Russell Berman

Russell Berman

Russell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. Berman specializes in the study of German literary history and cultural politics and is a member of both the Department of German Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University (of which he is currently chair). From 1992 through 2000 he served as director of the Stanford Overseas Studies Program. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture (1998) and The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma (1986), both of which won the Outstanding Book Award of the German Studies Association. He most recently published Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (2010).

Not the Right Leader


US diplomacy has lost the latest round in the Syria showdown. Just as the Assad regime embraced the proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control, it restarted its bombing campaign against rebel positions in Damascus. The negotiations over the WMDs allow Syria to stave off American missiles, while providing cover for its war against the rebels. Assad notoriously succeeded in dragging out the investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for years, and he will now be able to play the same waiting game over the weapons.

There are numerous reasons for the US to take a firm stand in Syria, and even President Obama has articulated some of them clearly. The use of chemical warfare threatens national security because, if unpunished, it becomes normalized, and gas may eventually be used against American soldiers. The turmoil in Syria threatens important allies: NATO member Turkey, Jordan that is buckling under a wave of Syrian refugees, and Israel. Furthermore Assad’s gains will amplify Iranian influence: it is surely in the US national interest to degrade the power of an enemy such as the regime in Tehran.

Add to these strategic rationales the humanitarian arguments regarding both the gas victims and the much larger number of other dead and displaced. Recall especially the origins of the Syrian rebellion, the aspiration for democracy—before the Islamists arrived. In his speech to the nation, President Obama himself spoke of “the Syrian opposition we work with,” and its desire “to live in peace, with dignity and freedom.

If only we were working with that opposition! In fact, the Obama administration has coldly ignored the opposition’s pleas for help. After long delays, Washington eventually promised some material support, but the amounts are insignificant if measured against the support Assad receives from Russia and Iran, and delivery has been excruciatingly late. Betrayal like that feeds the jihadist narrative that the West does not care about Muslim suffering. Obama’s temporizing will therefore result in increased terrorist recruiting among the angry youth of the Arab world as well as in the immigrant ghettoes of Europe. Obama long ago called for Assad to go, and Obama drew a red line: the chasm between the soaring rhetoric and American indecision undermines the credibility of the president and the stature of the US as a great power.

None of this is a surprise.  Obama has spent his presidency arguing against the projection of military force while cutting the military budget. He has belittled the terrorist threat—Boston was the result—and he has turned a deaf ear to the cries of democracy movements overseas, most notably in Iran. He has demeaned the notion of American exceptionalism, only to return to it bizarrely at the close of his speech. He has squandered his years in office undercutting American power while pursuing a policy of retreat. No wonder he finds so little support, at home or abroad, in this moment of crisis.

Although an attack on Syria would be warranted in principle, this half-hearted President is not the right leader to wage a war, and the underfunded military should not be put in harm’s way without appropriate support, both budgetary and political. These are legitimate grounds to hold back at this point from the missile attacks on Syria which would constitute an act of war, with unpredictable consequences necessarily shrouded in fog. Once the violence of an attack begins, there is no guarantee that it will remain limited, despite presidential assurances.

Yet missile attacks in response to Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons are not the only option for American policy. Instead of focusing on the prospective negotiations over Syria’s WMDs, we should face the real violence on the ground. Instead of distractions, we need a strategy for an outcome in Damascus that is in the US national interest.  The Syrian civil war rages on because the Assad regime benefits from extensive arms shipments from Russia. In order to stay Assad’s hand, the West should provide the Free Syrian Army with a corresponding level of support. Moscow and Damascus should pay a military price for their alliance. While today’s timid Washington is unlikely to affirm the goal of regime change in Damascus, it could yet strengthen the rebels sufficiently to drive Assad to a peace conference. We need a real political goal such as this, if we are going to engage. Basing foreign policy on an abstract defense of a legal norm, the prohibition of chemical weapons, is not sufficient. A nation does not go into battle to defend a norm but rather to defeat its enemy.

Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution


A wave of change is sweeping the Middle East, but the foreign policy of the Obama administration has failed to meet the challenge. In case after case, Washington has refused to confront repressive regimes and given short shrift to popular movements for democracy. Instead of drawing on the full breadth of American diplomatic, economic and military resources to undermine the dictators, the U.S. has preferred to stand on the sidelines and fret. This ineffectiveness is unworthy of a great power and the world’s oldest democracy.

When a wave of protest exploded in Iran after the fraudulent election of June 2009, the rulers in Tehran faced the most significant challenge since the theocracy came to power. Demonstrators faced brutal repression. Yet, Washington was slow and half-hearted in its response, and Ahmadenijad’s forces could crush the movement for Iranian freedom, at least for the moment.

