The Fallacy of ’39

by , December 28, 2004

Justin Logan, a research assistant in the foreign policy studies program at the Cato Institute, has come up with a useful new term:

“Can we get a name for inappropriately invoking the appeasement of Nazis? This is a tactic frequently used by neocons and various sundry warmongers who wish to portray opposing various wars as morally equivalent to pulling up a lawn chair and a Corona to watch the Holocaust. For a recent example of ‘The Fallacy of ’39’ (as I’ll call it until somebody offers something better), see Bill ‘I’m One of the Worst NYT Columnists – And That’s Saying Something!’ Safire’s latest, in which not invading Iraq would be the same as failing to oppose Nazism.”

The Fallacy of ’39 is popping up a lot lately, what with the neocons in search of new Hitlers to conquer – one more worthy than the petty tyrant of a broken-down sanctions-ravaged Third World hellhole. When Senators John Warner and Ted Stevens averred in a Washington Times piece that “we see the next Hitler in Saddam Hussein,” Pat Buchanan put it to them this way:

“He invaded Kuwait, a sandbox half the size of Denmark, and got tossed out after a 100-hour ground war. His country has been overflown 40,000 times by U.S. and British planes, and he has not been able to shoot a single plane down. He has no navy, a fourth-rate air force, and a shrunken, demoralized army. His economy is not 1 percent of ours.

“No, senators, this is not the Fuehrer and the Republican Guard is not the Wehrmacht. As Marx said, history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.”

The third time around is shaping up as a potential catastrophe, as Western elites paint a portrait of Weimar Russia transforming itself – under Putin’s tutelage – into the 21st century edition of the Third Reich. These same elites, only a few years ago, were hailing Putin as the savior of his country and the preserver of Russian democracy. But that was then, and this is now: from the New York Post to the New York Times, the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers are swarming with keyboard commandos who look upon Ukraine as the Russian Rhineland. If only the West had stopped Hitler early on – but it isn’t too late to stop Putin!

Hitler was a monster who redefined the meaning of true evil: he murdered millions – while Putin, in whose eyes the president of the United States glimpsed the “soul” of a “trustworthy” man, is only slightly more murderous in his war on the Chechens than George W. Bush is in his war on Iraqi insurgents. Is Bush, too, the moral equivalent of Hitler? Somehow, I don’t think this is what the anti-Putin chorus means to say.

What’s interesting – to me, at any rate – is how the same people who are so tolerant of Iraq’s transition to democracy that they are willing to make excuses for Iyad “The Executioner” Allawi, and preside over the likely birth of a Shi’ite Islamic “republic” modeled on Iranian lines, are so impatient with a country that has made the transition from Stalinism to a relatively free society in a little less than 20 years. If, by the year 2025, Iraq is even close to achieving what the Russians have managed to date, it will have been a miracle directly attributable to Divine Providence.

Putin has won the overwhelming support of the Russian people, and his party – “Unity” – dominates the Russian parliament, because he ran on a platform of smashing the “oligarchs” and completing the transition to Western-style democracy (albeit with Russian characteristics). The “privatization” of Russian state assets that took place as the old Soviet system collapsed is seen by many Russians as the Great Rip-Off: politically-connected bureaucrats suddenly transformed themselves into “entrepreneurs” and bought up the economic infrastructure for a mere pittance. Vast fortunes were acquired this way, and then secreted out of the country. Former Communists became the new red billionaires, whose “market” Leninism formed the foundations of the new state capitalism. It was, however, a system founded on corruption, and its consequences are widely resented. Putin rode this wave of resentment, and it propelled him into power, but, unlike other reformers, he actually began to keep at least some of his promises: the oligarchs were summarily targeted, in some cases jailed for theft and fraud, and in other cases forced into exile or marginalized.

Unlike the Nazis, the mass murderers of the Communist variety were never brought to account for their crimes against humanity: they were never put on trial, or put up against a wall and shot, or even forced to apologize for or acknowledge the gigantic evil they represent. Gorbachev engineered a “revolution from above” and brought about the self-dissolution of the Soviet system, while yet retaining the privileges and social status of the nomenklatura.

