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Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell

After Maine Senator George Mitchell left office, he chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks. His book, Making Peace, is about his work on that negotiation. He recently headed an international panel examining the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.


Other segments from the episode on October 9, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 9, 2001: Interview with George Mitchell; Review of Bernhard Schlink's short story collection "Flights of love."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Former Senator George Mitchell talks about violence and
the peace process in the Middle East

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In a videotape that was first broadcast Sunday, Osama bin Laden said that
America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine. Yesterday,
about 2,000 Palestinians participated in a pro-bin Laden demonstration.
Today Palestinian authorities shut down universities and schools in Gaza to
prevent further bin Laden rallies.

My guest, George Mitchell, was appointed by President Clinton to chair an
international commission on violence in the Middle East. Its mission was to
fulfill the mandate agreed to at the peace talks in 1999 and 2000. Mitchell
also chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks in 1996. He served as a
Democratic senator from Maine for 15 years. For the last six of those years,
he was Senate majority leader.

I spoke with George Mitchell this morning. I asked how important he thinks
the Palestinian cause is to bin Laden.

Former Senator GEORGE MITCHELL (Democrat, Maine; Author, "Making Peace"):
It's clear that it was not the original motivation for him. His own
statements and many publications about him over the years have indicated that
it was the American military presence in Saudi Arabia at the time of the Gulf
War that really turned him hostile to the United States. I have no doubt
that, like many Muslims around the world, he's concerned about the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that has taken on in recent years an
increasing prominence in his statements, I think at least in part to connect
with the masses on what's called the Arab street around the world. So I think
it's a factor; I don't think it's the original motivating nor perhaps the
dominant factor.

It is, I think, significant and not common it's officially in the American
Western press that a large part of his motivation is to overthrow the
governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Most of his fighters are Saudi or
Egyptian, and they strongly favor the overthrow of the governments in those
two countries. So it's a complicating mixture of motives that they have, but
it's obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a factor and
particularly in the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of people
throughout the region.

GROSS: Yesterday, about 2,000 Palestinians demonstrated in support of bin
Laden. What do you think that says?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think it says that the Palestinians are divided. They
obviously recognize--as many of them said, and they're quoted in today's paper
and on the news last night, they obviously recognize that bin Laden's concern
for them is a relatively recent development, but they obviously like the idea
that someone who has international attention is talking about their plight.
At the same time, it seems rather clear that the leadership of the Palestinian
Authority has made a choice. They've decided that they don't want to ally
themselves fully with bin Laden and his effort. They made a mistake 10 years
ago when they aligned with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf conflict, and they don't
want to repeat that mistake. And so they're trying now to make clear that
they don't favor what he did and what he says and they're trying to, I guess
you could call it camp down the dissent, although it's obviously erupted in
very violent and tragic ways yesterday. I don't know what's going to happen
during the day today.

GROSS: Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, made a strong statement that
he's since apologized for. He said to the United States, `Do not repeat the
dreadful mistake of 1938 when enlightened European democracies decided to
sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient, temporary solution. Do not try to
appease the Arabs at our expense.' Do you think he has a legitimate concern?
Do you think it's likely that the US will pressure Israel to make concessions
in order to help keep the anti-terrorist alliance together, an alliance that
includes many Arab countries?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, I don't think it's likely that the United States will do
anything that will jeopardize Israel's security or its right to exist as a
free and sovereign state. I think the United States will do what it believes
appropriate to try to encourage both the Israelis and the Palestinians to
accept the recommendations of the commission which I chaired on violence in
the Middle East which the US government has embraced, the first of which is an
immediate and unconditional cessation of violence and a resumption of security
cooperation. Now I think what the president said was of concern to Prime
Minister Sharon; not so much for the substance, but for the timing. After
all, what the president said is that a Palestinian state has always been part
of our vision. Well, it's certainly been American policy for many years.
President Clinton stated it explicitly on many occasions, as have previous
Israeli prime ministers, including Prime Minister Sharon himself just a few
weeks ago. So I think it was really more the timing of it, and the concern
that you expressed in the question, that the United States would do something
that would abandon Israel or sacrifice Israel's interest. I don't think
that's likely to occur. I think what the United States is interested in is a
peaceful resolution there, an end to the violence and conflict and meaningful

GROSS: Do you think it would be possible to end the Islamic extremist
terrorists directed at the United States before there is peace between the
Palestinians and Israelis?