In Syria, a bloody confrontation between a brutal dictatorship and a rebellion for freedom continues to unfold. Once more, the Obama administration has failed to act: hardly a surprise, given the Democratic Party’s history of revering Assad as a reformer. Can one forget Nancy Pelosi’s shameful pilgrimage to Damascus or John Kerry’s public doting on the dictator? Washington has done little to support the rebels, only recently promising weapons—but not yet delivering them.

In Egypt, the Obama administration did turn against Hosni Mubarak, once an American ally, but it stood faithfully by his successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the protests against him grew massive. Although Morsi pursued an agenda inimical to liberal values, Washington shrugged off his critics.  This tin-eared allegiance to Islamism-in-power has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian democracy movement.

The administration has repeatedly betrayed the proponents of democratic change. To grasp the historical significance of the Obama foreign policy, one need only recall the words from President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” President Obama has definitively succeeded in distancing himself from this legacy of his predecessor. He ignores oppression, excuses oppressors and refuses to stand with those who stand for their liberty: Iran, Syria, Egypt.

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The Hour of Europe?


That the tide of American might is retreating from its outposts is unmistakable.  The US military presence in Western Europe, a legacy of the Second World War, melted away after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In the Middle East, the hegemonic role of the US that emerged as a result of the decline of the old European colonial powers is also disappearing. The Obama regime chose to withdraw from Iraq, despite the sacrifice that American soldiers made to topple the Baathist dictatorship, through its refusal to negotiate an appropriate status agreement. Now it is running to the exits in Afghanistan before any modicum of stability has been achieved. In addition, Washington was conspicuous by its absence in ending the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and it remained willfully ignorant of the post-Gaddafi dangers, as seen in the tragic events in Benghazi.

Clearly, the US is not seeking exposure in the broad swath of geography stretching from Morocco to Central Asia. While America was prepared to mobilize against the Soviet enemy in the Cold War, it has little appetite for the messy business of failed states, Islamist radicalism, and terrorist campaigns. In addition, the declining dependence on Middle East oil simply reduces interest in the area altogether—surely a short-sighted calculation since so many of our allies, Europe and Japan, rely on the Saudi fields. Perhaps this retreat just reflects crude political motives: the Obama campaign wanted to point to the withdrawal in order to support its foreign policy narrative in the 2012 election. In that case, a future administration might reverse the decisions: yet this seems unlikely, not only due to budget constraints, but because strategic leadership once surrendered cannot easily be regained.

Can Europe step into the breach? Much speaks against this unlikely prospect. Europe has been investing at only very low levels in its military; it does not have the hardware to project power effectively.  Nor will its welfare state budgets allow it to do much better in the future. In addition, Germany maintains a profoundly pacifist predisposition that makes any overseas deployments highly controversial and politically costly. Finally, to make matters worse, the EU requires unanimity among its 27 members in matters of foreign policy: hardly a structure designed for bold decision-making.

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In your well reported aside to Vladimir Putin, you promised him greater flexibility after the election. That moment has come. Your critics have been fearing that this flexibility could lead you to take steps that would compromise American security interests and disqualify you in the eyes of voters. Luckily, you don’t have to feel constrained by meddlesome voters anymore: you have a freer hand. How will you use it?

Please remember that your reelection also frees you from another constraint, the isolationist and anti-military currents in your party. To your credit, you have already pursued wise counter-terrorism strategies even though they irritate progressives: drone warfare abroad and tough security measures at home. Nonetheless, you had to play to that left for electoral purposes. With your reelection you finally have a chance to make a clean break with your McGovernite base through new policy initiatives, especially in the Middle East. It’s up to you to seize the moment.

First, killing Osama bin Laden bolstered your standing with the public. Bravo. For domestic political reasons, however, you had to oversell that singular event with untenable claims that it meant the full defeat of al-Qaida and the disappearance of a terrorist threat. These overstatements helped your reelection. Unfortunately they are false. You do not serve the nation—or your own reputation—well by minimizing the threat of Islamist terrorism. Misleading the nation on the terrorist murder of Ambassador Stephens was not your best hour. You still have time to articulate the urgency of robust security and counter-terrorism strategies. You have the bully pulpit to educate the nation that the danger continues. Use it.

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Lessons from Europe can shed light on the challenge of Islamism in power. The experience of two world wars seemed to prove that Germans could never accept democracy. Yet Germany became an exemplary liberal democracy and the anchor for European stability. This transformation points to prospects in the Arab world: can Islamism evolve from the cultural radicalism of its extremist wings into a moderate force for modernization? What can the US do to promote this evolution?

There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Islamism led to 9/11. Islamist sympathizers sheltered Bin Laden in Abbotobad and fought American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Islamist agitators still preach radical messages across Europe and recruit new foot soldiers for jihad. Vigilant security strategies measures remain necessary.

Yet the field of Islamist politics is not monolithic. Extremist Imams in the mosques of London are not the same as mujahideen in the border regions of Pakistan, and they in turn are far away from legislators in Ankara and Cairo. We need sophistication to recognize these differences (which means developing more effective intelligence networks). We need to understand how operate in this complex landscape. And we need to distinguish between incorrigible enemies and potential friends.

