Talking 'Bout His Generation
The tale of how a Marxist tough became Germany's foreign minister helps explain today's Europe.

Reviewed by Derek Chollet
Sunday, December 18, 2005

POWER AND THE IDEALISTS

Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath

By Paul Berman

Soft Skull. 311 pp. $23.95

Paul Berman's fine new book is propelled by two images. One is of a young, leftist radical in a black motorcycle helmet beating up a police officer during a 1970s street protest. The other is of a dignified European statesman in a three-piece suit at a stuffy policy conference, refusing to accept the Bush administration's rationale for war with Iraq and publicly confronting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with a blunt riposte: "Excuse me, I am not convinced."

Of course, the thug in the helmet and the diplomat in the suit are the same person, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. His career path -- from neo-Marxist student leader and organizer of the Revolutionary Struggle protest group to, a quarter-century later, Green Party leader and German vice chancellor -- is the heart of Power and the Idealists . For Berman, this is much more than a compelling personal story: Fischer's journey, he argues, symbolizes the generation that came of age in the European youth movements of the late 1960s -- the so-called '68ers, who went from resisting the state to running it, struggling to hold on to their ideals while accepting (or shirking) the responsibility of confronting the challenges of the post-Cold War world, from genocide in the Balkans to Islamist extremism.

Berman's thoughtful book is a valuable history lesson, especially for those too young to remember much about the tumultuous 1960s or '70s. He draws the curtain back on the era of the "New Left," a time when capitalism and American power were considered the chief culprits for the world's woes and when a global peasant revolution seemed not merely possible but something that college students could help spark. But what makes this book more than merely a collection of reminiscences of intellectual arguments from the glory days -- earnest if long-forgotten quarrels that largely unfolded in obscure journals -- is that many of these activists have assumed positions of influence in Europe. Fischer's fellow '68ers include Bernard Kouchner, the French founder of Doctors Without Borders, who became the first international administrator of post-conflict Kosovo, Javier Solana, the former NATO secretary general who now serves as the European Union's foreign policy chief, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the great U.N. diplomat who was murdered by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in August 2003.

Berman's most important contribution is to show how these leaders remain influenced by their old debates, especially about when and how military force should be used. The author of the influential Terror and Liberalism , Berman traces the dramatic intellectual evolution of these '68ers, from knee-jerk pacifists decrying America's military might to "liberal hawks" demanding the use of force in the Balkans. They became convinced that guns and bombs could be used to right wrongs and fight oppression -- and that, in fact, leaders had an obligation to do so. Those in power, Berman writes, "had a moral duty to use power to rescue the vulnerable. A duty to use this power wherever people were in desperate need." Such convictions drove these leaders to push for NATO military intervention in the Balkans, ending the war in Bosnia in 1995 and Slobodan Milosevic's violent repression of Kosovo in 1999. This was the idealists' great triumph -- a victory not just over modern tyrants but over those who had argued that Milosevic's barbarism did not merit the risks or costs of military action. Many hoped that this would usher in a new era of humanitarian intervention.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, soon after, the invasion of Iraq. The fragile consensus about the use of force held over Afghanistan but shattered over Iraq, and many of the old arguments about American power and imperialism surged back to the fore. How could it be, Berman asks, that only a few years after the 1990s "golden age" of the European left and the Atlantic Alliance, things slipped so fast? Why did leaders like Fischer agitate for military intervention in the tiny Yugoslav province of Kosovo but oppose action in Baathist Iraq, a place that was just as much of a humanitarian nightmare?

Part of the answer is bad political leadership. Berman, himself a liberal hawk on Iraq, reviews the familiar history of President Bush's bungled diplomacy and retraces the litany of missed opportunities to reach out to the Europeans. He also shows how Europe's politicians -- especially in Germany and France -- were so consumed by their own worries, political popularity and deep distaste for Bush's callous cowboy style that they chose to throw themselves into opposition.

But this was also a failure of liberal intellectuals -- and here is where Berman's book is most illuminating and surely most controversial. After years of fighting for European dissidents trapped behind the Iron Curtain -- heroes like Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel and Poland's Adam Michnik -- many Western intellectuals turned away from their counterparts in the Middle East and the quiet struggles against repression in places like Iran and Iraq. By Berman's reckoning, they failed to see that Islamist extremism and secular tyrants like Saddam Hussein were modern totalitarian threats and that confronting them was not only justified but morally required.

Berman imagines the possibilities for Iraq "if only America had presented a case on grounds of human rights and humanitarianism." But that is one of the key arguments that Bush is making for staying the course today. Given the disaster that post-invasion Iraq has become, few liberal intellectuals have been persuaded. And according to recent opinion polls, most of the American people are now also saying, "Excuse us, we are not convinced."

As this is happening, the '68ers are in their twilight. It is a fitting coincidence that just as Power and the Idealists was published, Fischer announced that he would be leaving the new, more conservative German government headed by Angela Merkel. "Young people must write the new chapter," he said. Now this new generation -- defined not by 1968 but by 9/11 and the Iraq War -- must grapple with the arguments that their predecessors could never resolve.

Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of "The Road to the Dayton Accords."

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