By GREGORY BARRETT
I loved it. I was particularly glad to see how much more stylish and sophisticated Europe seemed than my native country, which had recently elected as President the awful Ronald Reagan, who was the antithesis of everything I had cared about since coming of age in the 1960s. Plenty of my fellow Nashville musicians thought President Reagan and his right-wing minions were great, but not I … after a delightful month traveling around Europe I began thinking about how I could come over and live here, at least for a few years. I wanted to escape Reagan’s America.
And I did. In 1987 I moved to Germany with my new wife, a German who had lived and studied in America for years. We had met while we both worked as volunteers with the human rights organization Amnesty International. I found work as a musician and began improving the German I had studied in high school in my teens. My wife (now my ex) got a Master’s Degree and worked as a translator and eventually as a consultant. We had two daughters, who were born with citizenship in both countries, and we raised them bilingual English/German very successfully.
Reagan used to talk a lot of very dangerous-sounding warlike stuff. The Europeans had looked down on Jimmy Carter, and many here thought of Carter as a naïve, culturally inferior Southerner from the backwoods of Georgia, but Reagan scared them some with his saber-rattling and his accelerated arms race. Here in Germany there was a tradition of getting along with Russia and the Eastern Bloc, and while most of Western Europe felt good about being in NATO and having American “protection”, the belligerence and the new arms race that Reagan and his anti-communist crusaders proudly fired up made much of 1980s Europe pretty nervous.
That seemed to me to make a lot of sense, at least the part about not wanting new tension with Russia. I loved living in Europe. My German got quite good pretty quickly.
I still love living here in Europe, but these days I wonder where the “sophistication” went.
After the euphoria of unexpected German reunification, and after the amazing collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied communist governments, much of NATO and the original European Union thought it had conquered the world without ever firing a shot. Eastern Europe was begging to get in on the comfortable Western European lifestyle, and the EU was proud to take Russia’s former “vassal states” away from the bear and to promise those countries rapid progress toward what former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called “blooming landscapes”. Those countries were also allowed and even encouraged to join NATO, one after the other, although this was a violation of commitments made to Gorbachev in return for his approval of German reunification, and although the Warsaw Pact military alliance – always considered NATO’s raison d’étre — had ceased to exist. No one gave much thought to Russia’s response. What could the Russians do? They were “history’s losers”, as smug capitalist newspapers and politicians crowed for years, newspapers and politicians who simultaneously went along with the preposterous fiction that Reagan had single-handedly brought about the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the Cold War.
Germany had a struggle to re-unify the country quickly, but it happened – at least on paper – but these days there are a vast number of East Germans who say that they had better lives in the old Deutsche Demokratische Republik (where at least everyone had an income and healthcare, and didn’t have to worry about the loss of a job turning their whole lives upside-down), and the same goes for many other Eastern European nations which joined the EU and NATO. Kohl’s “blooming landscapes” can be seen here and there, it’s true, mostly in the neighborhoods of the oligarchs and other rich carpetbaggers. Does that sound familiar?
As we say in America, those trusting Eastern European souls had “drunk the Kool-Aid” (a reference to the American psycho-preacher Jim Jones, who started a church-colony of his believers in the Caribbean and then persuaded all of those poor fools who had been hypnotized by the Jim-and-Jesus Team to join him in committing suicide by drinking poison).
But in 2016, the Western Europeans who had welcomed the Eastern Europeans in, even if as a kind of second-class Free Europeans-in-Training, are not much happier.
They had helped the Clintons with rapid globalization in the 1990s, it was good for business. They had helped Clinton and the überhawk Madeleine Albright break up Yugoslavia as well — it was clear that after starting World War 1 and victimizing so many of their neighbors (so the story went) the evil Serbs had to be bombed into submission. And they supported the deadly Clinton-Albright-UN sanctions against Iraq which, even before the Bush invasion, killed hundreds of thousands of children and other civilians there (Albright: “The price is high, but we think it’s worth it”).
