Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The events of the day in Syria are both thrilling and alarming. Thrilling, of course, because the audacious suicide strike that seems to have decapitated Assad's regime may bring an end to the dictatorship much more quickly than was anticipated even a few days ago; alarming on account of the rapid pace of change in that country. More alarming still, we think, because once again America seems to be on the wrong side of history. As we mentioned in this space several times before, the unimaginably brave Syrian rebels, who sacrificed themselves by the thousands in what must for months have seemed like an entirely hopeless cause, deserve the freedom that they have fought valiantly to achieve, but the United States, which ought everywhere to support such opposition to vicious authoritarian rule, was so silent as to essentially show contempt for the Syrian revolution. That we offered scant friendship to freedom in Syria makes little sense, unless one believes what we have so far been reluctant to assert but for which there appears mounting evidence--to wit, that President Obama seems to support the overthrow of regimes like that in Egypt which are friendly to the U.S. and Israel and to offer no support for the overthrow of even more brutal regimes which actively work against our interests. The price of such an insane policy (if it is indeed a policy and not merely pure ineptitude) will inevitably be that the new Syrian government will remember America's indifference and be impervious to American influence, when we could, by aiding the rebels when it would have mattered, have secured yet another ally in the heart of a troubling part of the world.

Speaking of national movements, one notes that there appears in southern Europe to be a growing dissatisfaction with the European Union, largely, of course, because Greece and Italy, whose people have a more casual, less economically responsible way of life than do their northern European counterparts, wish their more responsible neighbors to give them money and do not wish to abide by the rules with which that money comes. Germany is now the colossus that dominates the European economy, and so the Germans now begin to feel the resentments of the southern European nations. Why the resentment? The Germans have several times now transferred to Greece and Spain large sums of cash taken from German taxpayers, yet the Germans are reviled.

The situation is ironic because it mirrors German attitudes toward the United States thirty years ago. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan, asserting American power, put intermediate range nuclear missiles in Germany to huge outcry from a country that the Americans less than forty years before had liberated from an insane tyranny and had then rebuilt with American taxpayer money. When I was there then, I remember my extended family denouncing American policy to me with an anger that grew sharper as I reminded them of what America had done for Germany in the past. In the end, of course, Reagan's policy succeeded and the existential threat posed by Communism to western Europe died away. And now it is Germany's turn. Just as America was--and often still is--resented by weaker nations simply because it was--and is--powerful, so now the German ant, which has worked and saved all the year long is resented by the southern European grasshopper simply because Germany has more. This is all a reminder that nationalism isn't always a good thing. One major reason, now often forgotten, for the European Union in the first place is that in the old Europe of the early twentieth century nationalism meant rivalry, tension, and often war; countries within the European Union, however, do not go to war against one another. If that Union should dissolve, the old resentments, baseless though they may be, will return and with them will return the possibility, however remote, of war.

The dangerous rise of nationalism is captured in literature nowhere so well as in Joseph Roth's very fine German novel Radetzkymarsch, set in the waning years of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, for which Roth had a great deal of fondness. His fondness was based in part on his conviction that once that old Habsburg empire dissolved into a number of distinct nationalities, the old, generally peaceful, generally civilized order would be drowned in a cacophonous babble of voices all demanding power, all willing to gain that power through the quickest, and therefore the most corrupt and dangerous ways possible. In a climactic scene near the end, a ball in a regional Imperial town is disrupted with news of the Archduke's assassination, and the various military officers, from different ethnic groups but serving the same Emperor Franz Josef I, begin shouting at one another not in the official German that they had been using that night but each in his own native language. As Europe begins its rapid descent into the chaos of contending interests that exploded in WWI, so these characters begin to express with venomous intensity the old hatreds and resentments that had to this been point been subsumed by their common purpose in a large enterprise.

What the overthrow of the old orders, welcome though these changes are, will bring in the Middle East God only knows. As European dissolution looks also like a possibility--though only like a possibility--one remembers that the severing of international ties, while it may allow many little men to strut and fret their hour upon the stage of life, is not always a good thing.

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