Mr. MITCHELL: It will obviously be much more difficult. It clearly would be
better for the broader war on terrorism if there is a cessation of violence
among Palestinians and Israelis, but the fact is, of course, that the al-Qaida
network and its affiliated organizations exist independent of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and therefore, it is appropriate for us to try
to locate, disrupt and destroy them, even if we're not successful in the
effort to bring an end to hostilities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Whether we can do it is impossible to say, and I think it's not realistic to
think in absolutes in these areas. No society in all of human history has
been able to attain the complete absence of violence. There's been no period
in world history for any sustained, long time that there hasn't been violent
action somewhere. I think more realistic is a significant reduction in such
activities, the disruption and destruction of the existing and known
organizations, which will make it difficult for others to follow.

GROSS: The Israeli government is angry at the United States for not having
put Hezbollah and Hamas on the list of terrorist groups that the United States
is opposing in this war against terrorism. Hezbollah and Hamas are the two
major anti-Israeli groups. Do you think that they should be on the list?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, that's really a matter for the administration. I'm not
a part of the administration and have not been privy to their discussions with
respect to how they decided who should go on lists, and so I really don't have
the information sufficient to comment on that. I will say that the president
was quite careful in his speech to the Congress to identify our targets as
those organizations with a global reach. And when he said those words, it
immediately struck me and I assume many other listeners that he was in effect
distinguishing al-Qaida from groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Now maybe that
wasn't his intention. I don't know that. But I think the only persons who
can answer that question are those within the administration who were directly
involved in the debate and discussion leading up to the preparation of the
list and what their motivation was.

GROSS: My guest is former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. He chaired
an international commission on violence in the Middle East. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. He chaired
an international commission on violence in the Middle East.

The US has named Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism because of
their support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Now Iran and Syria are kind of in the
coalition against terrorism. They're partially in it. Is that fair to say?
Are you concerned about how this war against terrorism is shifting
international alliances and what that might mean for the future?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it presents opportunities as well as challenges. For
example--and I'll get to Iran and Syria in a moment. But to illustrate the
point I just made, we now have the opportunity to completely remake our
relationship with Russia based upon this incident. This may be a pivot on
which US-Russian relations will turn sharply for the better. I don't think
anyone, at least not many Americans think that's a bad thing. So you have to
look at it as, yes, a challenge with respect to some countries, but also a
tremendous opportunity with respect to others.

Now let's take Iran specifically. Many Americans, unfortunately, and many
Westerners regard Islam and the Muslim countries as monolithic, look at them
as the same, treat them as the same. Well, of course, that's not the case.
They're many, they're varied, they have different historic, cultural,
linguistic societies; they themselves have fought wars. Additionally, the
Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and those close to it, with which we are allied,
have viewed Iran and Iraq as counterweights, and Iran and Iraq fought a long
war not too long ago, so we now regard Iraq as a huge enemy. That being the
case, the most natural ally you'd want against Iraq is Iran, and there's been
some indication that Iranians are tiring of the cultural revolution and the
damage done to their economy and want a more moderate internal governance and
better relations with the United States. I think what the president has
wisely done, has suggested that we're not going to base our future policy
exclusively on past deeds, basically saying, `Those of you who sinned but are
prepared to repent, we'll be with you; only if you're going to continue your
sinful ways will you feel our wrath.' I know that's not the words he used,
but that's basically the message that he conveyed. So it's really a test for
them as to what they're going to do now and in the future, and it seems to me
a rather skillful approach considering the fact that we still regard Iraq
under Saddam Hussein as a much more serious threat. In that case, we go back
to Winston Churchill's maxim, `The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' It makes
for uncomfortable temporary relationships, but if you want to pursue your
primary objective, then this is the way to do it.

