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Epic-making Change without Conflict

By Professor of History Dr. Sander Diamond

Epic-making change rarely comes without conflict. Such was not the case 25 years ago this month when the Berlin Wall opened.

Some people approached 1989 with consternation, subscribing to the vision held out by George Orwell in his bestseller, 1984. In truth, what happened Nov. 9, 1989, set in motion a train of events that would have caught Orwell short. It is a day when nearly all of the legacies of the 20th century began to dissolve, literally overnight, and without conflict.

On that fateful day, one may say that the Cold War ended, the German Question was put to rest with the reunification of the two Germanys the following October and the re-establishment of a long-divided Berlin as its capital, the retreat of the Red Army from Central and Eastern Europe, the creation of democratic nations in place of communist ones, the unimaginable collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and soon its dismemberment into independent states, and China, drawing lessons from the fate of the USSR, emerging into an economic giant leaving its communist political leadership intact. Just as the outbreak of World War I marked the end of an age, so did the opening of the Berlin Wall.

The history of the Berlin Wall began in 1945 when a defeated Germany was divided into Four Zones of Occupation: one each to the British, French, Americans, and Russians. In 1949, the French, British, and American zones were collapsed into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In turn, the Russians created the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Berlin was also divided into four zones and on Aug. 13, 1961, Berliners awakened to find a wall of separation being built and soon it divided the city in two, a small version of the Iron Curtain. Escape was nearly impossible from the Eastern sector. The western occupiers protested; there was talk of war, but soon the Berlin Wall became a fact of life.

However, in the mid-1980s, internal changes in Moscow—with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of Glasnost— set into motion an unexpected tidal wave of changes helped along by the election of a Polish-born Pope and Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive foreign policy. In the late 1980s, the winds of change swept into the shipyards of Gdansk, the former city of Danzig, Hitler’s casus belli for war in 1939; into Budapest; and in 1989, the Lutheran churches of East Germany. In short order, the Houses that Stalin Built in the wake of World War II started to waver on their foundations and the GDR fell off its pedestal. With the Old Guard gone, the GDR’s guards stepped aside as people with pick axes chipped away at the hated wall Nov. 9.

The end of the Berlin Wall opened the path to rebuild a divided nation. Today, Germany is an economic giant and Berlin is again a world-class city with its museums, theaters, off-beat sections, and rebuilt Parliament— the old Reichstag with its glass dome as a symbol of its new transparency.Rarely has a transition from one period to another gone so smoothly.

Only a small section of the Berlin Wall still stands, a tourist attraction, while a bronze line in the pavement reveals where the entire wall stood.

Nearby this last piece of the wall are the former Luftwaffe  headquarters; the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the Prussians who unified Germany in 1870; the newly built Memorial to the Six Million Murdered Jews of Europe; a memorial to those killed trying to flee East Germany; and below the surface, the Fȕhrerbunker, where Hitler committed suicide.

While unity permitted Germany to move on, it will never escape its past.

ISIS: From a Protector of Children to Most Feared in the Middle East

By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

In the Cradle of Civilization, which most remember as the Fertile Crescent, the pantheon of the gods was filled with protectors of the living and the dead. One was the goddess ISIS, who emerged in the Nile Delta and was later found in Greco-Roman civilization. ISIS had many roles; for some the protector of the dead, for others the protector of the downtrodden and children. Today, these gods are long forgotten, sometimes resurrected in college classes on religion or the origins of civilization. However,  ISIS is all over the news and it has nothing to do with her or images of her that can still be seen on Egyptian tomb paintings along the fabled Nile River.

ISIS is associated with terror in modern-day Syria and Iraq. It is a violent and extreme Fundamentalist Sunni Muslim military group, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda that not only wants to erase the borders of Syria and Iraq but also create a transnational caliphate (Islamic state) based on the most strident interpretation of Sunni Islam. In its full name and not the abbreviation, we can understand its intentions and grasp its ultimate goal:  I (Islamic) S (State) of I (Iraq) and S (al-Sham-Syria). Its black-clad cadres carry black flags and conjure up images of the SS on the move. In a well-planned and well-coordinated blitzkrieg assault, ISIS seized much of central and eastern Syria and is now moving through Iraq, its aim to isolate Baghdad and seize the south. It now controls the border crossings with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and many fear these nations are its next targets in keeping with its dream of a Sunni caliphate. It has seized banks, oil facilities, and weapons left behind by the USA for use by the now nearly defunct Iraqi army, including six Blackhawk helicopters and missiles. Overnight, ISIS has replaced Iran as the most feared threat in a region not known for stability.

If ISIS takes Baghdad and manages to consolidate its control over Iraq, the Middle East, as the world has known it for decades, may become a thing of the past. ISIS will have realized bin Laden’s ultimate goal: a major nation of his own to export terrorism and stand at the heart of a revived Sunni caliphate.