Putin’s drive to smash the power of the oligarchs represents Russia’s final reckoning with the old Soviet ruling class. It is a push to reclaim stolen wealth and finally break the power of parasites who have been feasting on the Russian body politic since 1917.

This is the issue when it comes to Yukos, the Russian oil company previously owned by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now sits in a Russian jail. When a U.S. court tried to stop the Yukos bankruptcy sale from proceeding, issuing an injunction against the auctioning off of Yukos’ core assets, the auction proceeded anyway. A heretofore unknown company – backed by the Russian state-owned gas monopoly – snapped up the bankrupt Yukos for $9.4 billion. As the Associated Press reported:

“Putin defended the auction as completely legal, and contrasted it with the way well-connected businessmen obtained state-owned properties at bargain prices after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The purchase of Yukos’ subsidiary by a 100-percent state-owned company, he said, ‘was done in absolute conformity with market means.’ …

“‘Putin has achieved his political ambitions, the state has recovered its most important asset – oil,’ Chris Weafer [a strategist at Moscow's Alfa Bank] said. ‘And he has also brought the oligarch era to an end.'”

But what is rising in its place? Both neocons and transnational “progressives” seem to have come to identical conclusions, succinctly summarized by Nicholas Kristof:

“The West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he’s a Russified Pinochet or Franco. And he is not guiding Russia toward free-market democracy, but into fascism.

“In effect, Mr. Putin has steered Russia from a dictatorship of the left to a dictatorship of the right (Chinese leaders have done much the same thing). Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Park Chung Hee, and Putin all emerged in societies suffering from economic and political chaos. All consolidated power in part because they established order and made the trains – or planes – run on time.”

While this is an improvement over Communism, Kristof avers, it still isn’t good enough to suit his taste, and he confidently predicts “pro-democracy” demonstrations in Moscow. With 70 percent approval ratings for Putin, they’re going to have to pour an awful lot more money and resources into the effort to subvert Putinism from within: it’ll take more than a few rock concerts and a color-coordinated public relations campaign before the neocons and their newfound “progressive” allies can hope to apply the Ukrainian template to Putin’s Russia.

The American judge who issues an injunction to save the hide of a Russian oligarch is acting as if the conquest of Russia is already a militarily accomplished fact. This is an empire that naturally assumes its own primacy. Surrender is never demanded: it is merely assumed. In such a world, the rights of nations to determine their own destiny have gone the way of individual rights, i.e., into the dustbin of history.

The absurdist fiction of a globalized “rule of law” enforced by some judge in Houston, Texas, would be laughable – if it wasn’t intended to provoke an international incident with a nuclear-armed power. As 12,000 election “observers” armed with “exit polls” invade Ukraine to ensure the expected result, Kristof and his neocon allies look forward to a similar invasion of the old Soviet heartland. There is just one way to enforce that judge’s insufferable arrogance and give it the force of “law” – and if it takes NATO troops in Ukraine, poised to take Moscow, to do it, well, then that‘s what it will take….

Kristof is selling to the liberals what the neocons have been retailing to the American right-wing: the story that Russia is rising, reverting to Stalinism (or “progressing” to fascism). The next step will be to raise a hue and cry over Russian “rearmament” as we encircle the Kremlin from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian, fomenting “democratic” revolutions on the periphery while moving inexorably toward the center. A renewed arms race and the return of the cold war – all launched under the rubric of exporting “democracy” and “free markets.” This new Russophobia has something for everyone.

If Russia is not headed for fascism, then the neocon-progressive alliance of Russia-haters is determined to push them into it – or, at least, to raise such a ruckus over the alleged rise of Russian national socialism that the American public will fall for it long enough to get a new war of civilizations going.

