Jacob Heilbrunn

How Bad Was Franco?

Jacob Heilbrunn

 No, I'm not referring to actor James Franco. Instead, my attention was caught by a fresh dispute that has been triggered in Spain by the publication of its dictionary of national biography. Professor Luis Suarez, an admirer of Gen. Francisco Franco, has apparently written the entry for him. The eighty-six-year-old Suarez maintains that Franco was an authoritarian, not a totalitarian, leader. He also overlooks the fact that tens of thousands were murdered by his regime.

The professor has touched a neuralgic nerve. The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-39 and served as a rallying cry for the international left, was the dress rehearsal for World War II. Both Stalin and Hitler intervened in it. It's certainly possible that had the communists won the war, they would have instituted an even bloodier reign than that of Franco.

The distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian leaders was emphasized in a famous article in Commentary in 1979 by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who was herself an expert on Latin America. Franco did purge the Republicans who had fought against his Nationalists, just as the reverse would have occurred had the Republicans won. It's also the case that the Franco regime melted away with his death and a transition to a democracy took place. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Kirkpatrick had to revise her original notion that while authoritarian regimes could become democracies, totalitarian ones never would. With the end of the cold war, the totalitarian versus authoritarian dispute largely went away, especially as China turns into some kind of weird capitalist hybrid regime.

In Spain, however, the Franco era remains a hot-button issue. Suarez seems to view Franco as a demigod. But it's more than a bit much to admire Franco. A certain kind of conservative—Patrick Buchanan comes to mind—appears to view Franco as a great figure, staring down the communist hordes. But this was a very slippery slope. It became an intellectually facile way of justifying a multitude of odious right-wing regimes that engaged in repression—the justification being that they were holding the Reds at bay.

Spain itself continues to come to terms with its past. Outrage over Suarez's old guard comments is fervent. He comes across as a dinosaur intent on rehabbing the past.

As the Guardian reports,


Suárez is an acquaintance of the Franco family and a senior figure in the Brotherhood of the Valley of the Fallen. The group, which takes its name from the controversial underground basilica where the dictator was buried in 1975, is actively opposed to the so-called "historical memory" movement in Spain, which has recently been searching for, and digging up, the mass graves of the victims of Francoist death squads.

For many years, Suárez was one of the few historians allowed by Franco's family to study the personal papers of the man most Spaniards recognise as having been the country's dictator for 36 years from 1939. In 2005, Suárez, after a career spent studying the 15th and 16th centuries, published a biography of the dictator.

"This is an objective study, with no value judgments," he told Spain's EFE news agency.

He claimed the term "dictator" was not used during Franco's lifetime. "An historian cannot use it," he said.


The problem with this kind of defense is obvious. It's defensive. If the best you can argue about your hero is on the lines of "he wasn't a dictator," or "he didn't really murder all that many people," then it's not very firm ground to stand on. This episode is no cause for concern. Instead, it suggests that Spain has moved on from Franco, while a few antediluvian admirers try to maintain him as their guidon and oriflamme.

TopicsHistory RegionsSpain

The Greening of Germany: Abandoning Nuclear Power

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Has Germany gone nuts? Or is it a trailblazer, a pioneer of where the rest of the world needs to go? Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the call to jettison nuclear power by 2022. Meanwhile, France is applauding its neighbor and continuing to rely on nuclear power. In Eastern Europe new nuclear power plants will be going up as well.

Until a few months ago Merkel was resisting abandoning nuclear power. Now, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, her resistance has melted away. She has had a political conversion. Germans, at least the elites, don't like nuclear power. They never have. "Atomic power? Nein Danke!" has been the German motto at least since the 1970s. In Germany the radical left mutated in the 1960s into an enironmentalist one. Then by the early 1980s it was scoring successes in the form of the Green Party, which shook up the old Bonn establishment by, among other things, walking into parliament wearing Birkenstocks and shunning coats and ties, at least among the men. The big issue back then was called Waldsterben—the alleged death of the German forests.

Then, in the 1990s, the major political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, began to emulate the Greens. They became pro-environment. The only pro-business party was, and remains, the Free Democrats, who espouse a form of classical liberalism. Merkel's decision to give the heave-ho to nuclear power is the ultimate sign of what might be called the Greening of Germany.

In many ways, Germany has profited from its embrace of environmental initiatives. It's managed to implement energy-efficient measures and it's built an industry around solar power and the like. Behind Merkel's move is the notion that she can provide a further spur to growth in this sector, as Berlin editor Malte Lehming, in an unabashed tribute to Merkel, notes today. But German industry, as the Wall Street Journal notes, is perturbed by Merkel's move:


Germany's electricity prices, which have more than doubled in the past decade, are a sensitive issue for industry, whose domestic sites consume nearly 50% of the country's electricity.

