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Jewish World Review
Sept. 22, 2009
/ 4 Tishrei 5770
Letting Europe Drift
Let's be brutally frank: The 60th anniversary of the NATO alliance, celebrated in April, was a bore. The American president was visibly uninterested. His European counterparts, though more accustomed to "celebrations" consisting of somnolent speeches delivered in multilingual bureaucratese, were no more enthusiastic. The affair closed with a limp American request for more troops in Afghanistan that had almost no echo.
Let's be even franker: President Obama's decision to attend the 65th anniversary observance of the D-Day landings in France in June was mystifying. Why 65th? It's not even a round number. He was not originally expected to come and, indeed, his presence meant that the guest list the queen of England wasn't even on it had to be rapidly expanded at the last minute. It was nice for the veterans that he was there, particularly as he gave a terrific speech, lauding the ordinary men who, "At an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest of circumstances . . . found within themselves the ability to do something extraordinary." But the political impact was limited, and no more troops for Afghanistan materialized then, either.
Let's be franker still: It is impossible to escape the impression that, at least in its relations with Europe, the Obama administration is following directly in the footsteps of the Bush administration. For the past decade, the old continent has been treated as a great photo opportunity the Obama campaign even used the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a speech last summer and as an excellent place to talk about stirring deeds of the past. But neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to consider Europe worthy of experienced ambassadors Obama, like Bush, has sent a notable number of campaign donors or of serious diplomacy.
As for Central Europe, it isn't considered worthy of any diplomacy at all. Last week, the Czech prime minister was roused from his bed after midnight to be informed by the White House of a non-urgent decision many months in the making: the cancellation of the missile defense program. The Polish prime minister refused to take a similar call (and the foreign minister, to whom full disclosure I am married, was asleep). But this is nothing new, either: The Bush White House's original decision to place the missile shield and radar in Central Europe was made before any Central Europeans were consulted not at midnight and not at mid-day. The official letter from the Pentagon in 2007 arrived with a suggested "response": The governments in Prague and Warsaw were supposed to sign on the dotted line and send it back.
In fact, missile defense was unpopular then and is unpopular now, all across Europe. Poles and Czechs favored the American bases only because they would bring American troops to their territory. But they favor American troops on their territory only because two successive American presidents have refused to invest in NATO's presence in Central Europe and haven't seemed much interested in doing anything else in Europe. This has led some to fear that Americans aren't as committed to the basic precepts of the NATO Treaty an attack on one member state is an attack on all as they used to be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to deny that this is the case, but at a time when Russia and others are making heavy military investments, it is a widespread perception all the same.
All of which makes for a paradox: In Europe, President Obama is still the most popular American leader in recent memory. Yet he has failed to capitalize on this popularity, in part because he has failed to use it. His only message in Europe so far "send more troops to Afghanistan" has been clouded by his own ambivalence about the Afghan mission. He has not tried to convince anyone that he's rethought Afghanistan, and he hasn't come up with any other joint security tasks for the world's largest and most powerful democracies. Just for starters, he could tell his European friends that he won't appear in any more photographs with them unless they agree to talk about the contingency plans and NATO joint exercises that the alliance abandoned years ago.
Europeans are to blame, too. The beginning of a new administration was a chance for them to make a fresh start, to bring ideas to the White House instead of waiting for the White House to speak first. Poleaxed by recession and still unable to speak with anything resembling a unified voice, though, Europeans remain as placid and passive about their defense as always. Yes, it is possible that even the most popular U.S. president in living memory can't make them sit up and pay attention to the potential threats of energy blackmail from Russia, of a nuclear Iran or of international terrorism in their own back yards. But it would be far more reassuring if he were at least trying.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
09/17/09: Greed and fear are proving stronger than companies' commitment to free speech
09/08/09: Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
07/09/09: Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin
06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
04/07/09: No Nukes? No Thanks: Obama's odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament
03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
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02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
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© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author
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