However frightening and dismal the situation appears, ISIS may have overreached itself; taking territory is one thing, holding on to it quite another. The Kurds are strong enough to repel an invasion and the Shi’a militias are battle-hardened after years of fighting the Americans. If the militias, working with the rump Iraqi army, arrest the ISIS assault and push them back, Obama may arm the Shi’a militias, our old foe. As a force on the move, ISIS is far from its home base in northern Syria and must loot what it needs to continue.

But ISIS is a very tough opponent; one has to be struck by the speed of its Blitzkrieg assault, picking up countless recruits and armaments along the way. We should be prepared for years of continued chaos filled with extreme brutality in Iraq. The mass murder of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers by the ISIS is a harbinger of what both sides will do to each other.

The United States has no intention of getting involved in a Third Iraqi War. However, if ISIS moves into Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East will topple and the door will be opened to an assault on Israel, Lebanon, and perhaps Egypt. If our traditional friends and allies are placed in harm’s way, Washington will have to act using the full resources of the United States. A Sunni Muslim caliphate led by terrorist butchers is as unthinkable as the Germanization of Europe was in 1914 and 1939.

 

Understanding Vladimir Putin

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

To understand why he took the action he did in the Ukraine, one needs to understand this about Russian President Vladimir Putin: loyalty to Mother Russia and to him is non-negotiable.

Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, 10 years after the imperial city created by Peter the Great was surrounded and nearly starved to death by the Germans. Both of his parents served in the Red Army and a brother died of starvation. Putin passed his formative years in a Russia still recovering from a war that cost the nation over 20 million people. He holds an advanced degree in international law and worked for the KGB, first stationed in Dresden (East Germany) and later in Leningrad. Putin is a Russian nationalist to his core and to put it delicately, shares the same authoritarian tendencies of those who ran Imperial Russia. A new Stalin, he is not. He is a slick politician who emerged from his position in Leningrad to the post of president.

Aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, his first aim was to rebuild Russia’s lost sense of pride and self-confidence. At the Winter Olympics, held in a city rebuilt on the Black Sea, Putin paraded before his people and the world those who projected Russian power and culture, from Peter the Great to composers and writers. The outfits worn by the Russian athletes featured the symbol of Tsarist Russia on their jackets.

Putin believes the collapse of Russia was avoidable and he harbors a deep bitterness against those responsible. On Oct. 3, 1990, the two Germanys were reunited, Moscow withdrew its forces from Eastern Europe, and the once mighty Soviet Empire started to implode. This was accelerated by the actions and indecision of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For reasons that are still unclear, in December 1991 the process of breaking up the empire started. An agreement was signed that stated that after Jan. 1, 1992, the USSR would no longer exist and each of the former Soviet Republics emerged as separate nations.

One of those nations, the Ukraine, remained in the Russian orbit but over the past decade, nationalists and liberal-minded politicians started to look West, hoping to reorient the nation as part of the European Union (EU). Ukrainians argued that their economy was in a freefall due to corruption and cronyism. With a GDP of only $293 billion and a per capita income of just over $6,000, they looked to the prosperity in Poland and the Baltic States as success stories and concluded that if the Ukraine was to be successful, it had to detach its economic ties with Russia and connect with the EU. While the pro-Russian president Victor Yanokovych was in control, hopes of moving in the direction of Europe were dashed. However, in late February of this year, he was ousted from office and an interim government was installed.

The prospect of the Ukraine being part of the EU and possibly NATO is unacceptable to Putin.  When it was clear to Moscow that the aim of the effort to overthrow Ukraine’s president was to move the nation into the EU, Putin took steps to keep the country in the Russian orbit.

Talk of Putin rebuilding the defunct empire may be exaggerated as well as claims that a new Cold War is on the immediate horizon. However, to suggest that Russia in no longer a major power is wrong. Yes, its GDP of $2.4 trillion is far less than that of the United States ($16 trillion). However, Russia’s economic power was never measured in the production and consumption of consumer goods, rather in natural resources and military clout.

It has plenty of both.

The US and Iran: Appeasement or Good Sense?

By Dr. Sander Diamond, professor of history

When al-Assid used poison gas against his people in Syria, President Obama threatened to remove the stockpiles by force. Instead, he opted for diplomacy. al-Assid “promised” to permit the removal of the gas stockpiles from his territory, which most observers believe was unworkable in the middle of a violent civil war. It was here that Washington, Moscow, and Tehran found common ground. The last thing any of them wanted was for poison gas to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, which is freely operating in Syria. The upshot of these back door talks was the opening of a portal for further talks.

This coincided with the end of the presidential term of Iran’s belligerent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians viewed as an embarrassment. He was replaced by Hassan Rouhani, who the West viewed as ‘moderate’ within the context of Iranian life. His international debut came at the United Nations, and rather than a tirade of Holocaust denials, calls for the destruction of Israel, and strident anti-Americanism, his remarks suggested that Tehran may be open to talks with Washington.

