Corrupting History

Saddam Hussein is not Hitler. No matter how many times we say it, it just isn't the case. But that will not prevent the administration and its supporters from mounting this dead horse.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was among the latest of the administration's war hawks to trot out the old standard, saying on a recent Meet the Press that "appeasement" is a dangerous course to follow.

"Any time you have a situation where you are calling for more time, rather than calling immediately for Iraq to comply, it plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein," she said.

"Tyrants respond to toughness," she added. "That was true in the 1930s and 1940s, when we failed to respond to tyranny, and it is true today."

There is a danger in attempting to paint today's events with history's paintbrush. There are a number of historical parallels between the current state of the world and the events leading up to World War II. The problem is that none of them match quite so neatly with the facts on the ground today.

Let's start with the analogy linking Saddam Hussein to Adolph Hitler, a bit of rhetorical gymnastics originally used by the first Bush administration to justify the first Gulf War.

Yes, Saddam Hussein is a tyrant. Yes, he appears to have regional designs and a grudge against the United States. Yes, he gassed the Kurds.

But Iraq is not Germany. Germany was a major industrial nation with a traditionally powerful military. It fought and lost a horrible four-year war that ultimately engulfed all of Europe.

Like Iraq, its economy was in shambles. But unlike Iraq, the German people willingly followed Adolph Hitler, saw him as their savior, as the leader that could return the nation to its former glory. They elected him chancellor in 1932, they marched in the streets, they joined the Brown Shirts, participated in his purges, turned in communists and Jews and homosexuals and anyone else who did not meet Hitler's idea of racial purity.

The World War II analogy is carried a step further, linking the United Nations to the League of Nations. The Bush administration says the United Nations takes the chance of becoming irrelevant if it doesn't stand up to Iraq now and authorize invasion -- its irrelevancy a product of its own willingness to appease Iraq. According to the Bush administration, it was the League's unwillingness to act against Hitler that sealed its death, proved its uselessness.

This ignores history, of course. The League did not collapse under the weight of the Hitler-Stalin pact. It was dead on arrival because a conservative American Congress refused to allow the United States to become a member. It died because major powers like Great Britain refused to relinquish their own power to the League (France wanted to create multinational military force).

The League did not hold the larger nations to the same standards as the smaller ones, destroying its credibility and rendering it powerless to stop France's occupation of the Rhineland, German persecution of the Jews, Italy's invasion of Abyssinia or the Spanish Civil War.

The League, as British journalist Robert Fisk pointed out in a piece in the London Independent in October, "failed the world because of the same cynicism and disregard for morality by the major powers that the United States shows today."

This is not a historical analogy that President Bush is interested in making. Nor is he willing to explore the link between the resentments of Post-World War I Germany and those that exist in the present-day Arab world.

Remember, the once-powerful German nation was in a shambles by the late 1920s. It was a conquered and cowed nation. Its economy was failing: Between 1929 and 1930, the number of unemployed Germans rose from 1.3 million to 5 million, or 43% of the work force.

Hitler promised economic salvation and a return to grandeur. He focused on the young, on the middle and lower middle classes, on the people who were hit hardest by collapse. Nazism grew and Hitler took power.

Could we be witnessing the same in the Arab world? Could the obscene disparities in wealth between the leaders of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the average citizens of those countries be sowing the same kind of resentment? Could this resentment, therefore, be breeding the current wave of Islamic fascism -- extremism posing as a religious revival and as a response to the supposed decadence of the West -- and the terrorism that is its primary weapon?

I don't know. But it's as plausible an explanation for what has happened over the last few years as the one the Bush administration is selling.

Saddam Hussein is not Hitler. Nor is he Mussolini or Hirohito. Iraq is not Germany or Italy or Japan. The League of Nations is not the United Nations. World War II is over.

I just wish the Bush administration would admit that.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two weekly papers in central New Jersey. Email

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