The Beirut Wall

Der Spiegel is not generally regarded as a serious publication, any more than, say, Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. At least, when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Nevertheless, its readership, as with the other two, can be fairly wide. In any event, imagine my surprise to find that they've run an item suggesting that George W. Bush might actually have gotten it right with regard to how to advance peace in the Middle East.

Quick quiz. He was re-elected as president of the United States despite being largely disliked in the world -- particularly in Europe. The Europeans considered him to be a war-mongerer and liked to accuse him of allowing his deep religious beliefs to become the motor behind his foreign policy. Easy right?

Actually, the answer isn't as obvious as it might seem. President Ronald Reagan's visit to Berlin in 1987 was, in many respects, very similar to President George W. Bush's visit to Mainz on Wednesday. Like Bush's visit, Reagan's trip was likewise accompanied by unprecedented security precautions. A handpicked crowd cheered Reagan in front of the Brandenburg Gate while large parts of the Berlin subway system were shut down. And the Germany Reagan was traveling in, much like today's Germany, was very skeptical of the American president and his foreign policy. When Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate -- and the Berlin Wall -- and demanded that Gorbachev "tear down this Wall," he was lampooned the next day on the editorial pages. He is a dreamer, wrote commentators. Realpolitik looks different.

The author builds his credibility by sympathizing with the viceral disgust some folks experience when they listen to Bush's ideas (to say nothing of his voice), but challenges readers to recall that they had felt very much the same way about Reagan before, and thus open their minds to the possibility that maybe, maybe, they just might be wrong about Bush's vision.
It was difficult not to cringe during Reagan's speech in 1987. He didn't leave a single Berlin cliché out of his script. At the end of it, most experts agreed that his demand for the removal of the Wall was inopportune, utopian and crazy.

Yet three years later, East Germany had disappeared from the map. Gorbachev had a lot to do with it, but it was the East Germans who played the larger role. When analysts are confronted by real people, amazing things can happen. And maybe history can repeat itself. Maybe the people of Syria, Iran or Jordan will get the idea in their heads to free themselves from their oppressive regimes just as the East Germans did. When the voter turnout in Iraq recently exceeded that of many Western nations, the chorus of critique from Iraq alarmists was, at least for a couple of days, quieted. Just as quiet as the chorus of Germany experts on the night of Nov. 9, 1989 when the Wall fell.

Just a thought for Old Europe to chew on: Bush might be right, just like Reagan was then.

For those who reflexively tune out anything Bush has to say because he is a Republican, or because he's got a relatively high-pitched Texas twang, or because he's been compared to a chimp, but who do appreciate some good rhetoric, New Sisyphus has a great reaction to Bush's Brussels speech.

But, more to the point (and to remain consistent with the title of this post), the imagery of the Berlin Wall as a simile for the winds of change in the Middle East are captured even more succinctly in a piece by David Ignatius for the Washington Post, inspired by an interview with the anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, as wella s imagery in Beirut.

"Enough!" That's one of the simple slogans you see scrawled on the walls around Rafiq Hariri's grave site here. And it sums up the movement for political change that has suddenly coalesced in Lebanon and is slowly gathering force elsewhere in the Arab world.

"We want the truth." That's another of the Lebanese slogans, painted on a banner hanging from the Martyr's Monument near the mosque where Hariri is buried. It's a revolutionary idea for people who have had to live with lies spun by regimes that were brutally clinging to power. People want the truth about who killed Hariri last week, but on a deeper level they want the truth about why Arab regimes have failed to deliver on their promises of progress and prosperity.


Jumblatt dresses like an ex-hippie, in jeans and loafers, but he maintains the exquisite manners of a Lebanese aristocrat. Over the years, I've often heard him denouncing the United States and Israel, but these days, in the aftermath of Hariri's death, he's sounding almost like a neoconservative. He says he's determined to defy the Syrians until their troops leave Lebanon and the Lahoud government is replaced.

"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," explains Jumblatt. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt says this spark of democratic revolt is spreading. "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Indeed! It is important to recall that it is not absolutely necessary to the United States that new democracies in the Middle East are particularly pro-America, or even that they are friendly or lukewarm with America. All that is important is that their peoples be given a chance to make a better future for themselves, under the presumption that if they are too busy building schools and hospitals and banks and cafés, they won't be indulging in paying Palestinian families to encourage their teenage sons and daughters to blow themselves up in the hopes that little Israeli boys and girls will be annihilated along with them.

The United States has had the great fortune, since the end of the Second World War, of being able to build its economy and continue to improve its military capabilities at the same time. True, this has come at the cost of a large national debt, as well as expensive entitlement programs. But the U.S. is not at as much risk of going bankrupt as many European socialist regimes are. The one other contender for power in the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Soviet Union, was able to keep up militarily for several decades, but its economy was unable to keep up. It's a shame those Communists don't believe in the very capitalist notion of credit, I guess.

To take a very clear example, look at France. Its people can sometimes be even more anti-American than some Arab peoples, and its government has been decidedly anti-American since Charles de Gaulle, no doubt exacerbated by America's defense of Egypt against British-French-Israeli encroachment on the Suez Canal in 1956. Yet the French and the Americans manage to co-exist quite uneventfully, sometimes even quite happily. And nobody seriously thinks France would ever go to war with the United States or doubts how that war would turn out if it did happen.

The times, they're a changin'!

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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