Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The truth 10 years later: Germany helped the invasion of Iraq

I got very drunk the night that the Iraq war began. It seemed like the only way I could respond to the helplessness and depression I was experiencing.

Ten years later, I no longer touch alcohol and can see things a lot more clearly. Taking refuge in red wine as I listened to updates from Baghdad on the BBC World Service was, I now realise, a cop out. Unlike millions of others, I hadn't bothered to march against the invasion; I had just grumbled about it.

One or two days into the war, I found myself at a press conference given by Tony Blair. It was a salutary lesson about how the mainstream media is often supine towards the powerful. I had my hand raised for most of the event, seeking to ask Blair a question. Yet the prime minister would only deal with British reporters who he knew personally; there was a tacit understanding that none of them would give him a hard time. The thought of standing up and protesting at this quasi-censorship crossed my mind. To my regret, I didn't have the guts to do so.

I am bolder and happier today than I was a decade ago. Around that time, I started to shed the illusions I had about my profession. Far too many journalists, I would later conclude, are little more than stenographers for an elite. Far too many of us kid ourselves into thinking that we are doing important work because we write down or record what "important" people tell us.

I was as guilty as anyone else. In 2003, I had a reasonably well-paid job with the weekly newspaper European Voice. This required me to feign something called objectivity. Eventually, I learned that objectivity is a synonym for intellectual cowardice. Journalists shouldn't be trying to give equal weight to "both sides" in a story, especially if one of those sides is perpetrating a crime. We should be trying to expose what our political leaders are up to, not indulging them in the hope they might throw a scoop our way.

Built on lies

The Iraq war was built on lies. The best-known lies were the ones about Saddam Hussein being involved in rearranging the New York skyline on 11 September 2001 and having the capability to fire weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. But there were other lies that we swallowed and that many of us still believe.

I lost count of the number of articles I knocked out around that time about the split between what Donald Rumsfeld called "old" and "new" Europe.

The truth is that the European Union wasn't seriously divided. As canny politicians, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac appeared in sync with public opinion by opposing the war. Schröder's re-election as chancellor in 2002 was at least partly attributable to his stance against America's sabre-rattling.

Yet even if Germany did not send soldiers to Iraq, it facilitated the illegal occupation of that country.

America's largest military base overseas is located at Ramstein in Germany; it hosts the 86th Air Wing. As soon as George W. Bush signed a resolution passed by the US congress authorizing the use of force against Iraq in October 2002, that division of the army was mobilised. Ramstein served as a major refuelling station for warplanes throughout the war. And Ramstein is still regarded as a key asset in Washington - despite all the talk about Barack Obama being less interested in Europe than his predecessors. In February last year, the US held a major conference there, allowing diplomats and generals to mull over the nation's future military strategy on German soil.

Interestingly, Ramstein was also used as something of a launch-pad during NATO's attack on Libya in 2011, despite how Germany didn't participate directly in that offensive. It was used, too, by the CIA after it abducted Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric, in 2003. Abu Omar was flown from Rome to his native Egypt, where he was tortured. The flight in question stopped in Ramstein.

America's doormat

If the Berlin government had really wanted to thwart Bush's war plans, it would have ordered the US to leave its military bases in Germany. Its neighbour has set an example that could have been followed. In 1966 Charles de Gaulle informed America that any of its troops stationed in France would have to leave the country within little over a year. (Many of them, as it happens, moved to Ramstein).

It is possible for nations to stand up to the US and survive. The recently deceased Hugo Chavez was briefly toppled in a US-backed coup; protests by his own supporters helped return him to power. Perhaps more dramatically, Ecuador announced in 2008 it was kicking US troops out of a base that was supposedly crucial in the "war on drugs".

The Iraq war offered an opportunity for some of Europe's leaders to prove their mettle. Schröder, in particular, could have partly atoned for his earlier willingness to support American foreign policy. During his first term, he committed troops to NATO's attacks on Serbia and Afghanistan. Both of those wars gave a new lease of life to a US-led organisation that should have been wound up when the Cold War ended.

Allowing the US to fly to and from Ramstein was a huge help to the war in Iraq. By refusing to close the base, Gerhard Schröder acted as America's doormat.

•First published by New Europe, 17-24 March 2013.

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