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Candidates in Europe

The US Presidential election will be won and lost on the domestic economy, so Mitt Romney’s recent trip to three capitals –London, Jerusalem and Warsaw—provided some distraction in the summer lead-up to the party conventions and the start of the real campaign season in the fall. His itinerary gave the presumptive Republican candidate an opportunity to profile himself to the American electorate: as a successful executive who had organized the Salt Lake City Olympics, as a firm supporter of Israel (in contrast to President Obama who has refrained from visiting there while in office), and as an advocate of the liberty of Eastern Europe. The warm support from Lech Walesa this summer will serve him well in the ballot boxes of western Pennsylvania in November.

Yet Romney is not the first American presidential candidate to campaign through European capitals, and his travels abroad invite a comparison with Barack Obama’s tour just four years ago, especially the main event, the speech at the Victory Column in Berlin in front of an enormous crowd of 200, 000 or more. That demonstration of Obama’s charisma and popularity in Europe certainly strengthened his credibility among American voters, frustrated with the apparent fraying of the Atlantic alliance during the administration of George W. Bush. Obama promised to calm the waters, restore old friendships and build a robust cooperation between the US and Europe.

The Romney visit is a chance to reevaluate the Obama visit and ask: has Obama fulfilled the hope to change the trans-Atlantic divide?

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Fallout from the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act will stretch through the presidential election and beyond, and legal commentators have plenty of questions to address: the limitations on the Commerce Clause, the ambiguity in the relationship of taxes to penalties, the implications for federalism in the treatment of Medicaid and, perhaps most ominously, the extent to which the Chief Justice may have been swayed by the political campaign waged in the press. None of these topics will be clarified quickly. While conservative commentators have expressed divergent evaluations of the outcome, there is one point of agreement: the Affordable Care Act represents a major increase in the reach of federal power, profoundly rearranging relationships among Washington, the states and individuals. The health care debate is a struggle over constitutional order.

Just as this drama has been playing out in Washington, the potential role of the judiciary in preserving democracy and the rule of law has come to the fore across the Atlantic in a remarkably similar conflict. A constitutional conflict is emerging through the Euro crisis.

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The Great Retreat

As the 2014 promised departure from Afghanistan draws nearer, popular support for the war is dwindling, and not only in the United States. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière recently complained, in a moment of stunning candor for a prominent politician, “that much of the rejection of the Afghanistan campaign in parts of the [German] population is due to the fact that people have the feeling that they have not been told the truth.” A painful gap stretches between the violence of the war and the vacuity of political rhetoric.

In 2008 candidate Obama waged his presidential campaign with the claim that the Bush administration had ignored the Afghan front in order to pursue the wrong war in Iraq. Yet President Obama never explained why Afghanistan was the right war to win. At best, he suggested that winning only involved minimalist goals—killing bin Laden or destabilizing al-Qaeda but never defeating the Taliban and certainly not the maximalist goal: establishing a stable, pro-American regime.

The US has succeeded in accomplishing only the narrowest war goal, and the cost of that raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbotobad has been high in terms of the deterioration of relations with Islamabad. As the administration joins in the frantic rush to the exits—leaving behind an emboldened Taliban, a fragmented Afghani political landscape, and Pakistan teetering on the edge of instability—the Bush era benign neglect of Kabul in order to focus on Baghdad increasingly looks like the more rational policy choice. Instead, Obama has chosen to retreat from both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Achtung! It’s Syria!

In the high stakes drama over the future of the Euro, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany has emerged as the predominant power as a unified European economic policy begins to take shape. This was not always the case. Not long ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to promote an alternative strategy of higher spending and less austerity; now Sarkozy has become Merkel’s junior partner, dependent on her political support in his bid for reelection. British Prime Minister David Cameron too has been pushed aside over the question of taxing financial transactions. American efforts to influence European policy have also fallen flat: Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner’s attempts to lecture the Europeans had little impact, beyond the damage he did to his own credibility.

The shape of the unified European economic policy has become unmistakably German: structural reforms to restrain spending—the so-called Schuldenbremse—plus austerity measures and the prospects of higher taxation. Merkel has won the game.

Meanwhile the future of a unified European foreign policy is also coming into focus. It too will be defined by Germany, and it will therefore display some of the structural features of German history and Germany’s place in Europe. Understanding these elements is crucial to gauging the prospects for Europe’s future role on the world stage.

Mention of German history immediately conjures up the dark side of its past, like the world wars, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Opponents of Merkel’s economic agenda have been quick to attack her with Nazi symbolism. Yet most of the European public has recognized the irrelevance of this name-calling by anti-German protestors in the streets of Athens. Since World War II, Germany has developed a profound sense of its responsibility for past crimes and has matured into a stable liberal democracy.

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