GROSS: What's been going through your mind as you watch the violence escalate
in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians? And it's just been
escalating increasingly, really hitting a height over the weekend since the
beginning of the second Intifadah a year ago.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it makes me very sad, deeply discouraged and more
resolved than ever that it has to be brought to an end, and I feel a sense of
personal identification with it. It's very discouraging that there have been
many cease-fires that haven't taken hold, but all of the parties including the
government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority responded favorably to our
commission's recommendation, and yet they don't seem to be able to take that
first difficult step to get the process under way. In the meantime, more and
more people are killed. It's very deeply saddening.

GROSS: Well, Israel and the Palestinians are in that spiral of tit-for-tat
violence; each blames the other for continuing the cycle of violence. What
are some of your insights into how you can end for a tit-for-tat cycle of
violence like that?

Mr. MITCHELL: We recommend it and I think the only way you're going to do it
is to just take a point in time and just say that's it. There's an immediate
and unconditional cessation of violence and a resumption of security
cooperation. If each wants to get in the last lick, then it just isn't going
to happen. The reality is, of course, that what you call tit for tat in
retaliation, pretty soon you can't remember the first one. It's just back
and forth, back and forth. And it's awful hard for political leaders to take
that dramatic first step primarily because there is a total lack of trust;
neither side believes anything the other side says; each assumes the worst
about the other; and each believes that it can't take a step because the other
side can't be trusted to take a reciprocal step, and so what's needed is a
painstaking effort to create what is effectively a chronology of
confidence-building action that will enable one side to take the first step,
secure in the knowledge that the other is going to take a second step and then
a third and a fourth. In fact, if I could just take a moment to describe my
experience in Northern Ireland.

After we got an agreement in April of 1998, we all recognized that there would
be great difficulty in implementing the agreement. I said so on the very day
that I announced the agreement. Well, of course, that's what's happened.
Even to this day the result is not assured and peace remains in doubt. About
a year and a half later in the fall of 1999 the process was on the verge of
collapse, and the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland asked me to come back
to try to help keep it going. I spent about three and a half months over
there. It only took me a couple of days to figure out what had to be done.
The remainder of the three and a half months was composing the kind of
chronology that I've just described, and it was quite precise.

At 9:00 on the morning of November 27th, one political leader would make a
statement, which was all agreed on in advance. The next day at 1:00 an
opposing political leader would make another statement that was agreed on in
advance; and then the next day, someone else would do something, and so on, so
that when the process began with the first statement, everybody knew each step
that would occur over the ensuing month. Now it took a long time to get them
to agree on what those steps would be, the words and actions, and an even
longer time to get them to trust that the other side would keep their part of
the bargain. I think that's what's needed in the Middle East. Now you've got
to get them to the point where they believe enough that if they take a
dramatic step, it will be reciprocated. And so far, nobody believes that, and
so you can't get the first step taken.

GROSS: Can you give an example of a confidence-building measure on each side
that you think would help the other side?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yes. We were quite specific. We recommended more than
a dozen of them. We said, for example, that the Palestinian Authority had to
make clear through concrete action their view that terrorism is reprehensible
and unacceptable and that they would do everything they could, they would make
a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist actions from taking place, including
the arrests of people they knew who were involved in terrorism. That's a very
difficult thing for the Palestinian Authority to do, as we've seen from the
events that have occurred since then. We further specifically recommended
that the Palestinian Authority had to make an aggressive effort to prevent
Palestinian gunmen from using Palestinian-populated areas to fire on
Israeli-populated areas.

On the other side, we recommended that the government of Israel freeze all
settlement construction activity throughout the region. It's been a source
of, we felt, great concern and creating many flash points of the violence
that's occurred. We also recommended that the government of Israel resume the
transfer of tax payments that it collects and it previously transferred to the
Palestinian Authority, that it lift the closures that now effectively prevent
any economic activity from occurring within Gaza and the Palestinian
territories, and a whole series of steps like that.

Both sides acting, sometimes jointly, sometimes separately, in a way that will
enable them to have at least enough confidence to begin the process of
negotiation. That's the root cause now. There's zero confidence, there's
total mistrust, and somehow the culture of peace, which was so carefully
nourished over the past decade and which has now been completely shattered,
has to be rebuilt to the point where they can resume negotiation.

