What seems sometimes incomprehensible in the contemporary world makes perfect sense—if we pause and study a little history.
In November 1918, had anyone in a starving Berlin predicted that, in twenty-two years, an ascendant Germany would control most of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Soviet border, he would have been considered unhinged. And if, in 1945, amid the ashes of the Ruhr, anyone had guessed that in sixty-five years, Germany would once more determine the future of Europe from the Atlantic to the Russian frontier, he would again have been written off as delusional. Yet today, cash-flush German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds the fate of the European Union in her palm—but in a far more secure fashion than an Adolf Hitler ever did.
Two inexplicable aspects of Germany’s current financial hegemony confuse us. One, how exactly has a once ruined Germany found itself back atop of Europe? Two, why are Germany’s debtors so angry at the country who is bailing them out, while Germans are privately incensed that they are being had —even as the German government publicly assures the indebted southern Europeans that they may be eligible for even more lines of credit? What sort of Kabuki dance is all that?
History again answers those questions. We are witnessing only the latest manifestation of a centuries-old “German problem:” That German preeminence cannot be quite explained by rich natural resources or an exceptionally large population or territory. In Roman times, German tribes were never conquered by advancing legions. The Romans wisely stopped their northward encroachment at the Rhine and Danube rivers. Over centuries, the unassimilated Volk to the east and north claimed they were exceptional—and wary neighbors worried that they might be.
Since the 1871 political unification of German-speaking peoples, the German nation has been able to produce abundant goods and services at a clip not explicable by either population or resources. Only a hazier cultural notion of “German-ness” seems to explain the dynamism.
Other Europeans were always fearful and apprehensive of Germany’s energy. That anxiety was natural when German economic power so often translated into military aggression in the service of continental ambitions, as it did in 1870, 1914, and 1939. Yet, because Germany suffered a series of self-induced disasters in the twentieth century—millions dead in World War I and II, Europe wrecked, the shame of engineering the Holocaust, the near-half-century division into two rival German states—Berlin remains wary about reacting to provocations that might alienate it from the world community. And that fact is equally well known to its apprehensive, but calculating neighbors.
Add all that complex history up, and it becomes understandable why Germany both can afford to subsidize Europe’s future, while accepting levels of criticism from its dependents that few other nations would endure—at least for now.
Iran vs. Israel
Iran’s nuclear ambitions—and the reaction to it—present another historical puzzle. A Persian bomb is not a matter of if, but when. Even belated, beefed-up sanctions will probably not deter Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. When confronted with that seemingly inevitable reality, depressed Westerners lament their lose-lose situation. A preemptive strike, of uncertain efficacy, certainly will result in terrifying global aftershocks—oil price spikes, more terrorism, and a probable jet and missile war spanning the skies across the Middle East.
Yet a nuclear Iran, given its theocratic rantings about Armageddon and long support for international terrorism, seems to not be confined by the laws of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, as are other more rationally-minded members of the existing nuclear club. This results in a sort of stasis in the West. Leaders prefer to wait for the inevitable, on the theory that the present transitory calm is at least better than the out-of-sight, out-of-mind whirlwind to come.
But not Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been crisscrossing the globe, with sharp elbows and grating persistence pleading with government leaders to abort Iran’s nuclear project and to take seriously the Iranian leadership’s promises to “eliminate” Israel. In that strident advocacy, he has estranged himself not just from a largely pacifistic Europe, but also from his old ally the United States. Netanyahu’s bluntness and Obama’s cool mix like oil and water, and leave tiny Israel with its worst relations with America since the founding of the Jewish state.
But again, history can explain both anger at Netanyahu and his own sense of desperation. If a sophisticated Germany—home to Beethoven, Goethe, and Hegel—could empower the Nazis’ mass industrial murdering of 6 million Jews, then any country, in theory, is capable of such a Holocaust.
Given that several Iranian leaders have already promised to eliminate the Jewish state, and given that one or two modern nuclear bombs might well accomplish that goal and finish what Hitler started, Netanyahu believes that he has little choice but to nag and offend. His Western audiences resent his sermons almost as much as they once did the news of disappearing Jews in 1939. After all, not doing the difficult right thing makes knowing it all the more embarrassing.
Netanyahu will not go down in history as the Prime Minister who allowed, on his watch, a second Holocaust, one that destroyed half of the remaining Jews in the world. He knows the terrible irony, as do his Iranian enemies, that the creation of the Jewish state, along with advances in the technology of mass killing, have made the task of any future Hitler much easier. The latter could only have dreamed of having his targets in one confined area, rather than dispersed all over the European continent.
History will not permit Netanyahu to dispassionately weigh a preemptive strike on the basis of supposed gains and losses, as the Western nations can do. Instead, he will remember that, not so long ago, millions of liberal-minded Europeans, British, and Americans either would not, or could not, stop the Holocaust before it extinguished half of the world’s Jewry. He can little afford, in tragic fashion, to depend on anyone’s sense of right except his own.
