Policy and Analogy

Which historical analogy fits the present moment?

by , June 27, 2012

We hear cries of “another Munich” with very little provocation: it’s the War Party’s pat response to any attempt to negotiate or otherwise engage our alleged enemies. It was a favorite neoconservative trope during the cold war era, one that greeted every diplomatic approach to the reds, from Nixon’s China trip to Reagan at Reykjavik. This analogy persisted long after the Soviets landed in history’s dustbin: indeed, its use has increased over the years, with every Enemy of the Moment, from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein, routinely likened to Hitler and the Nazis. With the Israelis conjuring visions of a second Holocaust at Iranian hands, ghosts from the 1930s haunt the current foreign policy debate: in the unlikely event the ongoing negotiations with Tehran generate an agreement, odds are it will be characterized as “another Munich” by All the Usual Suspects.

Yet as Pat Buchanan was the first to point out in the run up to the first Gulf War, Saddam was no Hitler: the German leader conquered Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals, while Saddam’s “empire” consisted of the tiny enclave of Kuwait. Hitler commanded the mighty Wehrmacht, while the best of Saddam’s army, the Republican Guards, melted away before the American assault.

As a historical analogy for the present moment, the 1930s are a natural reference point for neoconservative intellectuals, the original authors and most vocal advocates of the series of Middle Eastern wars that have kept us preoccupied since the end of the cold war. After all, neoconservatism was itself born in that tumultuous era of war and depression, in Alcove 1 at the City College cafeteria, or, at least, its seeds were sown. World War II was the defining moment of a whole generation of leftist intellectuals, whose storied journey from the anti-Stalinist left to the neoconservative right has been lovingly chronicled by themselves in endless memoirs.

At war’s end, the neoconservatives abandoned their radical politics and commenced their Gramscian march through the institutions, the only legacy of their former political selves a fervent anti-Sovietism. Migrating from academia to government to the inner reaches of the country’s national security bureaucracy, the neocons brought with them their WWII-centric views. For them, it is always 1939, and the new generation of young neoconlings repeats the lesson learned by rote from their elders.

There’s just one problem with this analogy, however: it has the year wrong: it’s 1909 rather than 1939. Instead of resembling the world in the prelude to World War II, today’s international landscape bears a striking resemblance to the conditions that existed just prior the outbreak of World War I.

The Great War, which ended the old European civilization and brought forth the twin monsters of Nazism and communism, broke out in what was called with good reason the “tinderbox of Europe,” the Balkans: indeed, the words balkanization and balkanize are synonymous with splintering or shattering. It was there, where dozens of feuding ethnic and religious groupings contended over age-old disputes, that the spark landed: the result was a conflagration that consumed Europe and fueled a fresh inferno a decade later.

The Balkans of the present day are clearly located in the Middle East, the scene of a series of wars and ongoing crises. Here is the regional tinderbox of the 21st century, where rival ethnicities and religions intersect in the context of conflicting historical claims. Check out this description of the Serbian and Russian roles in bringing on World War I, and see if it rings a bell:

Serbia emerged from the Balkan conflicts not only with a greatly expanded territory, but also animated by a vaulting nationalism, which Russia was happy to egg on. Sazanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, wrote to [Russian ambassador to Serbia Nicholas] Hartwig: ‘Serbia’s promised land lies in the territory of present-day Hungary,’ and instructed him to help prepare the Serbians for ‘the future inevitable struggle.”

That’s Ralph Raico, whose ironically titled book, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, is a joy and an education all in one. His analysis of how and why the Great War was allowed to destroy the flower of European civilization is indispensable reading. Raico locates “the immediate origins of the 1914 war” in “the twisted politics of the Kingdom of Serbia,” where ultra-nationalists had overthrown the pro-Austrian royal house of the Obrenovics and installed the fanatically nationalistic Karageorgevices on the throne. The Serbs dreamed of creating a “Greater Serbia,” the borders of which would restore the nation’s lost greatness and redeem the religious aspects of an ancient struggle against both Muslim Turks and Catholic Hapsburgs.

It’s interesting Sazanov refers to Serbia’s “promised land” in his missive to Hartwig, because his mischievous meddling limns the present day actions of the US and Israel in the present day crisis in the real Promised Land. Those Balkan wars the Serbs emerged from, victorious and stronger, sound very much like the three wars Israel fought and won from 1948-73, becoming the strongest military power in the region. Politically, too, Israeli domestic politics are dominated by an overweening nationalism that threatens to go “ultra” with every election. The ideology of “Greater Israel” energizes the Likud party and its right-wing partners in government, and expansionism as a policy is simply taken for granted rather than debated, the only question being how far and fast to expand at any particular moment. Israel’s present Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a fanatic ultra-nationalist who once advocated bombing the Aswan Dam.

The pan-Slavic nationalists who bore a major share of the responsibility for the Great War even spoke in some of the same terms as our present day Israeli nationalists and their supporters. In another missive to Hartwig, Sazonov averred: “Serbia has only gone through the first stage of its historic road and for the attainment of her goal must still endure a terrible struggle in which her whole existence may be at stake.” How many times have we heard of the “existential threat” Israel faces in Iran? The very existence of the Jewish state is said to be at terrible risk – unless the Iranian “threat” is eliminated.

Of course, no historical analogy is exact, and the Triple Entente isn’t exactly NATO – but it’s close enough. This time Russia is on the other, non-Western side, but the general outlines of the conflict between the two power blocs are very similar. The Entente, consisting of France, Russia, and Great Britain, had the Triple Alliance outgunned. Germany’s allies – Austria, the Ottoman Turks, and the Italians – were all militarily weak and unreliable. The NATO powers, combined with the US, have no military rivals, and Iran is a third-rate military power paired with two rather unreliable and relatively weak allies, Russia and Syria.

As in World War I, where the US was lured into supporting another country’s – England’s – war, so in the present context the US is being pushed into a war for the sake of our ally, Israel. And the propaganda campaign is just as extensive, and dubious, as the one that preceded our armed intervention in the Great War: Iran’s alleged secret nuclear weapons program is the contemporary equivalent of Belgian babies impaled on bayonets.

The Middle East awaits its Archduke Francis Ferdinand moment, a catalytic event that will plunge the region into war – and, perhaps, drag much of the world into the abyss. The tinderbox is dry enough so that any spark has the potential get out of control, and engulf us all. Syria is in the midst of a civil war, a death match that can only end with one survivor; the US military is poised and ready to strike in the Persian Gulf, with the Iranians on constant edge. Draconian sanctions are in place against Iran, and this virtual blockade is a major tripwire that could easily provoke armed conflict. The Serbs of the present day – the Israelis – are bound and determined to throw a monkey wrench into the peace talks with Iran, and some Sarajevo-like incident would serve their interests all too well.

World War I destroyed liberalism’s best hopes, and birthed the collectivist horrors that turned the 20th century into an orgy of blood and terror. As we prepare to reenact the Great War on Middle Eastern terrain, one needn’t be Nostradamus to anticipate a similar result.

Read more by Justin Raimondo