GROSS: George Mitchell chaired an international commission on violence in the
Middle East. He's a former Democratic senator from Maine and former Senate
majority leader. Our interview was recorded this morning. We'll hear more in
the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Osama bin Laden has tied his cause to the Palestinian cause. We're talking
about violence and the peace process in the Middle East with George Mitchell.
He chaired an international commission on violence in the Middle East.
Mitchell also chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks in 1996. He served as
a Democratic senator from Maine for 15 years. For the last six of those
years, he was Senate majority leader.

Let's continue the interview I recorded this morning with Mitchell. When we
left off, he said that his commission's report recommended that the
Palestinians make a 100 percent effort to stop terrorism.

How much power do you think the Palestinian Authority has to prevent terrorist
groups like Hamas and Hezbollah from attacking Israel?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, of course, that's a subject of great dispute, but I think
it's rather evident, including as recently as yesterday, that they don't have
100 percent complete control. The language in our report calling upon them to
make a 100 percent effort was originally suggested by the government of
Israel. That language was posed by them in recognition of the fact that the
Palestinian Authority does not have 100 percent control, but has not made a
100 percent effort. And no one can tell you for sure until it actually
happens whether their control is 80 percent or 60 percent or maybe less, but
the problem is they haven't made the effort. And they have to make the
maximum effort to prevent these terrorist actions from occurring so as to
create some degree of confidence among the Israelis that they're serious and
they're partners for peace.

Terry, one of the real tragedies of this is that during what's come to be
known as the Oslo process, primarily the decade of the '90s, the public on
both sides came to believe slowly, grudgingly and not fully that they had a
partner in peace on the other side. Israelis largely came to believe that
most Palestinians had finally come around to accepting the existence of the
state of Israel. Palestinians came to believe that most of the Israelis
accepted the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Now, as a result of the
violence of the past year, those beliefs no longer exist. The overwhelming
majority of Israelis don't think they have a partner in peace. They think
that the Palestinians remain committed to the total destruction of Israel.
Conversely, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians now believe that
Israelis don't want a Palestinian state and that they'll never permit one to
occur, and that's why they think all of these settlements are occurring, to
make physically impossible a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

GROSS: Well, do you think that they're right in their points of view here?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, I don't think so. I think on both sides there is still a
willingness to proceed in a way that would permit an ultimate agreement. The
fact of the matter is that those Palestinians who believe that Israel can be
destroyed, as, their phrase used to be, `We will drive the Jews into the sea,'
are living in a fantasy. It is not going to happen. Israel is there to stay.
At the same time, those Israelis who believe, as some do and advocate, that
Palestinians can simply be moved somewhere else and that there will not ever
be a Palestinian state, I think they're wrong as well. I think that history
and geography destined these two people to live side by side. They're either
going to live there in conflict, as they are now, or in peace, and I think the
choice should be clear; getting there is the difficult part.

GROSS: Ariel Sharon was quite a hawk. Now he's the prime minister of the
country. Do you consider him a good peace partner?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think that the leaders on both sides want to get out
of the current situation; that's the first point. The second point is it's
really not up to me or President Bush or Secretary Powell or anybody outside
of those countries to decide who their leader should be. I mean, we Americans
pride ourselves on many things, not least of which is the right of
self-determination. The people of Israel have chosen Ariel Sharon as their
prime minister; and therefore, it is he with whom we must deal. The
Palestinians have chosen Yasser Arafat as their leader; and therefore, it is he
with whom we must deal. No American would tolerate a situation where the
Israelis said, `Well, we don't want to deal with President Bush because we
don't like him,' and decide he didn't even get most votes in the last
election. The fact is he's our president. He's been chosen in a lawful
process in this country. And so I think it is not relevant what an individual
view may be of the willingness or desire of one of the leaders to act. The
fact of the matter is they are the leaders, they have been chosen by their
people, and they're the ones with whom we must deal. And what we've got to do
is do the best that we can to persuade them that their interests lie in trying
to resolve this.