From Iran’s vantage point, they saw in Obama a president who may give diplomacy a chance, as well as a slight cooling in Washington’s relationship with Tel-Aviv. From Obama’s point of view, the time had arrived to test the waters with Iran after 34 years of isolation.

In November, Secretary of State Kerry and representatives of our Western allies met with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. A six-month agreement was cobbled together:  in exchange for Iran applying some braking power on the production of fissionable material in its far-flung facilities and re-opening these sites to outside inspectors, some of the most pressing sanctions will be lifted and Tehran will gain access to some of its frozen cash assets.

For those who applauded the agreement, it represented a major diplomatic success which transcends the details. President Obama expressed the hope that diplomacy could help turn the tide in the turbulent Middle East

Elsewhere, the Geneva Accord was greeted with anger and bitterness. The Israelis and Saudis saw the Accord as a concession to Iran that will tilt the balance of power in its favor. Both believe that Obama cannot be trusted and that his actions are not borne out of a lack of experience but a concerted effort to redirect U.S. foreign policy. Many in Obama’s party were also dismayed, as were members of the Republican Party. They were in complete agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, who said that now Iran “is a turn of a screwdriver away” from having WMDs.

For those with long memories, the Geneva Accord could not have been more poorly timed. September 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which added the word “appeasement” to the lexicon of diplomatic mistakes.  For Iran’s most strident detractors, those who call the shots in Tehran are the sons of Hitler who will in time strike Israel and expand their theocratic vision to the entire Middle East. Obama and some in the West see it differently.  They are well aware that the Supreme Leader calls the shots, but working with President Rouhani may lead to internal changes inside Iran and it is time to give diplomacy a chance. And testing the waters for six months hardly rises to the level of appeasement.

The Geneva Accord may come to little in six months. If the chatter out of Tehran can be believed, the Supreme Leader is not happy with the direction the new president has taken. And if Israeli intelligence is accurate, Iran will have atomic weapons by spring. Once again, the shifting sands of the Middle East are at work and talk of war is in the air. Obama knows that a massive strike against Iran by either the U.S. or Israel will trigger a major regional war. He believes that diplomacy can arrest a march toward war. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we can only hope he is right.

Smile, You Really Are on Candid Camera

Candid Microphone was a popular radio show hosted by the late Allen Funt, who asked ordinary people oddball questions, not knowing they were being recorded. When they gave bizarre and funny answers, the audience collapsed into laughter when Funt told them they were on national radio. It was a formula that worked and ABC picked up the show for TV, employing a hidden camera. It was renamed Candid Camera, which debuted Aug. 10, 1948, and ran on and off for 56 years. Funt’s catch phrase— “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera”—caught on and is still heard today at the conclusion of well-timed practical jokes.

In reality, Candid Camera is a metaphor for what is happening today, namely, we are all on candid cameras. Cameras are pervasive—in stores, streets, airports, toll booths, and police cars—embedded everywhere we go in the name of security. To be sure, we are still navigating our way through the early years of the Age of Terrorism and a rising epidemic of domestic violence.  However uncomfortable we might be with these intrusions into our lives, and while we might not smile about being on one of these candid cameras, most Americans are willing to let security trump privacy. On the eve of the New York City Marathon, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly revealed that the NYPD had mounted free-standing cameras, 2,100 in all, along the 26-mile route. After what happened at the Boston Marathon in April, when images of the bombers were captured by a camera mounted on a department store, no one was complaining.

But the collection of data about the American people goes much further than capturing our images. No different than the use of cameras, the collection of massive amounts of data is part of a concerted effort to afford us greater security. The National Security Agency (NSA) is vacuuming every scrap of information about us, our opponents, and friends overseas. It is one thing for the NSA to spy on those living outside of our borders. Spying has been going on since the dawn of civilization. But it is a far different story when it comes to the NSA’s collection of data about ordinary citizens. The NSA is vacuuming all of our communications— phone calls, Web searches, Facebook and Twitter messaging—in essence, everything we send out and receive.

When we contracted with purveyors of computer websites, Google and others, we never imagined that our searches and all sorts of electronic communications, more often than not the minutiae of our lives, would be of any interest to the government. This being said, it is in this minutiae where the NSA hopes to find key words, nuggets so-to-speak, which when connected with other data will lead not to our doorstep but to the doorstep of those who plan to do harm.

A Congressional committee has recommended limitations on this surveillance and we have been assured that the government is not opening our mail or listening to our calls. We are still protected by the Fourth Amendment and a long list of legal decisions that protect us from unreasonable searches without probable cause. Still, some argue that in time, we will move in the direction of a quasi-totalitarian society as the collection of our data accelerates. Such allegations have been aired before. However, while many people were shocked to learn what the NSA has been doing, it has not coalesced into a tidal wave of protest, with most of us believing it just may be necessary in this new environment where we have come to learn security remains conditional.

It’s Candid Camera on an epic scale, and we can only hope that we can smile about our long cherished desire for privacy being preserved.