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Hitler is Dead, and He's Not Coming Back

By Steve Chapman

Among the many innovations generated by the Internet is an axiom called Godwin's Law, which says that given enough time, any online discussion will produce a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler. So common is this phenomenon in cyberspace arguments that it also spawned an informal rule: Whoever first mentions the Nazis loses.

By that standard, the Bush administration is getting trounced in the debate on Iraq. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to the American Legion convention and likened critics of our policy to those who discounted the threat posed by Nazism. The threat of "a new type of fascism," he argued, is just as great as the one posed by Hitler and Mussolini.

President Bush followed with his own address to the legionnaires, asserting that the fighting in Iraq "can be as fierce as it was at Omaha Beach or Guadalcanal," while insisting that "victory is as important as it was in those earlier battles."

The administration's top officials have been a poor guide to the future: Rumsfeld said before the war that it might go on for "five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." They have been a poor guide to the present, as when Vice President Cheney declared -- about 1,000 American deaths ago -- that we were seeing "the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." And, judging from their recent forays into history, they are a poor guide to the past.

One defect in this analogy is that it's extremely shopworn. No matter how many Hitlers we stop, another appears. During the first Gulf War in 1991, it was Saddam Hussein. During the Balkan wars of the '90s, it was Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. Now it's -- well, anyone Islamic who might be an enemy.

Rather than try to understand, the analogizers assume they are replicas of ones we have confronted before. Such glib parallels bring to mind Mark Twain's remark: A cat that sits on a hot stove will never again sit on a hot stove, but it will also never sit on a cold one.

The supposed moral of the 1930s is that you cannot negotiate or coexist with enemies. Instead, you must fight them. Anything less amounts to a replay of the Munich conference, where Britain and France acceded to Hitler's claims on Czechoslovakia in a futile effort to purchase peace.

But we already know the analogy can be fatally misapplied. President Lyndon Johnson was guided by it during the Vietnam War. When the North Vietnamese won, though, it didn't set off a vast expansion of the communist empire. Ho Chi Minh looked like Hitler to LBJ, but he wasn't.

If the 1930s taught that you can't coexist with aggressive enemies, the Cold War taught just the opposite. Britain and the United States, which refused to appease Hitler, did appease Stalin by allowing the enslavement of Eastern Europe. Yet we were able to contain -- and eventually defeat -- the Soviets without meeting them on the battlefield.

You don't have to take my word that Hitler is irrelevant here. The administration's own policies confirm as much. If the enemy in Iraq were comparable to the Third Reich, we certainly wouldn't be fighting this war the way Bush and Rumsfeld have fought it.

When the U.S. entered the war against the Axis powers, we drafted millions of men, raised taxes and mobilized every resource to assure victory. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, we sent an undersized force, cut taxes and told Americans to live their normal lives. If Islamic extremists are the new Nazis, George W. Bush is no Churchill.

In fact, the situation today is much different from the one then. Militant Islam is not one phenomenon but many. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, far from being peas in a pod, are at war with each other. You can't barter with Osama bin Laden, but you may be able to negotiate with Syria or even Hezbollah. Persisting with the war in Iraq is more likely to undermine than advance the fight against al Qaeda.

Given the dire prospects in Iraq, it's not surprising that Bush and Rumsfeld would rather talk about the past than the present. But we already know how to defeat Hitler. What the administration has yet to prove is that it knows how to win in Iraq.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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