Currently, Germany derives 42.4% of its energy supply from coal-fired plants, but phasing out nuclear power, which now makes up nearly 23% of the country's energy supply, could force it to rely more on coal.


This decision will have implications for America as well which continues to have nuclear weapons stationed on German soil (you can bet your last Euro that the pressure will increase for a withdrawal of atomic weapons, an issue that the Free Democrats raised in the last general election). But can a modern industrial country really be powered by the sun and wind alone? Germany is about to test the proposition, or it's going to pretend to as it ramps up its reliance on coal, the dirtiest energy source of all. This is the face of the new unilateralist Germany, which is fleeing back into its utopian dreams.

TopicsEuropean Union RegionsGermany

The Mladic Trial and the CIA in Italy

Jacob Heilbrunn

The intersection between international law and foreign policy is a messy one. Two cases in point: the Serbian decision to handover Gen. Ratko Mladic and the second one of alleged CIA operatives who abducted a Muslim cleric from Italy.

The CIA operation took place in Milan in 2003. It caused an uproar in Italy that was almost as fervent as the the one triggered in Pakistan by the American dispatch of Osama bin Laden. The cleric says he was tortured in Egypt, which would hardly come as a surprise. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of black ops measures that were favored by the Bush administration, which had created a secret prison system around the world in which locals could carry out the kind of torture that even the administration was reluctant to sanction. But in Italy a state prosecutor has targeted and won convictions against twenty-three Americans for kidnapping. As the Los Angeles Times notes,


Sabrina De Sousa, one of the alleged CIA operatives who was convicted in Italy, appeared in a Washington courtroom at a hearing on a lawsuit in which she alleges that the U.S. government had abandoned her by not asserting diplomatic immunity on her behalf. Officially listed as a State Department diplomat, she was convicted in absentia in Italy and sentenced to seven years in prison. She risks arrest if she travels to Europe, where a sister lives in Germany, she said.

The American government would just like the whole case to go away. It's caught between wanting to retain its own plausible deniability and selling its own agents out. By failing to protect De Sousa and others, it's sending a signal that any agent would be foolhardy to expect protection from Washington for treacherous operations—and, in the case of this one, an abuction that should never have happened.

What does the Mladic case have in common with the CIA trial? It's that any trial of Mladic is also likely to expose the clumsiness of international law as an instrument of justice. A different mess. But the extradition of Mladic to The Hague, if the current trial of Radovan Karadzic is anything to go by, will become a prolonged trial that goes nowhere:


A trial is likely to be years away, and probably will take years more to complete. Karadzic was arrested near Belgrade and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, in 2008, but the proceedings against him have been bogged down by procedural delays, the sheer mass of evidence, and Karadzic's decision to act as his own lawyer and cross-examine witnesses at length.


This makes the Nuremberg trials, which began in November 1945 and ended in October 1946, look very speedy. But the trouble with legalizing foreign policy is clear. It is a protracted process, one that may end, at least in the case of Mladic, with his death in prison before he is actually convicted of any of the ghastly crimes that he perpetrated.

TopicsInternational Law

Is Sarah Palin Running for the Presidency?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Sarah Palin running? Her and Todd's purchase of a $1.7 million house in Arizona is quickening pulses in the GOP. She's also shaken up her staff. If Palin runs, it will be good for the media and bad for the GOP.

Republicans are fretting about the quality of the field. Palin would energize it. She would do so by enunicating Tea Party principles. The effect would be to push candidates such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty to the right. This would make for good theater in the primaries as the candidates vied with each other to support the Ryan plan, support Israel, bash Russia, and assail President Obama. But it could also be a recipe for a 1964 Barry Goldwater-type election, in which the GOP makes a mutual suicide pact. Goldwater spent much of 1964 marching into retirement homes and telling the elderly that he was going to cut their Social Security benefits and that it would be good for them.

The GOP establishment, of course, views Palin with horror. She's unruly. She speaks her mind. She flaunts her contempt for educated folks and independent voters, which is to say much of the electorate. In a general election, she might even outdo Goldwater as a presidential loser. But the signs are that she will run:



The drumbeat intensified Tuesday night when conservative filmmaker Stephen Bannon was quoted on RealClearPolitics, a political news site, as saying he was releasing a feature film he made with Palin's acquiescence about her tenure as governor. The film is to be shown next month in Iowa, whose caucuses open the nominating contest.


