American Politics Through a Glass, Darkly

Posted: Jun 13, 2008 12:01 AM
American Politics Through a Glass, Darkly

BERLIN -- An American won't easily recognize politics at home as seen from Europe. Even our British cousins often look through a glass, darkly. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, distilled to their essence, were easier to understand. Liked him, didn't trust her. But the unfolding of the American presidential campaign is understood mostly through stereotypes. This sometimes makes meaningful conversations difficult.

How wonderful, Europeans typically exclaim, that a black man in the land that fought a war over slavery (to reduce a complicated story to an easily understood stereotype) gets to be president only 150 years later (the actual election is usually understood as only a ratifying formality). Curiously, Hillary as the first serious woman candidate seems hardly to have resonated among the frauleins. After the election of first Margaret Thatcher and then Angela Merkel, a leader's sex seems no big deal in Europe.

Europeans sneer at George W. Bush for many reasons, including his openness in talking about his religious faith, but he's having a good time on his current tour of Germany, France and Italy, whose chiefs of state actually like him. They're not even put off by his religious earnestness.

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has put the fear of God even into many European atheists. Israel's concern is becoming their worry, too. It's beginning to register with the most thoughtful Europeans that, as George W. Bush reminded them this week, his successor -- whoever he is -- will stick to his policy of dealing with Iran because presidents have to deal with the real world, not a world as they would like it to be.

Obama, who once said he would negotiate with Iran without preconditions, sounds more like a president as he learns, painfully, to bear a greater responsibility for pretty words. "Let me be clear. Israel's security is sacrosanct ... nonnegotiable," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington. "And there is no greater threat to Israel or to the peace and stability of the region than Iran."

Germans aren't entertained by sexual politics like we are, or as the British or the French and the Italians. They perceived Hillary as continuing her husband's cynicism of "politics as usual." They're thrilled by the surge of "Obamamania," though few expect it to last. They like John McCain as the maverick, replacing the cowboy from Prairie Chapel Ranch, and like his harsh denunciation of perceived torture of prisoners at Guantanamo.

They don't see much difference between the two surviving candidates on Israel, as almost anyone who heard or read their remarks to the AIPAC session could concur. But there's little passion for an American-like friendship with Israel.

A "special relationship" between Germany and Israel was forged after World War II, encouraging the memory and memorialization of the Holocaust, but lingering guilt and reparations for Jews who survived German cruelty have taken a toll on the collective psyche.

Nearly half of the Germans polled by the Bertelsmann Foundation last year said Jews exploit the legacy of the Third Reich. You don't have to be a disciple of Sigmund Freud to see that many Germans take a psychological glee, or at least satisfaction, in accusing Israelis of using Nazi tactics against Palestinian terrorists.

The Judeo-Christian tradition that is so much a part of American culture, fusing Biblical history with Western democratic traditions, inevitably leads to strong support of Israel. We see a separate church and state, but the Founding Fathers didn't separate the law of Moses from the inspiration that guided the writing of our Constitution. The Judeo-Christian heritage is one pillar of government, just as Greek and Roman philosophy is another. Such thinking is largely absent in post-Christian Europe, diminishing appreciation of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East.

Jews, who contributed mightily to German society in the decades leading to World War II, were nevertheless perceived as "visitors" here, stereotyped as "different." An exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum drives this attitude home. It's called "Typical Cliches About Jews and Others." A bitter joke introduces the exhibition: "I've nothing against foreigners. Some of my best friends are foreigners. But these foreigners aren't from here."

Merkel tried to get a reference to the Judeo-Christian origins of government into the constitution of the European Union, but couldn't. Saying almost anything positive about religious faith is verboten in most of Western Europe -- something more to make meaningful conversation about America difficult.