Why should U.S. officials be cautious about historic comparisons?
September 5, 2002
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned the world against underestimating the threat posed by Iraq. In a quick history lesson, Mr. Rumsfeld drew a parallel between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
In a speech delivered in late August 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld essentially cautioned the international community against giving Saddam Hussein a free reign, much as Europe had done with Hitler in 1938. In the 1930s, Europe believed the German dictator would leave them alone — as long as his demands were met. In the 1940s, the whole world paid the price.
Mr. Rumsfeld also spoke of Winston Churchill, who was a lonely voice demanding preparations against the German threat. That makes President Bush look like a latter-day incarnation of the former British Prime Minister. With Mr. Bush's well-known penchant for Churchill, he surely appreciated the indirect compliment.
But we wonder: From a historical perspective, does comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler really make sense? On the surface, the comparison is not too far-fetched. Both dictators share some notable visual traits. Both have dark hair and like all 1930s dictators — Mussolini being the exception to the rule — a mustache.
There is also their obsession with military attire. While Hitler preferred a light brown jacket with a pair of black trousers, Saddam's uniform of choice comes in camouflage green.
Besides physical appearance, however, both dictators share some nasty habits. Neither of them has been squeamish in his dealings with perceived enemies or threats. Both used poison gas to kill innocent civilians. Both have had political rivals shot, alongside their families.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the Middle East at present is similar to the politically fragmented and weak Europe of the 1930s.
Another Hitler — so the U.S. reasoning goes — taking over neighboring countries in the Middle East would pose a severe threat to global peace.
Yet the similarities stop there. While Saddam Hussein's aggressions include overrunning Kuwait in 1991, Hitler first annexed Austria — and then swiftly occupied Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1939. It was only when he invaded Poland that Great Britain and France finally got the message — and declared war on Germany in September 1939.
Mr. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, obviously wanted to leave the impression that the United States has now set out to avoid a repetition of the late-1930's retreat by France and the United Kingdom in the face of the German threat.
And yet, the parallel offered by the Bush Administration is flawed in a crucial way. Worse, that flaw has the unfortunate potential of backfiring on the United States. That obviously is an outcome the current U.S. government cannot cherish. It may thus want to rethink its strategy in this regard.
After all, the unfortunate military and logistical efficiency upon which the Nazis built their sick-minded plans is hardly matched by today's Iraqi military.
It is true that Saddam commands an army of over 400,000 men. And he seems to have piled up a chemical weapons arsenal. Still, the Iraqi army is smaller than that of neighboring Iran, which is also believed to have large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Also, the combined forces of Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey would easily outnumber Hussein's hordes. Many of these countries are better supplied — and their armies are better trained — than Saddam's.
But the situation in the region itself, never mind the world as a whole, is quite different from that of Europe in the 1930s.
While Saddam surely poses a threat, the last Gulf War proved that the fighting spirit of many Iraqi soldiers was less than impressive. There was hardly any display of the fanatic determination Nazi forces — or the Japanese, for that matter — showed in World War II.
However, as seen from outside the United States — from Amman, Tehran or from Ankara — there is a dominant military power in the world today.
And in pure military terms, it is just as overpowering as Germany was in Europe in the 1930s. Moreover, it is the one military power that has successfully flexed its muscles in the region recently.
They might be forgiven in thinking that the dangers of overwhelming force — and a resulting overwhelming political pressure to conform — comes from the United States, not from Iraq.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein truly is an evil dictator. But U.S. officials should still be careful when resorting to historic comparisons.
As unpalatable as it might seem, the fact remains that the only major military power on earth capable of assaulting, invading and occupying foreign territories effectively — in essence, of threatening other countries like the Germans and Japanese threatened their neighbors in Europe — is the United States.
Such enormous power is to be used cautiously — and only with great support from the international community. Even a "superpower's" real power rests on factors far beyond military might. Moral suasion is one such key factor.
And that is precisely why so many people all around the world — far beyond just the Arab lands — shake their heads in disbelief. To them, the kind of "foreign marauding" contemplated by the Bush Administration is downright un-American.
Nobody, of course, is comfortable drawing any parallels between the United States and Nazi Germany. And yet, given that the U.S. military today has the clear-cut power to invade virtually any area it wants to, what separates it from Germany and Japan of the 1930s is restraint — and an unbending resolution to play by the rules of the international community.
In this regard, it is remarkable that the U.S. military has a much keener appreciation of its — limited — powers than its current civilian leaders.
Evidently, it remembers the golden rule, which is not to ask whether the United States has the capability to ask forcibly. It does. The real question is: Does it have the ability to use that capability responsibly — and in a restrained manner?
The ultimate answer to that question will shed more light on the future power of the United States than any quick victory over Saddam ever could.