The great danger in Russia – and for the Russian people – is that free-market ideology has been completely discredited, intellectually and politically, on account of the rigged “privatization” that led to the wholesale looting of the economy. Yet Putin must marketize, or else lose the economic advantage of having the largest oil company in the world on Russian soil. As the AP piece cited above put it:

“The Russian government is now just a document or two away from creating the world’s biggest energy company. Once Gazprom absorbs Rosneft and Yuganskneftegaz, the Kremlin will be at the helm of an oil and gas titan with combined reserves six times that of Exxon Mobil Corp. and oil output of nearly 1.5 million barrels per day.”

But for this giant conglomerate to remain in state hands is to replicate the conditions that led to the collapse of the Soviet order. The re-nationalization of stolen state assets postpones the final reckoning with the old Communist ruling class, and, worse, paves the way for new oligarchs to rise. It also weakens Russia at a time when its enemies are gathering.

Huge state enterprises are inherently inefficient, as well as corrupt, and while the income generated may be enough to cover up the tremendous waste of resources, it may not be enough to stave off rising social and political discontent for very long. Stability is what Putin has to offer, but if that should begin to break down, or even show signs of stress, his presently unassailable position could be significantly weakened. In re-nationalizing Yukos, Putin is sowing the economic seeds of his own destruction.

A wave of nationalism is sweeping the world, and we would be foolish to stand against it: unfortunately we have no King Canute, who taught his courtiers the limits of state power when he commanded the tides to be stilled. The more energetically and insistently we try to impose our dogmas on foreign peoples, in violation of their national sovereignty, the greater the ideological “blowback.” It’s a natural reaction to any outside imposition, whether a military occupation or a sudden incursion of foreign money and an army of election “observers,” and can only end in war.

In Ukraine, where Viktor Yushchenko‘s triumph is all but assured as of this writing, the question of secession will immediately arise, and the vehement reaction of the central authorities in Kiev will unveil the true colors of the “orange revolution” – centralist, statist, and fanatically nationalistic. If the eastern Russian-speaking districts that went for Yanukovich dare to demand autonomy, and even independence, the “revolutionary” and “democratic” pretensions of the orange faction will be peeled away to reveal a rather unattractive form of ultra-nationalist authoritarianism.

The claim of the Yushchenko forces to the mantle of European “liberalism” is phony through-and-through, and this is proved by the “orange” position on the question of Ukraine’s “official” language. This is a real issue in Ukraine, where a law was seriously proposed last summer that would have gone after Russian-speaking bus drivers for playing Russian music on their buses. Yushchenko would retain the status quo, which is that all official documents, court cases, official business, etc., be carried out in Ukranian, although, in a last-minute election ploy, he said he would be willing to “discuss” the proposal, favored by Yanukovich, to add Russian to the official language list.

The rights of all ethno-linguistic groups to speak their own languages and practice their own religious and social customs has always been the hallmark of European classical liberalism. By this standard, the “orange revolution” is horrifically deficient: instead of the vanguard of “market liberalism,” the Yushchenko camp is a stalking horse for NATO. When Ukraine applies for NATO membership, and is readily accepted, the neocons and their Kristofian liberal allies will be in seventh heaven – while the rest of us will be back in the hellish world of mutual assured destruction. They didn’t call it MAD for nothing….

We have no vital national interest in Ukraine, and it would be a huge mistake to needlessly antagonize Russia, which has sought closer ties and is undergoing a difficult transition. Ukrainian membership in NATO should be vetoed by the U.S., but more immediately, eastern Ukraine, if it so wishes, must be allowed to determine whether or not it will stay within the Ukrainian “nation” – the borders of which, after all, were left just as Lenin, Stalin, and their successors had defined them. The old Czechoslovakia broke apart peacefully: why couldn’t western Ukraine negotiate a mutually amicable divorce settlement with the eastern Donetsk region and the Crimean peninsula? Why are boundaries carved by Russian Communists set in stone?

The arrogance of the West, and its allies, invites conflict. Here we are, well on our way into what everyone thought would be the shiny spic-and-span world of the 21st century, and instead we’re intent on reliving the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis. The “Fallacy of ’39” segues neatly into the folly of the 1950s. Isn’t progress wonderful?

Read more by Justin Raimondo