Fearing 'Munich' Bush Misread Baghdad

This oped was orginally published in the Raleigh News & Observer on 31 August 2004.

President Bush drew on an important lesson of World War II to justify his war on Iraq: that "prevention is better than cure" when it comes to stopping ruthless dictators who appear to be planning aggressive and unjustified attacks on other countries. Historians generally agree that it was a mistake for the future Allies to practice a policy of appeasement toward Hitler, considering that for years prior to his Sept. 1, 1939 attack on Poland, he had clearly been rearming.

The Versailles Treaty, signed at the end of World War I, was intended to prevent this, but Hitler openly defied it. Not only was he training "defense forces," he was also developing advanced weaponry. If the Allies had launched a pre-emptive strike against Germany in 1938, it would have spared us World War II as we know it, and it might even have prevented the Holocaust.

Why then didn't British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the other Allies take action?

Considering what we recently went through with Saddam Hussein, one reason will sound familiar: Hitler was a world-class deceiver. He said he wanted peace, but acted belligerently. He signed agreements, but broke them whenever it was convenient. His verbal smokescreen of nationalistic rantings combined with righteous indignation confounded even the most seasoned statesmen. And so, Chamberlain adopted a wait-and-see attitude, giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt, until there was no doubt left.

Bush approached the situation in Iraq differently, partly because, according to this guiding World War II model, the Allies in the 1930s had gotten it wrong, and he now wanted to get it right. But there was an underlying, more personal factor that affected both the Allies' reluctance to declare war, and Bush's rush into war. It's a factor that Holocaust historians such as myself think a lot about: memory.

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Chamberlain and the other Allies knew deep in their bones that war is hell. Having lived through the searing experience of the First World War, they still had the raw memory of the millions of men who died in the fighting, and of the countless widows and fatherless children who had left behind; each day they needed only to look around them to be reminded of those soldiers who had sacrificed limb if not life for their country. Nor had they forgotten the havoc wreaked by the destruction of homes, factories, hospitals and natural resources.

George W. Bush, never having experienced a war, was untroubled by such concerns; indeed, it is now clear that he was intent on invading Iraq at the first opportunity. He seemed attracted to war as an expression of power: his own, his country's and (to his mind) God's. However, it is one thing to fantasize about being the Apocalypse President (something I suspect he does), and another to have known first-hand the death and destruction of war.

Like Prime Minister Chamberlain, Bush had his chance to respond in a timely yet prudent manner to the perceived threat of a brutal dictator. Chamberlain waited too long, but Bush acted prematurely, failing to accurately gauge the degree of that threat, and failing to gain the support of a solid coalition of allies. In his headstrong determination to not repeat the mistake of appeasement, he erred in the opposite direction and started an unnecessary war.

Ironically, Bush's blunder may go down in history as being similar to Chamberlain's, in that both leaders had a problem with timing. Let's hope, though, that the world pays a smaller price in this century.

©2009 Mark Klempner