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Joffe: Europeans Want Continued U.S. Involvement in the Middle East

Interviewee: Josef Joffe, Publisher-Editor, Die Zeit
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 14, 2008

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Josef Joffe, a German newspaper publisher and longtime expert on European and U.S. politics, says there is unparalleled interest in the current U.S. presidential campaign, in part because of the chance of a woman or black becoming president for the first time. Joffe points to the crucial policy decisions facing the next U.S. president in the Middle East, which he likens to Europe during the Cold War. He says that even though Europeans will not do much to help the United States, “no European leader wants the United States to quit the Middle East. They won’t help the United States; they won’t put troops there but none of them wants the United States to leave.”

As a longtime observer of both the European and American political scenes, what is the general attitude in Europe toward the American presidential elections?

First I want to make a historical note here. Never before in my lifetime have people been following primary elections in the USA as avidly and informatively as in this particular season. They know about “super delegates,” they know about Pennsylvania, they know about how the Democrats have proportional representation and the Republicans have winner-takes-all. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is the most interesting thing I can report about Europe right now.

What causes this—because the Clinton name is so well-known?

Obviously, having a woman and a black running against each other—and each having a solid chance to be president—that has never happened before. Plus Europeans have been taught to hate Bush as the incarnation of evil and/or stupidity; only just slightly behind Adolf Hitler and Stalin. I think there is this idea that anybody who will follow him will solve Europe’s problems with the United States. Of course that’s a sheer illusion. Europe’s problems with the United States have to do with America’s role in the world as the number one global power, as an agent of relentless change, forcing everyone else to adapt. That’s what causes the problems. Those problems will not go away under any of the three current candidates.

Since you say Bush is seen as the incarnate of evil, what is the feeling about John McCain, who is called “the presumptive Republican candidate”? Is he known in Europe?

Europeans know him and the security community knows him quite well because he shows up at least once a year for the Munich Security Conference which has been going on for about forty-five years or so. In the past few years, he has been leading the delegation—the Congressional delegation—so the strategic community knows him quite well. There are no very strong emotions as far as he is concerned. The strong interest in the election stems from the fascination of course with the two Democrats who are running. There’s a black and a woman. The only other time we had a woman in the race, she was a vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. So I think that explains the fascination and the relative or the non-fascination with McCain. Those who think about McCain do not equate him with Bush. They think about him as a guy who reached out across the aisle, who is a war hero, who stood up under pressure, who was amongst the very first to speak out about Guantanamo, for instance.

You, of course, have a woman chancellor in Germany, Angela Merkel.

True. In Europe we have had tons of women leaders. We had Margaret Thatcher [former British prime minister]. We had a Norwegian prime minister [Gro Harlem Brundtland].

What about Obama? It must baffle Europeans that a black person could become president of the United States.

There are some mind-sets in Europe that see America as so irretrievably racist that the idea of a black candidate is viewed as an absurdity. But the bafflement is not the critical issue here. I think the more sophisticated Europeans know how many big strides America has taken against its own racist history, such as affirmative action. They sometimes compare the way the United States has dealt with integration of ethnic, racial minorities favorably with the difficulty that Europe has integrating its non-Christian, non-white minorities.

I was thinking that Obama’s rise demonstrates how much easier it is for an American black to rise up through the best schools and into politics than it is in Europe.

That’s a very important thing. America is a meritocracy and as a meritocracy this country has developed a number of ladders that people can put their foot on. I think the school system is very important. There is no Harvard or Yale or Stanford in Europe where you can put your foot on the ladder and rise. European universities are generally dreary all over the place and whether you go to Heidelberg or Sorbonne, which used to be great names fifty to hundred years, doesn’t matter anymore because they are all kind of at the level of the average American state school.

No European leader wants the United States to quit the Middle East. They won’t help the United States; they won’t put troops there but none of them wants the United States to leave.

In the United States, we’re in an economic squeeze right now and people are very worried about a recession. Europe’s situation is better, yes?

There’s no recession in Europe but the idea that the rest of the world can decouple from the U.S. economy has proven to be a bit premature so once the engine of demand that America is and has been starts sputtering, that translates into a visibly lower growth rate in the European economy. Anyway, the European economy is not receding but it’s stagnating with growth spurts of maybe 1.5 percent or so. But no more.

Let’s talk about foreign policy issues. If a Democrat wins the presidency, he or she has pledged to get of Iraq. They differ on details.

I simply don’t see how the United States can get out of Iraq.

You think whoever is elected will have to face that problem?

They will have to face the realities, of cutting tail, from the most strategic and most important area in the world. What Europe used to be in the Cold War, the greater Middle East is now. For the number one power in the world to tuck tail and run from the area is to kiss goodbye to its superpower role. This is not Vietnam. Vietnam had no strategic ramifications whatsoever but I think leaving Iraq would have enormous strategic consequences.

In Europe, what are the issues the leaders would like the United States to deal with?

I think that no European leader wants the United States to quit the Middle East. They won’t help the United States; they won’t put troops there but none of them wants the United States to leave for the reasons I’ve just described.

And Afghanistan and NATO?

Nobody wants the United States to quit Afghanistan either.

Let’s talk about the other president who was just inaugurated in Russia, Dmitry Medvedev. What does Europe think of the new president, and the new prime minister, Vladimir Putin?

We don’t know. We don’t know whether Putin has in mind that he wants to turn the Russian presidency into more a European-style president, which is kind of a ceremonial figurehead like the German president, or whether the institutional power of their presidency, which comes with a lot of power will overwhelm Putin’s ambitions. He has quite clearly said that policy is made by the prime minister, which runs counter to the Russian constitution. So we are facing interesting times.

What Europe used to be in the Cold War, the greater Middle East is now. For the number one power in the world to tuck tail and run from the area is to kiss goodbye to its superpower role.

I think it will be very interesting when we have the new G8 next year to see the interplay, when we have Medvedev and the new American president and how they all interact. For instance, Obama will be a newcomer on the international scene.

Look, my problem is that Obama says very little about what he intends to do. He talks about “change,” about this and that. He’s kind of imitating Kennedy, which you and I remember but other folks no longer remember. He looks like him; he imitates his body language, his tonality, everything. He’s coming off very authentic. But the problem is almost every American president comes to the White House usually from a governor’s mansion, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan. Generally most American presidents had to learn foreign policy on the job so that is not a unique problem for Obama. But I think that Obama may not understand or appreciate the hard realities of power and that foreign policy is more often hardball than softball and that he’s up against some pretty mean dudes. Against Putin, against al-Qaeda, against Assad. He’ll be up against all sorts of nasty surprises in which responses will have to be made up on the spot. I just hope that he is not the naďve, idealistic guy like Jimmy Carter who took four years before he understood the realities of Soviet power when they invaded Afghanistan. You have to be a very, very fast learner in the White House when you run the number one power in the world.

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