The advent of George W. Bush as President finally got the attention of Western Europe once again: this right-wing “cowboy”, as he was commonly portrayed in the European press, was definitely a bit of a threat to the quiet, fashionable, elegant world of business-as-usual with a moral mask which the EU has always enjoyed projecting. After the horror of 9/11, many Europeans were equally horrified by the Bush shoot-from-the-hip foreign policy and his invasion of Iraq. France refused to cooperate, giving rise to the memorable switch in the US Congressional food service from labeling french fries as such to calling them “freedom fries” … THAT would show those uppity fair weather friends, the French. Germany followed suit: former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, and his governing coalition partners the Green Party made it clear that Germany did not support the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The new leader of Germany’s opposition conservative Christian Democratic Party, the relatively young Angela Merkel, saw it differently. She supported American policy and Bush without reservation. And in a few years she would succeed in bringing a vote of no confidence against Schröder and replacing him as Chancellor. Meanwhile, following the lead of the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK, Germany’s Social Democratic-Green governing coalition passed a program called Agenda 2010, bringing it closer to business interests, loosening traditional worker protection measures, and cutting back on the hard-fought social gains of European workers over 150 years, all in the name of “flexibly” fighting unemployment and becoming “more competitive in an increasingly competitive global market”. They say only Nixon could have gone to China, and perhaps only the Social Democratic SPD and the Greens could have carried out what is seen today on the Left as a major betrayal of German working-class citizens. In France, this battle continues to rage as French Socialists (at least they call themselves Socialists) attempt to do the same.
Western Europe’s post-1989 euphoria was starting to fade. Apparently, being allied to the world’s one remaining superpower was not enough to guarantee permanent happiness.
And so it was with a great, internationally audible sigh of relief that Western Europe greeted the election of Barack Obama in 2008. THIS was more like it! This young President was obviously well-educated: he had studied at Harvard, could actually manage complete sentences, and had campaigned hard on rejecting the Bush macho cowboy persona, closing Guantanamo (always a matter of great concern to the EU), and other changes which seemed to promise a return to European-like respectability. By supporting him, Germany in particular had its best opportunity yet to demonstrate to the world that racism in this country is ancient history. Obama had been a great hit at a major pre-election campaign appearance in Berlin, and now the equally delighted Nobel Committee proceeded to give the new President a Nobel Peace Prize in a stunning sign of childish faith and trust in his sincerity. The Europeans smiled and leaned back to await the advent of these promised changes in direction.
The change that came was mostly superficial. But the symbolism was enough for the EU for the time being. Obama invested tons of symbolic energy in creating the symbolically inclusive “Obamacare” health insurance system, and nothing he could have done could have been more pleasing to the EU, where health care for all citizens is universal. Obama’s reputation with the EU as a progressive reformer was successfully made. As is so often the case in European-American relations, few would worry about the details. They finally had an American President they liked once again, and they were ready to follow him.
This tacit decision that Obama was a good leader for NATO and for the “free world” came far too fast. Europe let down its critical defense mechanisms and faculties. For a continent better known for its superb beer and legendary wine, the deadly chalice of poisonous Kool-Aid was coming nearer.
The poisoned chalice was being prepared in the Pentagon and at Hillary Clinton’s State Department (Foreign Ministry) in particular. Ms. Clinton quietly appointed as an Assistant Secretary of State a former member of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s staff, Victoria Nuland, who (not coincidentally) is the wife of leading neoconservative strategist and writer Robert Kagan. Ms. Clinton would continue to enjoy her international image as a progressive voice for women’ rights and other good causes while Ms. Nuland and the neocons, now with not only a foot in the door but a firm hold on US Foreign Policy, set their sights on a prize on which they had set their hearts years earlier: Ukraine, the gateway to Russia.
While it is not completely unknown here in Europe that the American government, often via the CIA, plays dirty from time to time in the international arena, overthrowing governments and arming nasty strongmen and jihadists, it is not often the subject of mainstream news coverage or public debate. It’s not polite to talk about Big Brother’s bad habits. Yes, he gets a little carried away from time to time. But he’s our brother and we have to be supportive. Big Brother means well, it is implied, and Europe depends on his strength.
63 years after the CIA overthrew the elected government of Iran and put the Shah on his throne, 38 years after America began arming Islamic jihadis (including Osama bin Laden) to bring down the Russian-supported Afghan government, 15 years after the US-NATO invasion of Afghanistan, and 13 years after the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration, Europe watches the Middle East in dismay as war spreads and nations are destroyed. Europe is subject to daily anxiety attacks as millions of refugees flee from NATO war zones and often head North toward Germany. Europe professes its deepest anxiety about the ongoing war in Ukraine, and about Russia’s success in recovering the Crimean peninsula “in violation of international law” (a phrase which is rarely heard in connection with Big Brother’s many subterfuges — he’s our brother, we have to be supportive, remember?). Europe is frantic about the growth of right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties threatening to take power in France and the Netherlands, growing stronger in Germany, already in power in Poland and Hungary, or driving EU rejection in the UK with the Brexit vote brought on by the hapless David Cameron: developments largely driven by the refugee crisis and by the widespread economic effects of neoliberal austerity programs pushed by the US-dominated IMF and World Bank, programs accepted as economic gospel for years by the EU, accepted as “without alternative” and administered especially by Angela Merkel via Germany’s great economic influence within the EU.