GROSS: Israeli officials have basically said that they don't want to be
perceived as `rewarding violence.' How do you get around that as somebody
who's trying to negotiate peace?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it's obviously a legitimate point of view, but it can
also be used in a way that prevents anything from ever occurring. We
encounter--that's still a problem in Northern Ireland, and, of course, it's
repeatedly stated here. It's one of the problems, if I could go back to the
settlements which is such a contentious and difficult issue, very emotional,
and we knew that it would be when we approached it. But the argument was made
when we proposed a freeze on settlement that to do so would be to reward
violence. The problem is that those who advanced that argument were opposed
to freezing settlements when there was no violence, so it's obvious that the
not-rewarding-violence argument was simply an additional argument to justify a
position that was taken even when there was no violence. That's the
difficulty with it. Clearly, you don't want to reward violence. Equally
clearly, you don't want that argument to paralyze you from ever doing anything
that permits you to take step toward a peaceful resolution. That's why I
believe the only way that there's going to be any progress is to have a
discussion among the parties in which they sit down and agree on a series of
reciprocal steps that will be taken in a way that will give them at least the
minimum confidence necessary to get into the process.

GROSS: My guest is former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. He chaired
an international commission on violence in the Middle East. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is former senator and former Senate Majority Leader George
Mitchell. He chaired a commission on violence in the Middle East.

George Mitchell, you have been dealing with negotiating peace for several
years now. The United States is now dealing with terrorists. I mean, they're
not even taking credit for their actions, making it truly impossible to
negotiate. Just talk a little bit about your thoughts now and having to deal
with terrorists who won't take responsibility for their actions, who won't
come out of hiding, who are totally unavailable for any kind of discussion.
And maybe you can share some of your thoughts about, you know, what we're up
against now and the difficulties of resolving it.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I am an advocate for peace. And I believe that one of the
great opportunities for the United States is to use its tremendous power,
military, economic, and its tremendous influence based upon our
principles--not on our power, but on our principles--to encourage peace and
justice and security wherever we can and wherever we deem our participation to
be appropriate. And I know from my own experience in many of these areas that
conflict creates a huge amount of death and destruction and is far less
preferable as an alternative to peaceful dialogue and negotiation. At the
same time and having said that, I believe that there are circumstances in
which the use of military force is justified, and I believe this to be one
such time.

It seems to me that it's a pretty basic and not too complicated analysis that
one must make. If you look at the long list of terrorist attacks on the
United States over the past 20 years, this latest incident is not isolated.
It's part of a long chain of events. If you read the statements of the
leaders of these organizations made on television, in other interviews and in
writing, the only conclusion you can draw is that there are going to be more
attacks no matter what we do. No matter what our response is, they're going
to continue this assault for reasons that relate to their approach and their
mentality and their objectives. In that case, it seems to me that our
response should be determined by the answer to the following question: What
action is best calculated from our standpoint to minimize the likelihood of
attacks and to reduce their effectiveness when they occur? And it seems to me
that it's plain common sense and self-defense to conclude that rather than not
respond and simply await the next attack, we're better served if we actively
and aggressively seek to locate, disrupt and interdict the operations that
these organizations are engaged in.

Now I respect the attitudes of those well-meaning people who argue against any
military action, but it seems to me that their analysis is incomplete. One
member of Congress who voted against the use of force said, `Well, if we take
military action, it doesn't guarantee that there won't be a response.' Well,
of course that's correct; you can't guarantee that there won't be a response,
but that's an incomplete analysis because it avoids the discussion which I
just had that says you're going to get further action no matter what you do;
and therefore, the action we're now taking, I think, is calculated to that
end, and I commend the president. It's limited, it's focused. We're trying
to prevent loss of innocent civilian life, and we have a tightly targeted
operation. I hope it will continue in that way to achieve the successful

GROSS: How concerned are you that in our attempt to stop terrorism that
through bombing parts of Afghanistan and perhaps in the future other
countries, we're going to destabilize that whole area and further alienate
many Muslims and turn some Muslims who aren't extremists into extremists and
that for every terrorist we kill several others will be born?

