Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

A reading list to aid global understanding

December 29, 2002

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Throughout this rapidly fleeing year, ominous headlines played tag with history. The looming hell fires of war, along with their antecedents and consequences, singed readers daily. And war was the stuff of a number of standout histories published in 2002, a year that was kinder to analysts of foreign affairs than to those of the stock market.

The relationship between the then and the now is more mysterious than either historians or journalists like to admit. Separating the useful from the misleading in precedent is the highest calling in each trade. Misapply the past and you change the future in dangerous ways. Ignore the past and it changes you in ways you will not like. Wrestling with history is a tag-team match of frequently unconscious collaboration.

The dangers created by leaving a wounded, humiliated but unvanquished foe still standing peek out in the current commentary about Iraq and in Margaret MacMillan's masterful "Paris 1919." She casts new light on the oft-told tale of how the failures of peacemaking after the "Great War" contributed to the rise of German militarism and of a homicidal dictator who built a powerful secret arsenal under the noses of his adversaries and then used it.

MacMillan shows that the conventional analysis of the allegedly overly harsh treatment of Germany in defeat is wide of the mark. The partly defeated aggressors were left aggrieved but still powerful enough to seek and obtain revenge and domination. That was the great mistake of 1919, and of 1991.

"Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a godsend for his propaganda. Even if Germany had been left with its old borders, even if had been allowed whatever military forces it wanted" and much else besides, MacMillan writes, "he would have still wanted more," including the destruction of Poland, the Soviet Union and Jews everywhere.

The war "had begun with a series of mistakes and it ended in confusion" because the United States was not expecting victory when it came. That's MacMillan on Woodrow Wilson's stumbles. But it could be a description of the strategic pratfall of the first President Bush and his national security team, who blew the truce talks at Safwan in 1991 (is there some curse in that numerical combination?) and left Saddam Hussein to be dealt with by the second President Bush.

Nothing could be more contemporary for students of Iraq than Antony Beevor's "The Fall of Berlin 1945." The crumbling Reich's propaganda grew more shrill as citizens turned to gallows humor and the casting off of Nazi identification to survive. Throughout Iraq today, Baath party officials have suddenly become polite to citizens they have been routinely abusing for decades. Some are opening contacts with opposition forces and turning in party cards, according to European diplomatic cables from Baghdad.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a student of German unification, has been seen reading Michael Beschloss' incomparable account of Roosevelt, Truman and the destruction of Hitler's Germany titled "The Conquerors" as she oversees planning for a postwar Iraq. Beschloss documents the origins and importance of unconditional surrender as a strategy.

I would add "Pakistan" by Owen Bennett Jones to Rice's reading list and recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the nexus of terrorism and Pakistan's nefarious role as "a determined proliferator" of nuclear technology. Another book titled "Pakistan,'' by Mary Anne Weaver, usefully traces the social and economic roots of that country's downward spiral into outlawry.

The best analysis of al-Qaida and transnational terrorism I encountered this year exists only in French. It is contained in two books on global Islam and 9-11 by Olivier Roy. Fortunately, this insightful scholar will be published in the United States in 2003.

The most ambitious foreign affairs/history book to buckle my desk in the last 12 months was Philip Bobbitt's panoramic "The Shield of Achilles," a meditation on global strategy through the ages. It heralds the replacement of the nation-state with the market-state. The most contrarian was Charles Kupchan's "The End of the American Era," which argues that imperial overstretch will cause the United States to lose global leadership (a strong possibility) to a revitalized European Union (now there's a stretch!) rather than to global anarchy.

Best analysis of Germany's soul disguised as fiction? Ward Just's "The Weather in Berlin." A fun historical read? "Seven Ages of Paris" by Alistair Horne. And check out Strobe Talbott's "The Russia Hand.'' His sketch of Vladimir Putin is incisive, and Talbott gives us an unblemished and therefore incomplete portrait of a Bill Clinton who would have made a heck of a president.

Apologies to other fine authors I missed, and Happy 2003 to all.




-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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