her article, “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” should gain a measure of patience and understanding for what it is currently happening in the Middle East. We cannot expect overnight miracles, but that does not mean that it is possible to cling to the rule of discredited strongmen—any more than Europe today could possibly return to the rule of absolute monarchs.

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Drop the Emotional Baggage of Israel’s “Best Friends in Europe”

Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

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Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

Now contrast this with the response of dozens of non-European countries that also supported the UN bid and oppose settlement construction. Has anyone heard any sanctions threats coming from China or India, for instance? Of course not. And that’s precisely because Israel’s bilateral relations with those countries are based on interest, not an imagined friendship. The mutual interests (mainly economic) are extensive, and both sides are eager to pursue them. But it’s strictly a business relationship; neither side expects anything of the other beyond that. Israel knows China and India will vote against it in every possible forum; China and India know Israel won’t take their views into account when determining its foreign and defense policies. And since neither side expects anything more, they don’t get upset over it.

But the term “friendship” immediately creates expectations. You expect your friends to take your wishes and interests into account, and you feel upset and betrayed when they don’t. And precisely because Israel and its supporters have been referring to Britain, Germany, France and co. for so long as “Israel’s best friends in Europe,” they get upset when they feel Israel isn’t treating them that way, and Israel gets upset when they don’t act that way.

So it’s time to eliminate the emotional baggage. Britain, France and Germany are much better than, say, Ireland and Norway, but they aren’t friends. Like China and India, they’re countries with whom Israel has many mutual interests worth pursuing, but both sides need to accept that they will often disagree–and they need to start doing it like adults.

And if anyone feels an emotional need for a “best friend in Europe,” Israel actually has a real one, with a consistent, decades-old record: the sole European country to vote with Israel at the UN last week, which was also the sole country to buck a worldwide arms embargo 64 years ago and supply Israel with desperately needed planes during its War of Independence. So could we please stop insulting the Czech Republic by lumping it in the same semantic category as Germany, France and Britain?

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Germans Move to Lift Bris Ban

Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

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Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

The prosecutions of rabbis for performing circumcisions, the decisions by hospitals to cease conducting the procedure, and incidents of anti-Semitic violence have all helped to create a hostile atmosphere for European Jews. While some put down the opposition to circumcision to a general lack of tolerance for faith and organized religion in Europe, the fact remains that Jews remain the leading targets for ostracism and hatred.

In contemporary Europe, hostility to Zionism and Israel has given a façade of faux legitimacy to traditional anti-Semitism. Combine that with a culture that views all religious observance as either primitive or foreign and it’s easy to see how the anti-circumcision movement has gained so much traction.

That means that Merkel is going to have put the whip out on her coalition members to ensure that the bill is passed without any changes that would make it impossible for mohels to do their job and thus render the whole exercise pointless.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Merkel deserves great credit for pushing the bill through this far. A failure to legalize circumcision will expose Germany to ridicule and anger. But even if it passes, there is no denying that this lamentable chapter has exposed a raw nerve of modern Jew-hatred.

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Germany’s Double-Dealing on Iran

The good folks at Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign alerted me to this latest tidbit, which clearly shows what a double game Berlin now plays vis-à-vis Iran:

Last month, Iran’s Science, Research, and Technology ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the German Academic Exchange Service. When it comes to its dealings with Iran, DAAD acts with the blessing of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The German agreement with Iran comes despite the fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, is on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work. DAAD’s logic of academic engagement falls short when it fails to pay attention to the agenda and, in this case, expertise of its partners. Exchange in the humanities is one thing. Does DAAD really believe it is wise to provide Iranians pursuing nuclear and sensitive scientific studies with unprecedented access to German technology and instruction?

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The good folks at Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign alerted me to this latest tidbit, which clearly shows what a double game Berlin now plays vis-à-vis Iran:

Last month, Iran’s Science, Research, and Technology ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the German Academic Exchange Service. When it comes to its dealings with Iran, DAAD acts with the blessing of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The German agreement with Iran comes despite the fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, is on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work. DAAD’s logic of academic engagement falls short when it fails to pay attention to the agenda and, in this case, expertise of its partners. Exchange in the humanities is one thing. Does DAAD really believe it is wise to provide Iranians pursuing nuclear and sensitive scientific studies with unprecedented access to German technology and instruction?