Mr. MITCHELL: That is, of course, an appropriate concern. It's one the
administration plainly has in mind, and which has served as a constraint on
actions so far, and it's something that you have to keep in mind. But the
reality is that you don't have available a perfect choice that is 100 percent
all good with no down side. You've got a lot of 60-40s; 60 percent good and
40 percent down side, and you've got to choose between them. If the question
is do the negatives suggest that in your question are they sufficient to cause
us not to take any military action, my answer is no. I think they cause us to
consider the type of action we take, the length, the nature, the targets and
so forth, but I think on balance were we to not respond on those grounds the
disadvantages would be greater.

GROSS: Does it seem to you that most of the world seems to be falling apart
and caught up in some type of fighting of one sort or another, whether it's,
you know, local ethnic or religious fighting or, you know, global disputes,
that nearly wherever you look there's some type of fighting going on?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, I don't think it's an unusual time if you look across the
whole sweep of human history. What is unusual, of course, is the miracle of
modern communications that brings into our living room each night dramatic
events that previously people only ready of or heard of in a way that didn't
create the emotion that now exists. And secondly, you have the transforming
nature of television. Very small demonstrations of a few hundred people
burning flags and burning tires can look like millions on television, so
television is a very powerful tool, but there's no doubt that it transforms
acts even as it reports and records them, and so we have to be cognizant of
that as well. But I don't think that the world is falling apart. I think we
can deal with the situation which now exists. It will take intelligence and
visionary leadership, but I believe to the contrary that there are remarkable
opportunities for the United States.

If I could just say one thing, Terry, that is very much on my mind now, and
you haven't asked about and I do want to make a point. It's kind of
tangential to this, but...

GROSS: No, please, go ahead.

Mr. MITCHELL: ...I think it fits. The United States is the dominant power,
economic and military, in the world. Now there have been dominant powers
throughout all of human history, and there is a natural resentment, envy and
hostility toward the dominant power that is in effect it goes with the job or
goes with the territory. We have to accept that. Now for many young
Americans who've never known anything else, what I fear is that they believe
that American influence in the world is based exclusively on our power, and
particularly right now as American bombs are dropping in Afghanistan. Well,
while I believe power is essential and is an important component of our
influence in the world, I believe it's secondary to our principles.

I believe that the United States was a great nation long before it was the
world's dominant economic and military power, because what attracts people to
the United States and what inspires people around the world are America's
basic values, the primacy of individual liberty, the concept of equal justice
under law, the concept of opportunity for every member of society. And so I
think we have to be careful as we use our power to do so in a manner that is
consistent with our basic ideals. I think that's the way we advance our cause
and that we promote the concept of freedom and democracy around the world.
Where democracy does well, America does well. Where people are free, we
benefit; not just them. And I think that's what we have to try to keep in
mind as we try to navigate through these very difficult choices over the type
you just described, how do you conduct this type of action when you run the
risk of inflaming, how do you kill one terrorist without creating 10 more, and
so forth and so on. I think if we do it in a manner consistent with our
ideals, that will come through and in the end will serve our national interest

GROSS: You're in the peace business at a time of a lot of wars. What keeps
you optimistic enough to keep going with that as opposed to too cynical to go

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I have an absolute conviction that there's no such thing
as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by
human beings; they can be ended by human beings. And I believe that with all
of my heart and soul. Now as I said earlier, and I repeat, there are some
times when the use of force is justified and a conflict is morally defensible,
and I think this is one such time in the force that the United States is
applying. But I also believe that in the end people have got to resolve their
differences through dialogue, discussion and hopefully where they choose
democracy rather than through the use of force, and that one of the things
that we have to be careful in fact and in perception is not to permit our
concentration on this military action to derail or cause us to abandon our
efforts to achieve peace and security and justice in places around the world
like the Middle East. That's why I think it's important as an independent
action the United States to continue to aggressively pursue trying to bring
that to--the immediate Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end.

