William Pfaff’s latest book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy.
 (June 2013)

Pure, Purifying, and Evil

An aging mural of Lenin at a former Soviet Air Force base in East Germany; photograph by Martin Roemers from his 2009 book Relics of the Cold War, published by Hatje Cantz
The twentieth century undoubtedly will mainly be remembered for producing totalitarian politics. Italian Fascism was the first to give this name to the phenomenon, even though Mussolini’s movement was the least “total” of the regimes upon which the name has since been bestowed. While Mussolini wanted concentration of all power …

Challenge to the Church

Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, celebrating Mass in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, 1998
Garry Wills’s latest book on Catholicism coincides with a crisis in the church that has been developing since Pius IX (1792–1878) set the course of Peter’s barque against the winds of Enlightenment and revolution. Driven from Rome by the rioting of 1848, the pope returned under the protection of Napoleon …

The History Beyond History

King Nikola and his family at the time of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Montenegro, 1910. In the foreground, reclining, is the king’s grandson, Crown Prince Aleksandar of Serbia, who later became the first king of Yugoslavia.
The publication of the British historian Norman Davies’s account of the “vanished kingdoms” of Europe fits this moment of concern about American political decline, plutocracy, and installation of permanent war, as well as pervasive skepticism about the European Union’s future. He is interested in how nations begin, but also in …

When the Army Was Democratic

Somewhere north of the Chongchon River, while fighting with the 2nd Infantry Division, Sergeant First Class Major Cleveland, weapons squad leader, points out a communist-led North Korean position to his machine gun crew, Korea, November 1950

The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it.

More on the Toulouse Murders and Anti-Semitism

The Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim and the President of the French Council of Muslim Faith Mohammed Moussaoui after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris, March 21, 2012

More may be said about the Toulouse murders. In murdering the children, Mohammed Merah acted ruthlessly and despicably. We do not know enough about him to be sure he killed principally out of anti-Semitism, which is an irrational hatred with historical origins not to be gone into here. Merah killed Muslim, or supposedly Muslim French soldiers (the one survivor was Christian, and remains in a coma), because they betrayed Islam by joining the enemy army. I would presume that he acted—in the case of both the children and the soldiers—out of what to him was a rational motive, to kill, or punish, those he believed or had been told were enemies of Islam. It does not appear he was directly influenced by any coherent ideology.

The Middle East Conflict Comes to France

Casings of Qassam rockets found in Sderot, Israel

The terrorist shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in France last week were, among other things, another episode in the war that for nearly a half century has been going on between Zionism and the Palestinians, in which Western Europe and the United States have suffered much collateral damage. Sensational headlines about al-Qaeda and the “global jihad” striking France have followed Mohammed Merah’s death. But the night before he was killed in a police raid, Merah told police that he felt justified for killing three children and a teacher at a Jewish school as revenge for the killing of Palestine children in Gaza.

How Much ‘Progress’ Have We Made?

It is natural to assume that we were meant to become what we are, and that human existence has an intelligible significance, purpose, or conclusion. Francis Fukuyama has long since apologized for his declaration in 1992 that what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold …

Wise Men Against the Grain

George Kennan at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, 1981
One’s relations with one’s country, like the relations among intimates, are always complicated; but I conceive myself to have loved my own…. I am now inclined to see my country much the way that I see Russia (in the historical sense): namely, as a politically unsuccessful and tragic country, but …

Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo

Recently deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, greeting supporters in an affluent Carthage neighborhood near the capital, Tunis, October 2009
Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations.

Aside from the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, Arab nations have since the demise of the Ottoman Empire mostly suffered from European quasi empire, their own exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships, a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise.

The Trouble with Dictators

Habib Bourguiba, the founder of the Tunisian Republic and predecessor of recently deposed Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali, viewing a military parade at an Arab Summit meeting, Rabat, Morocco, 1974

Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterwards?

What Obama Should Have Said to BP

Governor Charlie Crist and Barack Obama at Casino Beach, Pensacola, Florida, June 15, 2010
Barack Obama’s demand, in his June 15 speech, that the former British Petroleum Company create an escrow account to deal with the consequences of the continuing castrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, should have been made weeks ago, and surely should have been framed more strongly than it was. Allow me, in the style of the metropolitan columnists who influence Washington, to draft what the President might have said.

