The Washington Times
In 1981-82, millions of demonstrators gathered in the streets of Western Europe to protest the planned deployment of U.S. Pershing II missiles in response to the Soviet Union’s intermediate-range nuclear weapons. The government of West Germany’s Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fell over the uncontainable opposition to the Pershings from the left wing of his own party. The new German chancellor was the largely unknown and untested Helmut Kohl.
Especially in West Germany, the front line state in the Cold War, neutralist sentiment as between the United States and the Soviet Union was mounting, sometimes spilling over into proposals that West Germany reach a security partnership with the Soviets. “The onslaught of neutralism, anti-nuclear pacifism, and outright anti-Americanism [that Mr. Kohl] inherited was formidable,” writes Jeffrey Gedmin, now director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, “and still on the rise.”
The capital, Bonn, was the scene of some of the largest and most virulent demonstrations, often personalized around the new president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, portrayed inevitably as a greater threat to the peace of Europe than the forces of the Warsaw Pact arrayed in East Germany. Nevertheless, the new Christian Democratic chancellor remained steadfastly committed to the deployment of the Pershings and to West Germany’s attachment to the NATO alliance. Germany, he often repeated, would be governed from the Bundestag, not from the streets.
Looking back on that time, as Mr. Gedmin notes [in a 1999 article in Policy Review, “Helmut Kohl, Giant”], Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was moved to declare Mr. Kohl’s unwavering commitment to NATO as one of the things leading to the “new thinking” in the 1980s Kremlin – which in turn led to the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.
Surveying the vast anti-war protests over Iraq that swept through European capitals this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Kohl. Over the past several years, when the subject of a possible rise in anti-American sentiment in Europe has come up, my inclination has been to cite that period of 1981-82 for what the real thing looks like – in other words, to find the supposed present crisis somewhat wanting by comparison. After this weekend, the case for reassurance by comparison doesn’t look so good.
Whereas once we had Helmut Kohl, now in Germany we have Gerhard Schroeder, whose categorical opposition to military action to disarm Saddam Hussein once left him isolated but now draws increased support. Francois Mitterrand, the French president at the time of the Pershing crisis, gave a speech to the Bundestag in support of Mr. Kohl and deployment. Jacques Chirac is now arguably the world’s most influential opponent of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
In previous cases, men in their positions tried to shape public opinion in favor of a united front and manage the demonstrators by taking note of the unrepresentative character of their excesses; now, some leaders run with the winds of protest at their backs. In doing so, they pander to such propositions as “no blood for oil” even though they know better. NATO has just been through a wrenching French-German-Belgian-provoked crisis over whether planning for the defense of Turkey in the event of a war in Iraq would be taken as a step toward war.
And yet. The current situation differs from 1981-82 in several important ways, and we should not neglect them.
First, a neglected similarity: We do, after all, have our Helmut Kohls. First and foremost is Tony Blair, leading Britain in the face of ferocious opposition. Behind him come most all of the other leaders in Europe, and some elsewhere, united with the U.S. position that Saddam must disarm or be disarmed.
Second, the eve of a war with Iraq is a bit different from the presumed middle of a “long, twilight struggle.” Eventually, our current situation will be resolved. It was not clear in 1982 that the Cold War was going to be over any time soon. We will move on from Iraq and repair relations with allies; there is no particular danger of neutralism – let alone security pacts with our adversaries, none of whom is quite on a par with the Soviet Union.
Finally, it seems to me that what was going on over the weekend was not so much about Iraq as it was the latest manifestation of the growing anti-globalization movement, now the main current of international left-wing politics. Opposing U.S. action in Iraq gives this movement a coherence it does not otherwise possess and demarginalizes its status vis-a-vis some governments. When Iraq is settled, even left-wing governments will once again have no use for the protesters.
So while relations are strained, to put it mildly, we need to bear in mind that that’s because we are, after all, about to go to war. This is not something we put on the agenda every year [notwithstanding the fevered imagination of some of our opponents]. Of course, such a thing causes terrible stress. Why wouldn’t it?