From Berlin to Baghdad
When I was born the war was already over. The mission was accomplished, as we would say today. But the aggression was still alive. The interior of my hometown was divided into four sectors, and there were occasionally clashes at the borders between the sectors, resulting in injuries and even loss of life. Sometimes as a child I heard the rattling of machine-gun fire. My bedroom was less then 2,000 feet from one of the checkpoints.
Whenever my father and I came within earshot of a border post, he would always remind me of the iron rule of the early days after this war: Keep your mouth shut! A wrong word or even a silly grin was enough to cause big trouble for an entire family.
The situation worsened year after year of what was called "peace". There was no "progress on the ground," as we would say today. The rival groups in my city were absolutely irreconcilable, which is why the men with the Kalashnikovs ended up building a massive wall down the middle of our street. They tore down the houses behind the wall to make room for watchtowers and automatic shooting devices.
The city where I was born is called Berlin, not Baghdad. Thanks to the perseverance and patience of American soldiers and their commander in chief, Berlin is one city today, a free city truly at peace. But if pollsters, focus groups and other "strategic advisers" who don't answer to the electorate had existed at the time, freedom probably wouldn't have stood a chance in my city. The operative terms in those days were not "withdrawal" and "timetable", but "solidarity" and "strength". The most important word was "freedom" - not "benchmark" or "exit-strategy".
If the supreme commander of the U.S. Army in Berlin had been subject to the same requirements Gen. David Petraeus is subject to today, the Americans would have had to turn the city over to the Soviets. Baghdad today and Berlin in those days are more similar than some would like to believe. The general contention is that the Iraqis, unlike the Germans, never had a democratic culture. Once you break the palace, by ousting the dictator, the elevator goes straight to the mosque, these people argue. There is nothing in between - no civil society, no real labor unions, no real parliament or press.
That's the situation in Iraq, but that was also the situation in postwar Germany. There was no flourishing democratic tradition in my country before the Allies marched in. Adolf Hitler came to power, not by overthrowing a government, but through elections, because the Germans were poorly equipped to handle their young, fickle democracy. A majority considered discipline and order to be more valuable than parliamentary representation. Germany was a republic without republicans.
Iraq, so the argument goes, is a wild, mixed bag of ethnic groups and religious communities. Speaking strictly off the record, critics say that fanaticism is practically part of the human genetic code in this part of the world. What a contradiction! If there were ever a hotbed of fanaticism, it would be somewhere between Berlin and Munich. The Baath Party and its leaders couldn't hold a candle to the Fuhrer in Berlin and his followers. Millions marched through the streets chanting: "Fuhrer command, we will follow!"
American soldiers are attacked daily in Baghdad. There was none of that in postwar Berlin. Objection! Didn't the Germans exact a far greater toll on the Americans? Here are the official U.S. battle casualties in the European theater: killed: 116,991; wounded: 386,356; captured: 73,759; missing: 14,528. Hitler's offensive in the Ardennes, an attack that was launched despite the fact that defeat was imminent, was nothing less than a giant suicide bombing. More than 100,000 people died, more Germans than Americans.
There are many differences between Berlin in those days and Baghdad today. Comparing the two doesn't mean equating them. But the most important difference can be found in Washington. The Americans at the beginning of the Cold War were much more patient. When the situation became especially threatening, the president made a trip to Berlin. But instead of barricading himself into an army barracks, he stood on the balcony at the city hall (in our sector) and called out "I am a Berliner." His name was John F. Kennedy, which sends us one clear message: You don't have to be a "neocon" to fight for freedom.
Republicans and Democrats should do what their predecessors did to address the Berlin challenge: grit their teeth, persevere, be patient and most importantly resist the temptation to take political advantage of short-term strategic setbacks. The greatest enemy of freedom today is strategic impatience. The presidential candidates can run, but they can't hide: Their Berlin is called Baghdad.
Gabor Steingart, Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), New York, Sept 18, 2007
Mr. Steingart, Der Spiegel's Berlin bureau chief from 2000 to 2007, is now a senior correspondent in Washington.