GROSS: George Mitchell, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: George Mitchell chaired an international commission on violence in the
Middle East. He's a former Democratic senator from Maine and former Senate
majority leader. Our interview was recorded this morning.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of short stories by
Bernhard Schlink called "Flights of Love." This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Bernhard Schlink's "Flights of Love"

German writer Bernhard Schlink garnered international attention with his 1997
best seller "The Reader." His latest book, a collection of short stories
called "Flights of Love," has been on the best-seller list in Germany for a
year. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of the collection, which was
just translated into English.


Well, I kind of liked it. That's the tepid but genuine defense I've made of
Bernhard Schlink's new short story collection "Flights of Love" to a couple of
people I know who've been turned off to the book by early negative reviews in
The New York Times and The New Republic. After talking to these doubters, I
even went back and redipped into a few of the stories in the collection, and I
still kind of liked it. Look, even at its best, "Flights of Love," unlike its
blockbuster predecessor "The Reader," is not the type of book that garners
raves. For one thing, Schlink has a self-destructive tendency to conclude his
short stories with endings that are either too cryptic or too implausible, so
he undermines whatever literary magic he's managed to create in the preceding
pages. Another potential strike against Schlink is that his characters are
uniformly wan, not the kind of personalities likely to charm a reader.

Drained by age or political struggles, or the burdensome legacy of World War
II, Schlink's protagonists regard their lives and love affairs with a
fatalistic shrug, knowing full well they'll be alone in the end. They're the
brooding German cousins to Anita Brookner's doomed English recluses, and
that's precisely what I liked about most of these stories, their dark
melancholy, their Germanness. I know, it's stodgy to ascribe ethnic traits to
literature. Schlink, in fact, devotes one of his stories, "The Circumcision,"
to mulling over the complicated question of ethnic typecasting. But long ago,
I had a literary love affair with the 19th century German romantics, Goethe,
Herder, Novalis, and I like Schlink because he reminds me of his gloomy

"Flights of Love" is a veritable Octoberfest of a collection. Almost every
story here is stuffed like a schnitzel with self-consciously philosophizing
characters set in landscapes that are as flat and drab as potato pancakes and
drenched in lots of shmaltz about fate. It's a heavy menu, and I can
understand why it would strike some readers as too glutinous, but I found most
of these stories an agreeable change of palette. The seven stories in
"Flights of Love" are loosely co-joined by the themes of failed romance,
obsession, disillusionment and desertion. As in so many collections, the
first story is the strongest.

"Girl With Lizard" recounts the fascination that an unnamed German boy has
with a strange painting in his father's study. It depicts a young,
dreamy-looking girl sitting on a rock next to a wet-eyed lizard. As the boy
grows up and researches the painting's probable creator, Adatta(ph), who's to
have fled Europe with his Jewish wife during World War II, he has more and
more reason to suspect that his lawyer father may have helped himself to the
painting as war booty. The power of this story derives both from the
mesmerizing descriptions of the painting itself, which seems to sap life from
all those who become fixated on it, and from the formal and vastly empty
relationship the boy, an only child, has with his elderly parents. Other
stories here whose narrative props aren't so distinctive deserve a nod because
of the language through which Schlink and his translator, John E. Woods, nail
fleeting thoughts or emotions.

"The Other Man" is a story in which a widower discovers that his now dead wife
long ago was unfaithful. When the story opens, the widower has just turned
down offers from his adult children to come and pay them extended visits.
Schlink captures the stubborn reclusiveness of grief when he says of the
widower, `He didn't want to live in any world of normality that wasn't his

And in "The Woman at the Gas Station," an otherwise overly melodramatic story
about the breakup of a decades-long marriage, Schlink describes the turning
point when a husband's allure began to dim for his wife. She was on vacation
with her husband in Rome, sitting with him in the Plaza Nevona(ph) and he
patted a begging stray dog in the head with the same engagingly absent-minded
gesture with which he sometimes patted her head. His charm was only a way of
holding back and keeping his distance. It was a ritual by which her husband
covered over the fact that he felt inconvenienced.

"Flights of Love," as its title suggests, is an entertaining short story
collection whose effects are transitory. Another reason why I had to reread
some of the stories is because they're easily forgotten. Schlink is adept at
conjuring up a lot of Sturm und Drang, ultimately signifying not much.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Flights of Love" by Bernhard Schlink.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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