The Middle East debacle unfolded over decades. While the US role in Iraq is clear and the invasion there is generally regarded here, as in the US, as a mistake, the search for the roots of today’s catastrophic Middle East apocalypse pretty much stops right there in European mainstream media and discussion. The role of Obama and Clinton in pouring money, weapons and CIA planning into a small uprising in Syria, fanning that tiny flame until it burst into the blaze of full-scale international proxy war with the aid of nasty US allies in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, intended to protect Israel and remove uncooperative governments unwilling to allow unfettered oil and gas dealing, is never discussed on the European stage, only Russia’s refusal to stop its bombing of “moderate rebel” positions in Aleppo; the calamitous aftermath of NATO’s destruction of the Libyan state, whence hundreds of thousands of refugees now reach Europe or drown trying as they try to escape a crumbling state being dominated by ISIS, two governments and many rival militias — all set in motion by Hillary Clinton, who persuaded the spineless and irresolute Obama to join France and Britain in the bombing campaign – was condemned in a report by the British Parliament, which concluded that the alleged plans by Gaddafi to “massacre many thousands of his citizens” were fabricated for political reasons. But the story got little traction outside of Britain, and here on the continent the Libyan disaster is rarely mentioned. In Ukraine, where the neoconservatives around Clinton and Nuland funded and brought about the overthrow of the elected government right on Russia’s borders, provoking a fast and unequivocal response by President Vladimir Putin (part of whose navy was always stationed in an important base in the Crimea), it is common (fictional) knowledge in the Euro-Media that the entire war there is about “Russian aggression”, and NATO has sent thousands of troops into its Russia-hating Eastern Baltic nations and Poland, erecting deadly new American missiles in Romania and elsewhere near the Russian border. Any response by Putin to these widespread provocations is immediately labeled as aggression by Obama’s administration, and the Euro-Media repeats the charge like a ventriloquist’s dummy or a talented parrot. Washington’s absurd claims of Russian cyber-intervention in the American election, based on zero evidence and hypocritical on their face coming from the nation whose NSA is the world’s King of Hackers, found daily expression during the Presidential campaign in increasingly paranoid and hysterical rants by Ms. Clinton blaming Russia for just about everything wrong in the world, rants which went out of their way to personally demonize Putin and paint Trump as his puppet. The Euro-Media slavishly repeated these Nixonian ravings in hushed, nervous tones. After all, the alternative was the dreaded TRUMP … who, in addition to his racist and sexist polemic, had often expressed skepticism about NATO and had failed to show proper alarm about the new enemy of the “civilized world”, Putin.
Europe has drunk the Obama-Clinton Kool-Aid.
Nothing that Obama and Hillary Clinton did hurt their reputations here, or at least not for long. It made headlines when Nuland was overheard in a phone call saying “Fuck the EU”, but that was soon forgotten. Obama would never ever feel that way himself, not our Barack. There must be some misunderstanding. The Snowden revelations and the later discovery that Merkel’s smartphone had been surveilled by the NSA brought an uncharacteristic wave of America-resentment to Germany, but only those of us on the European Left care about THAT old nonsense any more (especially since it was later proven that Germany’s BND had been helping the NSA tap phones in France and at EU headquarters in Brüssel and elsewhere the whole time). A few ambitious newspapers tried to get Germans to care about the fact that drone assassinations are controlled in part from Ramstein Air Force Base here in Germany, but people just couldn’t be bothered. After all, they’re killing evil terrorists, right? Yes, the odd innocent civilian or 4,000 as well, but that’s war. And the idea that the increasing ISIS-related terrorist bombings in France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere might be related to Germany’s support for these war crimes? Really, where do people come up with these preposterous conspiracy theories?! After all, Germany recently sold a major load of fine weapons “Made in Germany” to the Saudis, whom Merkel called an “important strategic ally in the region”. We are CERTAINLY doing our part against these maniacs, including providing military assistance to Turkey, another bastion of sanity … or at least until recently …?! … well, one has to make these hard choices sometimes. After paying the Turks several billion euros to keep most of the refugees there out of the EU, we have an investment to protect there. Of course it’s deeply unpleasant to watch Erdogan arrest and fire 50,000 teachers, journalists and public employees on charges of “supporting terrorism”, charges which he now levels against Germany as well, and torture some of them: but the unpleasantness pales in comparison to the thought of another one million refugees entering Germany in a single year … Obama’s agreement to take a few thousand of those refugees will not be sufficient. Pride swallowed! … and washed down with more Kool-Aid.
Actually, one can develop a taste for the stuff. Fine Cabernet Sauvignon it is not, but McDonald’s took a while to catch on here as well and now they’re everywhere.
By the way, it’s all Russia’s fault. Just turn on the news and you’ll see.