The conventional wisdom that Palin will damage her brand by running, however, may be wrong. If she wins the primaries, she will always be able to call herself a former presidential candidate of the GOP. And even if she wins only a few primaries, it will be a remarkable feat for someone who was a nobody just a few years ago. Palin remains John McCain's bequest to the GOP. She's even moving to McCain's homestate, which will undoubtedly be a lot hotter than Alaska.

Palin remains a force, much like the Tea Party, that the GOP regards with unease. It wants to harness her, but can't quite figure out how to do it. 2012 will show whether Palin can lead her own internal revolution to take over the GOP or whether she's simply a pretender.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Don't Kill Hosni Mubarak

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Egypt is making a mistake. The Wall Street Journal reports that former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are about to be put on trial. The charges are "intentional murder, attempted murder of demonstrators, abuse of power to intentionally waste public funds and unlawfully profiting from public funds for them and for others." Are they guilty? Most likely, at least in the sense of presiding over an authoritarian state, which is by no means the most repressive in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world (Robert Mugabe, anyone?). If you set the standard as high as a western democracy and ignore the context in which Mubarak himself was operating, then you can turn Mubarak into Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with Egypt.

And Mubarak did much that was wrong. His depature is a good thing. But threatening him with the death penalty doesn't make a lot of sense. You can't pin everything and anything that was wrong with Egypt on him. That's way too simplistic. The problems, the general rot go deeper, much deeper. Maybe Egyptians need the kind of reconciliation process, the truth commissions, that South Africa experienced.

The fact is that Egypt wasn't a democracy when Mubarak rose to power in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood's assassination of Anwar Sadat. Sadat was executed because he had the temerity to sign a peace deal with Israel. In return he got the Sinai back. But that didn't placate Muslim radicals. Mubarak, a former Air Force officer, was a bit of a dud in comparison to Sadat. But Egypt was fairly quiescent under his rule. It violated human rights. It was corrupt. But by Arab standards, it was hardly the worst of regimes. Already, as crime rises in Egypt, there appears to be mounting nostalgia for the Mubarak days:


“The old days were better,” said Sabeen Mursi, 30, sitting in front of a wooden cart of fruit and vegetables that attracted few customers. “Even though there was no money, people would take care of each other. We would all find something to eat at the end of the day. Today, no one cares about one another.”

That sense of malaise is spreading throughout the country, even to supporters of the revolution in Cairo. And as similar uprisings in other autocratic states in the region flail, Egypt’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale.


Anyway, Mubarak himself came across as a figurehead rather than the true leader of Egypt. When I saw him at Blair House several years ago, he came across as out of it. His numerous, suave aides were running the show.

No doubt Mubarak plundered Egypt for what he could financially. His sons should be punished if they were engaged in looting the public treasury. But to put Mubarak on trial with a possible death penalty makes little sense. What would it accomplish? For one thing it would stir up enmity among the rear-guard who backed Mubarak. Egypt should be looking forward, not backwards. For another it's going to vastly complicate efforts to get other authoritarian leaders in the region and elsewhere to step down. It's the political equivalent of unconditional surrender: you put your foe's back to the wall and he's going to have every incentive to fight to the finish.

As the Journal points out,


For the U.S., the spectacle of a trial could prove embarrassing and will likely complicate its diplomatic efforts in the region. Mr. Mubarak was for decades one of America's staunchest allies in the Arab world and a leading recipient of U.S. aid. Prosecution of an Arab leader who agreed to step down and hand over power is likely to undermine U.S. efforts to persuade other Arab leaders to give up power peacefully.


Perhaps the possibility of a trial is simply a sop to a restive public that the Egyptian military is trying to placate. Youthful protesters are aiming for a so-called second revolution to try and bring about a minimum wage and other reforms. But the trouble may be Egypt itself, a backward country whose revolution has raised expectations that can't be fulfilled. Putting Mubarak on trial is unlikely to help realize them, either.

TopicsCivil Society RegionsEgypt

Exposing Obama

Jacob Heilbrunn

Exposures seem to be much in the air at the National Interest these days. Paul Pillar has a withering critique of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu for what he sees as patent obfuscations about the peace process. Meanwhile, Richard Cohen, in today's Washington Post, has written a stimulating column about the Netanyahu clan, father and son, and the old man's service to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the hardest of the Zionist hardliners.

