Godwin's Corollary: In War Debates, the Probability of Hawks Invoking Hitler Approaches One

They invoke World War II because it is popular, not because any of its lessons are applicable.
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In a Monday conference call, "Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a 'Munich moment' in deciding whether to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government," Politico reports. The allusion comes as no surprise to longtime observers of U.S. politics. Hawks are constantly drawing dubious comparisons to World War II, the "good war," in order to pressure Americans into initiating other wars nothing like it. 

For hawks, it is always 1938.

But as Michael Hirsh writes in National Journal, "Bashar al-Assad, a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival, is no Hitler. He's not set to overrun an entire continent. And the 'lessons of Munich' and the dangers of appeasement are generally overdrawn."

Exactly right. The Munich allusion is obviously inapt -- which is what makes the context of Hirsh's words so inexplicable. Let me quote him at greater length:

World War II began 74 years ago Sunday when German troops invaded Poland. The invasion conclusively discredited the concept of "appeasement" as a foreign policy for, well, the next 74 years. But if the U.S. Congress opposes authorization of the military mission to Syria that President Obama has now handed off to it, and if Obama uses that as an excuse to back further away from enforcement of his "red line," the "A" word will likely come to dominate the international debate once again.

And Barack Obama, who in his first term was known as the vanquisher of Osama bin Laden, could come out of his second looking more like Neville Chamberlain.

I don't want to overstate things. Bashar al-Assad, a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival, is no Hitler. He's not set to overrun an entire continent. And the "lessons of Munich" and the dangers of appeasement are generally overdrawn. But, after all, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who lumped Assad with the Fuehrer on the talk shows Sunday, saying that he "now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war." (Technically, Hitler's only use of gas was not on the battlefield but to kill millions in extermination camps.)

So let me see if I have the argument right: If Obama doesn't apply to Syria the lessons of Munich, which are overdrawn and almost totally inapplicable, then he'll look more like Neville Chamberlain than the guy who killed Bin Laden, even though he did kill Bin Laden, and won't have done the same thing as Chamberlain, or brought about the same consequences, or anything remotely similar.  

That just isn't persuasive. I predict that if we don't invade Syria, there is exactly zero chance that history will remember Obama as another Chamberlain as a result. And I sincerely wish I could put a lot of money on that proposition in Las Vegas. The piece goes on:

As Obama said in his Rose Garden statement Saturday: "If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?" So the stakes look very high indeed.

Actually, Obama's argument looks very weak indeed. If we "won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act," it says nothing about our resolve to stand up to terrorists who would spread biological weapons. What kind of sense does that even make? Imagine we discover that al-Qaeda terrorists in tribal regions of Pakistan or Yemen possess a biological agent that could kill millions. Does anyone doubt the U.S. would act? Will anyone say, if something like that ever happens, "These bio-weapons are very dangerous, but I don't believe we have the resolve to destroy them given that we didn't intervene in Syria"?

Come on. 

What about governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? Well, I imagine that America's failure to stop Israel or India or Pakistan or North Korea from going nuclear, as well as its invasion of Iraq on overhyped fears of its nuclear program, are among the factors the Iranians and others consider when pursuing nukes. It would be very strange if, instead of looking at American nuclear policy, they decided to instead extrapolate based on our actions in Syria. And when I say it would be strange, I mean that obviously no one would proceed that way. 

Daniel Larison writes:

Appeasement is irrelevant to the debate over Syria, since no one is suggesting that the U.S. or its allies give anything up to Assad. The debate has focused entirely on whether and how much to use force in Syria’s civil war. 

Exactly.

Hirsh concludes his piece by arguing that "it was just this kind of war weariness that created Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign policy of 'positive appeasement' as he called it, in the years after the terrible bloodletting of World War I. If one becomes unwilling to strike dictators and mass murderers, all that remains is to appease them." Every part of that part of that argument is wrong. The war weariness of post-WWI Britain was very different from the war weariness of present day America, and an unwillingness to strike dictators who kill their own people is not the same as appeasement. By Hirsh's logic, it is imperative that we immediately invade North Korea because otherwise we are appeasing it, and inviting it to begin a blitzkrieg across the Western world, because Hitler. The approach he implies -- intervention wherever there is a dictator or a mass murder -- is a recipe for far more war, and far more misery from war.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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