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Imperfect Justice by Stuart E. Eizenstat (PublicAffairs, 401 pages, $30) Covington & Burling partner Stuart E. Eizenstat rose to prominence as the chief White House domestic policy adviser for President Jimmy Carter from 1977 until 1981. Twelve years after Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, Eizenstat joined the Bill Clinton administration as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Yet from the opening sentence of Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II, in fact, Eizenstat identifies himself more as a native Atlantan than as a D.C. player. That sentence reads: “That the life of Roman Kent, from Lodz, Poland, and mine, from Atlanta, Georgia, would intersect so intensely more than 50 years after the end of World War II is little short of astounding.” The Jewish Kent, born in 1929, became a captive of the German Nazi war machine at age 10. Forced into a slave labor camp, he worked without pay throughout World War II, producing uniforms for the same German Army that subjugated him and put his father, mother, and sister to death. After World War II, which Kent survived despite near starvation, he found a home in Atlanta thanks to a special American program for European orphans. He attended the same high school that Eizenstat, born in the middle of World War II, attended years later. Eizenstat and Kent did not meet until 1999. By then, Kent was a retired New York City businessman and Eizenstat was working on behalf of the U.S. government to achieve much-belated justice for World War II slave laborers and others victimized. Due in part to Eizenstat’s years of tireless diplomacy, Kent eventually received monetary compensation for his slave labor. More important to Kent, he also received an apology from the German government. After introducing Kent, Eizenstat poses this question: “Why did it take more than 50 years to provide imperfect justice to the civilian victims of Nazi barbarism, by which time most had died?” Eizenstat’s tantalizing preliminary answer: “The surprise is not that it took so long, but that it happened at all.” How it happened at all provides the storyline for this dense, important, moving book. I say dense because hundreds of men and women from around the globe appear in its pages and complicated concepts of international law and diplomacy permeate each chapter. One thing’s for sure: This book is sure to raise Eizenstat’s profile. What he did to use ill-defined international law on behalf of mistreated millions — dead and alive — is astounding. Eizenstat knows that about his performance. His pride in his accomplishments permeates the book. In fact, a few times, he slips dangerously close to vanity, before pulling himself back from the brink. Eizenstat is an impressive guide through the international law maze. He knows the issues as well as anybody, and he explains them in language as jargon-free as accuracy will permit. Eizenstat sprinkles the pages with stories of individuals who are easy to loathe or to respect; these anecdotes help put a human face on his story. When Eizenstat agreed to move to Brussels as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, he had no idea he would end up negotiating World War II reparations from the governments of Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria and the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe. He had no idea he would connect with his suppressed Jewish heritage. He had no idea he would become expert enough to write a 400-page book about a long-repressed controversy. In fact, when a U.S. State Department official broached the subject of reparations negotiations to Eizenstat in early 1995, the suggestion did not resonate with him. Eizenstat finally said yes, despite reservations, but was less than enthusiastic about the undertaking until he read a Wall Street Journal profile of Greta Beer six months later. She had been denied the inheritance left to her by her father, a Jewish Holocaust victim, because Swiss bankers decided to keep the Beer family money for themselves. The newspaper article led Eizenstat to expand his originally limited property restitution mission in Eastern Europe to a broader mission that included pressuring the banks in Switzerland, a country with historically close ties to the United States. As Eizenstat recounts: “No one in Washington held any meetings or weighed the pluses and minuses of my entry into what would roil Swiss-U.S. relations as no other incident in our 140-year-long diplomatic relationship. I just plunged in, initially with no goal other than to find out the facts about the numerous dormant bank accounts in Swiss hands for over five decades.” One of his most severe obstacles: U.S. lawyers. “In Europe, lawsuits are handled without publicity and resolved by judges in trials or quiet settlements,” Eizenstat notes. “In the United States, trials are often public events, splashed across newspaper headlines without regard to their possible influence on juries. In the case of the Swiss bank affair, lawsuits raised the stakes by changing the nature of the debate from negotiation to the adversarial electricity of Anglo-Saxon law. . . .The lawyers hijacked the Swiss bank dispute.” Eizenstat both marveled at and feared the class-action lawyers, “a witches’ brew of egos and mutual jealousies.” He says they complicated “my responsibility to keep the Swiss affair from careening out of diplomatic control and, once the suits were filed, imped[ed] my ability to develop a coherent bargaining unit with which the Swiss could deal.” Despite the odds against settlement, Eizenstat more or less prevailed. It’s no wonder he now heads Covington’s international trade and finance section. Eizenstat is the hero of his own book — a worthy hero as it turns out. He never overstates his accomplishments or his results. He chose carefully the first word of the title of this valuable book. But, as he would surely admit, “imperfect” justice is certainly preferable to no justice at all. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance journalist based in Columbia, Mo.

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