"You're a Hitler! No, you're a Hitler!"
Thursday, October 3 2002, 03:22 PM
During the recent dust-up over German chancellor Gerhard Schröder's refusal to beat in time to America's war drums and his justice minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin's comparison of George W. Bush to Adolph Hitler, no one paused to ask the seemingly obvious question: Why did the administration even bother to respond?
Oh, but bother it did. According to news reports, Bush was "evidently furious" at the remarks and went on to say that he had been "deeply troubled" by them. (Such genuine outpourings of Presidential feeling aside, those Americans who doubted the intellectual acumen of our President can breathe a little easier. He apparently is smart enough to know an anachronistic and politically inaccurate comparison when he sees one). Däubler-Gmelin's gaffe came a few days before the German elections, but Bush was clearly still steamed a few days later, because, in a breach of protocol, he offered only passing acknowledgement of Schröder's victory. And finally, all the President's men got into the act with Donald Rumsfeld refusing to meeting his German counterpart at a NATO meeting shortly after the election while taking the time to criticize the course of the German campaign as "notably unhelpful" and even as possibly "poisoning a relationship."
This was a tremendous expenditure of political and diplomatic energy when the more efficient and certainly more truthful response to Däubler-Gmelin's charge that Bush was using the war as a cynical measure to divert American attention from more pressing domestic problems would have been, "Now that's the pot calling the kettle black."
Then if anyone engaged in diversionary tactics, it was certainly Gerhard Schröder, Däubler-Gmelin's boss before she was sacked for her brand of attack politics. Not two months ago, Schröder, the charismatic, politically savvy new Social Democrat, found himself trailing the decidedly staid Bavarian conservative Edmund Stoiber in the polls. Schröder had won the chancellorship in 1998 by, in part, positioning himself as a committed (if that's possible) third way Social Democrat, one who would be an effective steward of Germany's globalized economy and still preserve the old values of social justice and economic equity. Brimming with confidence, Schröder even promised to bring Germany's unemployment below four million.
One slump in the global economy later and Schröder found himself with a severely under-performing economy and an unemployment rate several hundred thousand souls above four million: all points that Stoiber hammered home to obvious political profit and a slight, but decisive edge in the polls. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, where regional differences remain entrenched and laden with meaning, it looked like a Bavarian might occupy the chancellor's office.
That is, until Schröder discovered he could cover lost ground by tapping into (or cynically exploiting, if you prefer) his fellow citizens' deeply felt reluctance use military force. Criticizing Bush's war plans, Schröder was able to switch (or divert, if you prefer) public attention away from the economy and to the threat of impending military conflict. Outmaneuvered, Stoiber could do little; he certainly could not strike a bellicose counter tone and cheerlead for the war. He was left without a clear issue with which to mobilize either his base or undecided voters down the home stretch.
Administration officials could have pointed this out. But instead, there were snubs and grouchy charges of poisoning relationships. Commentators have interpreted these actions as an indication of the administration's foreign-policy arrogance and its penchant for unilateralism to the detriment of international cooperation. This seems a misreading. Then, the arrogant, unilateralist response would have been to simply to dismiss Schröder's opposition and Däubler-Gmelin's remarks. But instead the world was treated to an elaborate theater of official anger and diplomatic umbrage taking.
Why exactly? Because through such a contrived display the administration could appear to care more about world opinion than it actually does. By seeming to care what happened in Germany, the administration could paradoxically project an atmosphere of political normalcy. Such disagreements about policy are part and policy of international politics. But in fact, the situation is anything but normal. World opinion seems to matter very little. The administration seems to have made up its mind, to have already defined the path to be taken in Iraq, which, in this instance, means nothing less than the use of force. This is suggested, by among other things, the fact that the administration will act, if need be, without UN sanction and underscored by Bush's recent remarks that "if at the end of the day nothing happens, the United States, along with others, will act." What exactly is left to decide? What does opposition matter?
That this undermines the democratic process should be clear. To be meaningful, democratic deliberations must stand the chance of leading to a decision or, at the very least, influencing decisions taken at higher levels of authority by representatives and elected officials. If they cannot fulfill this necessary task, because the decisions have already been made, then such procedures degenerate into political window dressing. They become abstract and surreal because they are disconnected from the possibility of influencing political reality and the course of events.
If there is a war with Iraq, we will surely be treated to enough staged, slickly packaged examples of military conflict. At this crucial stage, we have no need for contrived episodes of political conflict. We need as much genuine debate and political contestation as a democratic system such as ours can muster.
John Brady is a member of the Bad Subjects collective.