Sanctions against those involved in Iran’s nuclear program will not alone change the regime’s mind against the path it is pursuing. The logic of sanctions, however, is to isolate the regime and to demonstrate a united front. With DAAD’s latest agreement, however, the German government appears to be signaling Iran that nothing is beyond the pale, not even dabbling in nuclear weapons technology. As the Iranian regime doubles down on its genocidal rhetoric, it is unfortunate that Berlin pursues such an underhanded policy. It is embarrassing, as well, that the German government has concluded that the White House policy of leading from behind means that they need not worry about chastisement for their double-dealing.

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A Victory for Anti-Semites in Berlin

The controversy over efforts by some Germans to ban circumcision has gone from bad to worse in the months since a Cologne court deemed the procedure illegal. Prosecutors have charged two rabbis for carrying out the procedure, though the one who was being investigated for merely saying he would on television is now to be left alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed that the country’s parliament will act this fall to ensure that it is legalized, but the discussion this vow has engendered has only complicated matters. That was made plain today when Berlin, one of the country’s 16 states in a federal system as well as Germany’s capital, issued a ruling declaring circumcision legal but only if a doctor performs it. This means that the brit milah ceremony — an integral part of Jewish identity — is still illegal and therefore constitutes a severe abridgement of religious freedom.

As the Associated Press reports, State Justice Minister Thomas Heilman said the measure was meant to allay fears in this “difficult transitional period.” But the refusal to allow circumcisions to go on as they always have under the supervision of Jewish religious leaders and according to traditional ritual is a defeat for those seeking to end this controversy. Though the use of mohels may be protected by national legislation, the Berlin decision may serve as a precedent by which the country as a whole may limit circumcisions and stop their performance under traditional Jewish auspices by mohels. These limits are a victory for those disingenuously arguing that the practice is unsafe, and means future debate in Germany on the issue will be conducted on an uneven playing field for the Jewish community.

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The controversy over efforts by some Germans to ban circumcision has gone from bad to worse in the months since a Cologne court deemed the procedure illegal. Prosecutors have charged two rabbis for carrying out the procedure, though the one who was being investigated for merely saying he would on television is now to be left alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed that the country’s parliament will act this fall to ensure that it is legalized, but the discussion this vow has engendered has only complicated matters. That was made plain today when Berlin, one of the country’s 16 states in a federal system as well as Germany’s capital, issued a ruling declaring circumcision legal but only if a doctor performs it. This means that the brit milah ceremony — an integral part of Jewish identity — is still illegal and therefore constitutes a severe abridgement of religious freedom.

As the Associated Press reports, State Justice Minister Thomas Heilman said the measure was meant to allay fears in this “difficult transitional period.” But the refusal to allow circumcisions to go on as they always have under the supervision of Jewish religious leaders and according to traditional ritual is a defeat for those seeking to end this controversy. Though the use of mohels may be protected by national legislation, the Berlin decision may serve as a precedent by which the country as a whole may limit circumcisions and stop their performance under traditional Jewish auspices by mohels. These limits are a victory for those disingenuously arguing that the practice is unsafe, and means future debate in Germany on the issue will be conducted on an uneven playing field for the Jewish community.

The effort to ban circumcisions, which has spooked hospitals throughout the region to ban the procedure, is being represented as a health issue. However, this is a thin veil for the prejudice against minority religions and non-German natives. The rulings affect Muslims as well as Jews, but there’s no escaping the conclusion that a willingness to both limit the practice of Judaism and offend Jewish sensibilities in this manner demonstrate that the rules about anti-Semitism are changing in Germany. Such a decision would have been impossible in the past, because any German judge or official would have feared to be associated with a campaign that reeks of anti-Semitism in the country where the Holocaust was perpetrated. But 67 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Germans, and especially German intellectuals who have bought into the demonization of Israel, have no such compunctions.

It needs to be understood that if the Berlin ruling becomes the national standard for circumcision for all of Germany it will be more than a blow to that country’s post-war tradition of religious tolerance. It will be the end of the revival of Jewish life in Germany. Chancellor Merkel must act quickly to spike this trend and ensure that traditional Jewish practices are protected if she wishes to avoid seeing her nation being labeled as a beachhead for the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

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