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Bush's History on Appeasement/Strawmen

By Brendan Nyhan

Back in 2006, I proposed Nyhan's corollary to Godwin's law in a column for Time.com:

A well-known rule of Internet discourse is Godwin's law, which states that, as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches inevitability.

Let me propose Nyhan's corollary: As a foreign policy debate with conservatives grows longer, the probability of a comparison with the appeasement of Nazis or Hitler approaches inevitability.

What's incredible is that my prediction has come true only days after Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

During a speech before the Israeli Knesset, President Bush seemed to mischaracterize Obama's declared belief in negotating with foreign governments as a belief that the US "should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals" and linked it to appeasement of the Nazis:

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided." We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it...

The Bush administration has repeatedly invoked the specter of Nazi appeasement in this way to undermine opposition to its foreign policy, as my Time.com column shows. In particular, Donald Rumsfeld used the same quote as Bush in a 2006 speech to the American Legion. (The statement, which was made by Senator William Borah, is a key trope of conservative appeasement rhetoric -- Time/Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer used in his August 11, 2006 newspaper column about Iran as well as columns denouncing the alleged appeasement of China in 1989 and North Korea in 1994.)

It's also worth noting the way that Bush attacks straw men in his speech, which makes vague references to "some" who "seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals" and "some people" who "suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away." Bush frequently uses formulations like these in his public addresses as a way to caricature his opponents while saying something that can be defended as an accurate reference to some (usually unspecified) extremist. Along these lines, White House spokesperson Dana Perino denied that Bush was referring to Obama, saying "when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you."

Here's a brief sampling of the administration's eight-year war on straw men:

"When the tax cut takes effect, the typical family of four will save $1,600 every year. Some say that's not much." (3/3/01)

"They tell me it was a shallow recession. It was a shallow recession because of the tax relief. Some say, well, maybe the recession should have been deeper." (9/1/03)

"There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern." (4/30/04)

"[T]he natural tendency for people is to say, 'Oh, let's lay down our arms.' But you can't negotiate with these people. There are no negotiations that are to be had. Therapy won't work." (5/10/04)

"The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve plays -- would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror." (5/19/04)

"Sometimes you'll hear people say that moral truth is relative, or call religious faith a comforting illusion. And when you hear talk like that, take it seriously enough to be skeptical. It may seem generous and open-minded to say that everybody, on every moral issue, is equally right." (5/21/04)

"I reject this notion -- and I'm not suggesting that my opponent says it, but I reject the notion that some say that if you're Muslim you can't be free, you don't desire freedom." (10/1/04)

"I rejected the kind of intellectual elitism of some around the world who say, well, maybe certain people can't be free." (1/29/05)

"Now, I understand there's some in America who say, well, this can't be true there are still people willing to attack." (1/25/06)

"There's a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done. They're willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off." (6/28/06)

"I would hope people aren't trying to rewrite the history of Saddam Hussein -- all of a sudden, he becomes kind of a benevolent fellow. He's a dangerous man." (9/15/06)

"It's hard to plot and plan attacks against the United States when you're on the run. I need members of Congress who understand that you can't negotiate with these folks, you can't hope that they change their mind, that the best way to protect the American people is to defeat them overseas so we do not have to face them here at home." (9/21/06)

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals... Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away." (5/15/08)

Brendan blogs regularly at Brendan-Nyhan.com