Retire Hitler, Please

Secretary Rumsfeld’s nakedly political speech this week likely presaged the congressional campaigns of the coming weeks.  In a sop to the denizens of the right-wing blogosphere, the formulation “Islamic fascism” is used to describe “the enemy” in the current conflict(s).  This is a useful mnemonic, since it conjures the one historical analogy that Americans remember: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938 and the resulting world war.

It is also useful for supporters of a neoconservative foreign policy approach because it lumps a whole host of disparate adversaries (Sunni insurgents in Iraq; Shiite groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; Hezbollah; the Iranian theocracy; &c) into the “Islamic fascist” grouping, with the binary choices being appeasement or war.  And do you, dear voter, wish to appease the fascists?

Duke poli sci professor Bruce Jentleson helpfully points out the various hawks for whom Vietnam represented another 1938, but for right-wingers, there are a whole host of Hitlers out there waiting to start another bloody world war.

Secretary Rumsfeld has previously likened Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Hitler, as has Pat Robertson.  Rumsfeld has also likened Zarqawi, Ahmadinejad, and bin Laden to Hitler.  Ted Stevens and John Warner felt comfortable likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler before the current Iraq war.  Recall that for British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the next Hitler.  Right-wing pundit Frank Gaffney had Colin Powell, of all people, in the role of Neville Chamberlain.  Even two-bit dictators like Slobodan Milosevic have gotten the Hitler treatment from American pundits.  And Charles Krauthammer may be the reigning king of Hitler analogies, apparently having compared Deng Xiaoping, Boris Yeltsin, Kim Jong-Il, and (this one’s a softball) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.  And via my friend Spencer Ackerman, I see that Leon Wieseltier has catalogued many of the Hitlers staring down Israel in recent years.

I could go on like this for hours, but it’s not the best use of our donors’ money or my dwindling sanity.  Hitler, thank God, was an aberration.  The Wehrmacht Hitler commanded was eminently capable of overrunning and occupying Europe.  (He thankfully also had the stupidity and hubris to decide that Stalingrad was in play.)  But to elevate Hugo Chavez, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitlerian heights is to completely miss the mark.

Like in criminal investigations, we have to consider both intent and means.  Divining intent is difficult, but ascertaining means is relatively easy.  When we look at the prospect of an Iranian bomb, though, we have to rely on interpretations of intent, since the means to attack Israel would clearly be there, albeit with a sure-fire suicidal result.  But war hawks seem to think that we should assume a fundamental irrationality on the part of Iran—that is, that its government would willfully bring about its own destruction in the pursuit of religious or ideological goals.  And even Hitler did not meet that standard of insanity.  Hitler made judgments based on his assessment of what he could get away with—until the war had gone too far and he thought there was no turning back.

I’m not a huge fan of historical analogies generally, but I sometimes wish that a 1914 analogy existed in the minds of Americans to counter the 1938 analogy.  But alas, the 1938 analogy seems to get applied to everything.  And when all you face are Hitlers, there aren’t a whole lot of choices to be made.  More to the point, like the boy who cried “wolf!” we may find ourselves so desensitized to the Hitler analogy that, should one arise in the future, we are numb to the warning.

Ambrose Bierce once remarked that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but one wishes that war could teach Americans history, too.