If my Michael Moore-obsessed fellow German countrymen were honest, they would admit that what really frightens them is this dangerous new century we have just entered and the scary glimpses we have had of it so far.
Throughout the Cold War, many Germans were used to having it easy and both ways: staging demonstrations against “U.S. imperialism” while at the same time enjoying the protection of the Pax Americana. Wealth and security were guaranteed, and the United States footed most of the security bill. What a wonderful world. Now the future does not look so wonderful any longer: global terrorism, nuclear weapons, Islamist extremism and failing states just across the Mediterranean Sea.
Deep in their hearts most Germans feel that they are out of their depth and that their country cannot cope. Small wonder they would rather close their eyes and simply make the 21st century go away. Hardly surprising that many of them are angry about a man who refuses to trade in illusions and forces them to face the real world like President Bush.
That is what the presidential election of 2004 is about: facing the real world. I still remember the elation I felt when reading for the first time those lines in one of Mr. Bush’s stirring speeches in the weeks and months after September 11: “We’ re enforcing the doctrine that says this: If you harbor the terrorists, you’re guilty of terror. And like the terrorists you will be held responsible.”
The Bush doctrine had been overdue for almost 30 years. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s we knew about Middle Eastern despots harboring terrorists and terrorist-training camps. We knew where those camps were and we also knew the assorted German, Italian, Spanish and Irish terrorists bonding there with their Palestinian kin. But no one ever did anything about it. When President Reagan finally lost patience with Libyan terror-host Moammar Gadhafi and had U.S. fighters pay a well-deserved visit to Tripoli, outraged European governments lectured him about international law and sovereignty. Terrorists and terror-hosts took the lesson to heart: International law actually protected them. At long last the Bush Doctrine has put an end to such nonsense. Libyans, Syrians and Iranians seem to have taken in the message.
Just as important was a much-debated sentence in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” The famous line amounts to nothing less than a personal promise by the president of the United States. And with the specter of a nuclear Iran and, as a consequence, a nuclear Middle East rising on the horizon, we Europeans actually depend on it being honored. All the more so, as our own governments seem to have already resigned themselves to having nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles being trained on our countries pretty soon. Their language smacks of detente. It will not be long before German socialists and pacifists start calling nuclear-armed Iranian mullahs their “partners in security” — the affectionate label they once stuck on Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. For those who shiver at the prospect of having to live under the shadow of Iranian nukes Mr. Bush’s White House is the only place to look to.
This is no time for wavering and procrastination. We do not live in the inconsequential 1970s anymore, but in the highly consequential dawn of a new century. Mistakes we make out of fear today are likely to haunt us for decades to come. We must shift strategic switches in the direction of stability and security now — and meet the likes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the mullahs with firmness and resolve.
That is the reason why it was so important that Mr. Bush took on the issue of Iraq. For 20 years Saddam Hussein had done his utmost to acquire nuclear weapons. For 12 long years he had mocked the United Nations. When challenged to come clean in March 2003, he refused to. However, when it comes to global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the burden of proof must lie with the suspect, not with the prosecutor. We now know that Saddam intended to pick up his nuclear threads where he had been forced to drop them, once sanctions were lifted and U.S. forces withdrawn. We also know that he had all the reason in the world to feel safe: He had the United Nations in his deep oil-for-food pockets, plus a couple of veto-yielding members of the Security Council, who had never liked the sanctions anyway.
If it had not been for one factor, Saddam’s infamous gamble almost certainly would have paid off. This factor had a face and a name: President George Bush.
Heinrich Maetzke is a Munich-based historian and journalist.