The Magazine

Our Most Surprising Ally

Meet Joschka Fischer, Green hawk.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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CONSIDER two foreign ministers. The first wants "to destroy" the Taliban; the second to work with "moderate Taliban leaders." The first warns repeatedly that a key terrorist aim is "the destruction of Israel." The second seeks, even now after the assassination of a government minister, to increase pressure on the Jewish state. The first defends American sovereignty and U.S. leadership: Missile defense, he says, is "a purely national decision of the U.S."; regarding NATO, he argues that to "enforce peace in Europe," it is necessary for "the United States to take the lead." The second worries about losing the coalition if the president makes Iraq the next target. If "the coalition felt it was necessary to go after terrorist groups in other countries, this would be a matter for the coalition to discuss," reports the second minister's deputy.

The second voice is that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell; the hawkish first voice, that of Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, leader of his country's left-wing Green party. It's an odd state of affairs when the U.S. secretary of state in a Republican administration starts sounding more European than the Europeans themselves, especially when compared with Fischer.

Of course, the Europeans adore Colin Powell. He counts as the reasonable moderate of the Bush administration--a lover of coalitions, with strong allergies to the use of force. The secretary of state generally seems to get full credit, moreover, for the comprehensive strategy that has emerged in the weeks since September 11. As one German columnist says of our war-mongering president, if George W. Bush had his way, diplomat "Powell would be unemployed."

It is tempting, of course, to see this as a transatlantic match made in multilateral heaven. But the European position is one of ambivalence. Sure, the allies like the big hug of coalition building. It brings them into the fold and increases their leverage vis- -vis the United States. And the Europeans celebrate Powell for his constant pursuit of a stable coalition, treating him like a savior for doing battle with the antichrists at the Pentagon.

But Europeans also understand that in the war against terrorism anything that diminishes American strength and freedom for maneuver may run counter to their own interests. On the subject of preemptive strikes down the road, for example, says one senior German military official privately: "The U.S. should just do it--and tell us about it afterward." This same ambivalence toward American power thwarted Warren Christopher's 1993 Europe trip. When given the opportunity, the allies were happy to reject Bill Clinton's plans for a more muscular approach to Bosnia; so the war raged on, and Europeans were shocked by the lack of American confidence and resolve.

Which means if President Bush is true to his word that the United States will make no distinction between the terrorists and the states who assist them, and Iraq's number will be called sooner or later. When this day comes, Joschka Fischer could help stiffen the spine of Europeans and even help get the Russians on board--or at least out of the way.

Such a scenario oozes with irony, of course. In earlier days as a radical, Fischer clashed with police, protested Vietnam, and flirted with Palestinian extremism. From the left, a decade ago, he opposed the Gulf War (which put him in line with Powell), though he was clearly frustrated by some of the company he was keeping. It was then that Fischer ripped into party chairman Hans-Christian Strobele for anti-Israeli remarks, calling the Greens' leader a "beadle of Saddam Hussein." And then Fischer turned hawk. He discovered the goodness of America, the utility of force, and, slowly, the marriage of values and interests. It may be a bit much to call him a neoconservative--but he tends in this direction, as Vice President Cheney was heard to whisper to him when the two met in Washington earlier this year.

Bosnia was a turning point in Fischer's thinking. He eventually stood against his own party and sided with Margaret Thatcher, for example, in supporting a U.S.-led intervention. Powell was on the other side, angrily rejecting Lady Thatcher's advice and chiding those who had not understood the "lessons of history" in a New York Times op-ed.

Fischer again faced down his own party--and the harsh criticism of the French, the Russians, and the Arab world--when he supported the U.S. and British bombing of Iraq in February of this year. Saddam's "bloody regime" was responsible for the airstrikes, he said at the time. Fischer was also the one who first delivered the message about U.S. missile defense plans to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The message was in effect: "Dear Vlad, save your breath. The Americans are going ahead," according to American and German sources. No Schaukelpolitik here--that great German tradition of playing West against East.