The thrust of Jabotinsky's conception of a Zionist state was that the Jews would not be able to extrude the Arabs. Instead, they would have to refuse negotiations with them until the day arrived when the Palestinian leadership was composed of moderates and prepared to compromise. Cohen believes that day has arrived. So, apparently, does President Obama. He and Netanyahu are engaged in a protracted tussle over the basis of negotiations, with Netanyahu vehemently rejecting what he decries as Obama's unrealistic insistence on using the 1967 borders as a starting point. Here's how the Los Angeles Times describes Netanyahu's appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee:


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday repeated his criticism of President Obama's plan for peace negotiations with Palestinians, saying that his country could not return to the boundaries it had before 1967 because of the risks it would pose to Israel's security.

In remarks to a pro-Israel lobby, Netanyahu said that while Israel is eager to negotiate a peace deal, "it must leave Israel with security. Therefore, it cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines."


This is no revelation. It's boilerplate. Of course Israel won't return to the 1967 borders. For one thing, it wouldn't be able to dismantle some of the big settlements even if, by some miracle, the Israeli left came to power again. It would create a civil war in Israel given the size of some of the settlements. And Obama keeps emphasizing that he's OK with land swaps.

So what's going on here? Is Netanyahu deliberately misreading Obama to shore up his constituency at home? Does Obama really want Israel to be shorn of most of its settlements? Or is Obama, in fact, secretly making life easier for Netanyahu? Is he, in fact, playing the heavy so that when it comes time to make painful concessions, Netanyahu can turn to his base and say, "Look, I hung tough as long as I could against this anti-Israel monster, this president who completely fails to understand our security predicament. I wrung the best deal that I could, and extracted unprecedented concessions from America in return."

Perhaps. At this point Netanyahu may well loathe Obama far more than he does Abbas. But the real mystery, then, isn't Netanyahu. It's what Obama is trying to accomplish. Either he is being fiendishly clever—or he is inadvertently prompting Netanyahu to become even more intransigent. At a minimum, Obama has succeeded in stirring up renewed debate about Israel and the Palestinians. Where it will all lead is another matter. But Obama is steadily exposing himself on the Israel issue. To do so with a presidential election looming is either testament to stubborn conviction or sheer foolhardiness.

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

The Birther Mystery Solved: Is Barack Obama Really An Irishman?

Jacob Heilbrunn

"Those who believe they are in full possession of the truth can be dangerous," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced at Georgetown University's commencement ceremony on Friday. It's a barb that appears to be aimed at the Bush administration, which comes a little late in the game—or is it aimed at President Obama? Or is it a moment of self-revelation on Albright's part, who doesn't usually display much doubt about what she thinks is right ([Saddam] Hussein has," she announced on November 10, 1999, "chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass
destruction and palaces for his cronies")? It's one of those delphic statements that means everything and nothing at the same time.

It could apply to the Europeans, whom Obama is visiting this week. Turns out Obama has some distant Irish ancestry. He's the sixth American president to visit Ireland, a country that appears to be mired in even worse economic misery than America. Ireland became a low-tax haven that is despised by its European brethren, but got its comeuppance once the real estate bubble popped. Turned out that not every plumber is entitled to a second house near a Spanish beach. Could Obama's Irish ancestry also help account for his gift of blarney? Maybe he has more in common with Reagan than anyone had thought. Apparently, there's even a film being premiered at Cannes called Barack Obama's Irish Roots. It certainly beats being called a "black mascot" for Wall Street, as Princeton professor Cornel West is referring to the president.

Which leads me to wonder whether Obama may actually have been born secretly, not in Kenya, but closer to the epicenter of the British empire—in Ireland. Perhaps it might even be wondered if the hostility that Dinesh D'Souza discerned in Obama's alleged Kenyan roots actually has its origins in the Irish struggle for independence against the hated British. This could be a far more important link, one that has been unaccountably neglected by the media and historians in their quest to understand the true Obama. It could prove a fertile field in the future for Obama scholars, who wish to divine how his heritage may have weighed upon his foreign-policy decisions.

The most peculiar stance that Obama has taken in the past week centers on the 1967 Israel borders question. Why Obama plunged into this arena is also a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he thought he could help head off the Palestinian and European charge for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. But Obama has spent the past week walking back his initial announcement that the 1967 borders would serve as the starting point for negotiations. As I predicted he would, Obama is now claiming that what he said is nothing new under the sun.

Meanwhile, his Republican opponents are accusing him of throwing Israel "under the bus," as Mitt Romney put it. But Obama will also be visiting Warsaw this week, where he will pay tribute to the Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. It's both appropriate and allows him to signal that he is not abandoning Israel.

