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.
Reuters

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"?

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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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