Mac Bundy Said He Was ‘All Wrong’

From left, Lieutenant Colonel John C. Hughes briefing McGeorge Bundy and General William C. Westmoreland on the recent Vietcong attack on Pleiku, South Vietnam, February 10, 1965
The debate over foreign policy that culminated in President Barack Obama’s address to the nation on December 1, 2009, concerns a war that began with the attack of a mainly Saudi Arabian group of politically radicalized Muslim men on New York and Washington, targets symbolic of American capitalism and alleged …

Who Is Sarkozy?

Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s new president, addressed the US Congress on November 7, with his divorce behind him and with the satisfaction of two recent and considerable political accomplishments. The first was his success, in mid-October, in dealing with the first concerted challenge to his presidency—strikes by transport and other unions, …

In Sarkoland

The scenario for the 2007 French presidential election was written by the foreign press and embassies before it happened. France was said to be experiencing “malaise” and decline, mired in ineffectual resistance to market economics, low growth, and high youth unemployment because of its failure to integrate its African and …

Happy Birthday!

On Sunday, March 25, the European Union celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which in 1957 established a customs union, common market, and institutions of economic cooperation among six European states—which have now become twenty-seven. Earlier in the month there was another anniversary. The …

Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

President George Bush has decided to disregard both the political message of the 2006 midterm election and congressional pressure for an early end to America’s Iraq involvement, as well as the Baker-Hamilton proposals. These decisions are meeting much opposition, which is likely to fail. Bush’s opponents have been unable to …

A Disaster by Any Measure

On and after September 11, 2001, I wrote a series of columns examining who these people were who had attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and why they were determined to battle the power and influence of the United States in the Mideast—particularly in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s …

France: The Children’s Hour

Both revolts send messages. The message of the mostly Muslim suburbs resembles the message of class conflict in the past—the demand for equality. The crucial difference is that the conflict is no longer one economic class against another, which was a purposeful conflict, but protest by those excluded for …

The French Riots: Will They Change Anything?

The rioting in France’s ghetto suburbs is a phenomenon of futility—but a revelation nonetheless. It has no ideology and no purpose other than to make a statement of distress and anger. It is beyond politics. It broke out spontaneously and spread in the same way, communicated by televised example, ratified …

What’s Left of the Union?

The French and Dutch referendum votes against the European constitutional treaty caused many Europeans to be alarmed for European unity itself. This was called the biggest reversal for Europe in fifty years, a revolt against economic reform putting the euro in jeopardy, a “lurch to the left,” a repudiation of …

The American Mission?

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Choice is superficially an election-year foreign policy tour d’horizon, more sophisticated in analysis and recommendations, and certainly more statesmanlike in temper, than current writings by the Bush administration’s supporters. It is a nuanced expression of the conventional wisdom among American foreign policy experts, and a condemnation of …

Afghanistan: The Moving Target

The Pentagon’s admission that Taliban forces in Afghanistan are not collapsing under the weight of the American bombardment, and that the Northern Alliance has not begun to march toward Kabul, casts doubt on the tactics being employed to run this war. Its tactical model is familiar by now: air power …

Land War in Kosovo?

Evacuation to Guam, Guantánamo, Germany, or Turkey provides no solution to the Kosovo refugee problem. The only acceptable solution for the refugees is to go back to their homes (those homes that survive), provided with security in which to rebuild their lives. As the Italian and French governments said, in …

Power for What?

Logically, at the cold war’s end, the United States should have begun a long-term scaling down of forces and commitments abroad. The cold war was a period of crisis demanding exceptional measures. Its end altered contemporary geopolitical circumstances, meriting a serious response from Washington. It did not receive that response …

Eugenics, Anyone?

Until recently it has been, not a secret, but a fact kept carefully closeted, that the countries that consider themselves the most advanced and civilized had for many years been sterilizing “undesirable” people, or taking their children away from them, in order to improve the “race.” This was going on …