Obama will likely be greeted with hosannas in Europe. His nimbus has not completely worn off--partly because Europe's leaders are so wretched by comparison. But whether Obama's European trip will allow him to boost his popularity at home is another question. But as with many American presidents, he is likely to find that going abroad and exploring his "Irish roots" is a welcome reprieve from being assailed back home.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Obama and Jerusalem

Jacob Heilbrunn

So President Obama called for a return to Israel's 1967 borders. I suppose he can say that he is just reiterating American policy. But it was apparently done over the objections of Dennis Ross. And Hillary Clinton? Is this a new instance of Powerism—Samantha Power is a longstanding critic of Israel and its conduct in the West Bank.

This Obama doctrine is unlikely to win Obama much. The Wall Street Journal has an item buried today that announces that Israel is going to add another 1,600 units in East Jerusalem. Yair Gabbai, member of the Interior Ministry, says it sends a clear message. Yes, it does.

The occupation of the West Bank has brought Israel little other than woe. It began under the pretense of defensive settlements. Today defending the defensive settlements has become a rationale for remaining in the West Bank.

Obama comes too late on the scene to accomplish much. The Palestinians will likely remain recalcitrant, figuring time, in the form of population fecundity, is on their side. Meanwhile, in Israel calls for outright annexation, moored recently in the New York Times, will increase.

TopicsForeign Aid RegionsUnited States

Lars Von Trier and Nazi Weirdness

Jacob Heilbrunn

Lars Von Trier is the not-so-great Dane. Great Scot! That is what most Europeans must be thinking about the filmmaker's recent remarks about what a swell fellow Hitler—you know, the guy who had a small obsession about wiping out the Jews—must have been. And how much he liked the architecture of Albert Speer, a convicted war criminal.

Kirsten Dunst remonstrated at Cannes that what he said was "really intense." Really stupid, too. What is it with Europe? Somehow the continent is still floundering when it comes to dealing with Jews and Israel. My own guess is that animus towards the Jewish state is what lies behind his odious comments. He delicately referred to Israel as a "pain in the ass"—an observation that might apply more accurately to himself.

Von Trier has now been declared persona non grata at Cannes. Perhaps he will realize that his boorish behavior is no joking matter.

TopicsGlobalization RegionsDenmark

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anti-Americanism

Jacob Heilbrunn

You have to hand it to the French. It didn't take them long to blame America for Dominique Strauss-Kahn's problems. The French satyr, as Maureen Dowd calls him, is in a peck of trouble, sitting in Riker's Island with the hoi polloi. Bad food. Nasty inmates. Confinement. None of it can be very much fun, not to speak of comparing it to his digs at the Sofitel, where he's accused of having attempted to attack a chambermaid, an immigrant from (French?) Africa.

So the French chattering classes have much to chatter about. Now they can talk about how stinky America is when contrasted with France. An indispensable account of bien pensant opinion in France is furnished by the Los Angeles Times today. Just to read it is to feel a warm glow of the good old days when the French would take out their frustrations on those callow Yankees. It's nice to see that even if France is no longer a great power, it can still lash out at its quondam American rescuer. In fact, its resentments are, of course, amplified by the fact that America and the English language have supplanted France and the French tongue. Kim Willsher reports:


While some viewed Strauss-Kahn and France as victims of the scandal, few spared a thought for the woman he is accused of attacking Saturday.

In truth, it takes very little for France to revert to its default position on the United States. Sniping about the invasion of McDonald's or Starbucks on the Grands Boulevards of Paris, niggling about Americans buying up real estate in the chic parts of town and country (the British are just as bad, but everyone thinks they're American), criticizing the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and trashing the cultural omnipresence of Walt Disney Co.

Today, thanks to Strauss-Kahn, the French who choose to criticize the U.S. have a fresh reason to shake their heads and point fingers at the country they love to hate.


So far, Strauss-Kahn himself has been keeping mum, probably on the advice of his high-priced lawyers. He was almost able to pull a Polanski by rushing to an Air France jet. Now he must be hoping be to reach some kind of settlement in the hope of preventing prosecutors from being able to bring the case to trial. Another hope might be to argue that any jury pool is going to be hopelessly tainted, at least in New York, due to the massive publicity surrounding his arrest. Strauss-Kahn must be more than a little envious of Arnold who managed to terminate any publicity about his fathering a love-child for almost a decade by keeping it all in the family. It's been a bad week for gropers. Now Strauss-Kahn is himself groping to deal with a new reality as he sits in a jail cell wearing an orange jumpsuit.

TopicsBanking RegionsFrance