In a contemporary strategic or political context, a preemptive strike by the seven-million-person Israel on Iran’s vast nuclear complexes may seem suicidal. But in historical terms, seventy years after the start of the Holocaust, Netanyahu really has no real choice, but to act, and act quickly. So he badgers, cajoles, and offends until he finds allies—or runs out of time and must strike unilaterally, preemptively, and desperately.
The Middle East In Turmoil
President Obama also finds himself in a dilemma in the Middle East following the recent attacks on American embassies, which occurred on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. All of Obama’s Ivy League schooling, all of his legal training, all of his community organizing, and all of his liberal politics advise him that the root of anti-Americanism lies in the things that a culpable America has done, rather than what we represent or who we are. For the sophisticated mind, envy, jealousy, and blind hatred are base pre-modern emotions mostly vanquished from the contemporary world.
As a result, when running both for the Senate and later for the presidency, candidate Obama criticized as unnecessary or illegal (or both), as did most academic and political liberals, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo (“al-Qaeda’s chief recruiting tool”), renditions, tribunals, preventative detentions, the war in Iraq, intercepts and wiretaps, and predator drones. These were supposed catalysts for anti-Americanism, not tools to address the radical Islamic hatred of the United States that had led to the original 9/11 attacks.
Candidate Obama instead promised a new way. After entering the presidency, he vowed to dismantle the existing Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols. He adopted a new apologetic approach that sought to win favor from the Middle East on the basis of promises to end past American culpability. The al Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, an occasional ceremonial bow, euphemisms like “overseas contingency operation” and “man-caused disaster” all replaced the past hurtful vocabulary of “Islamic terrorism.”
The Obama administration in time assured us that the Muslim Brotherhood was secular, that the terrorist Mr. Mutallab, who nearly blew up a jetliner, must be given his Miranda rights, and that Major Hasan, during his Ft. Hood rampage, was engaging in workplace violence, a tragedy that should not blind us to the need to continue diversity programs. The administration promised to try the architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a New York civilian court, while putting CIA interrogators on trial for the supposed excesses against confessed terrorists like KSM.
Once again, Obama has hit up against history. There was no empirical evidence that anything the United States had done either caused or justified Bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks—or even explained contemporary Muslim anger. In the years following the mass murder in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, bin Laden and his al Qaeda partners alleged over twenty different pretexts in justifying their ongoing war—from U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to America’s neglect of global warming.
Yet, in terms of actual conduct, the United States, which was never a colonial power in the Middle East, helped Muslims resist Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. It liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, tried to protect Palestinians in Kuwait from reprisals, gave billions of dollars in aid to Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians, and intervened to feed starving Somali Muslims. America has generously welcomed in Muslims fleeing the illiberal conditions of their homelands. And it bombed a European and Christian Slobodan Milosevic to save Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, while jousting with Vladimir Putin over his mass killing of Chechnya Muslims in Grozny.
Given that historical reality, given that another forty Islamic terrorist plots against the United States were foiled during the Obama administration, and given that American popularity in the Middle East now polls no higher than during the Bush administration—despite Obama’s reminders that his own upbringing was well versed in Islam—Obama has gradually changed course. He has had to embrace almost all of the prior Bush-Cheney protocols.
There are no more Cairo-like mytho-histories about the Islamic world. No more Saudi princes will merit a presidential bow. History is teaching Obama otherwise. In time, even the Obama administration will concede that a single obscure video no more explains radical Islamic hatred of the America and the West than does a novel, a cartoon, or a papal comment—all mere pretexts to channel the anger of the street in lieu of embracing fundamental economic, social, and political reform.
In an interconnected and globalized world, millions of Muslims have learned that life is good—and getting better—in most places other than the Middle East. But without political freedom and internal self-reflection, there has never been a collective dialogue about why this is so. Instead of honest discussion about the impoverishing effects of endemic gender apartheid, fundamentalism, religious intolerance, statism, an absence of personal freedom, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia that so retard economic growth, authoritarians and religious zealots explained their failures by scapegoating a rich and leisured West, one that supposedly prospered on the backs of oppressed Muslims.
Given that historical reality, contextualizing Muslim terrorism or anger only empowers these false narratives, and leads to more violence. A sadder Barack Obama is being retaught by events, in the manner of prior presidents of both parties who finally grew wary of radical Islam.
If we are perplexed by why Germany and its critics act in strange ways, or why Benjamin Netanyahu makes a supposed pest of himself, or why even progressive presidents eventually shed their rhetoric and adopt realist attitudes about the Middle East, history instructs us that they really have little other choice.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-one books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book, The Savior Generals, will appear in 2013. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.