The importance of this week’s recognition by the United Nations of the Nazi Holocaust lies as much in its relevance to today’s international realities as it does to the historical significance of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet forces 60 years ago Thursday.
As noted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other speakers at the memorial’s inaugural session Monday, genocide as in Rwanda in 1994 and possibly in Darfur, Sudan, today has not been confined to the systematic annihilation of some six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in Europe.
Of course, the modern-day international human rights movement owes its birth and moral force in many ways to the universal revulsion that followed the discovery of the concentration camps.
But the Nazi Holocaust also lies at the core of the neoconservative worldview that has animated and given coherence to much of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy that itself is changing the world, albeit not necessarily in ways that either Annan or the international human rights movement would approve.
"For those of us who are involved in foreign and defense policy today, my generation, the defining moment of our history was certainly the Holocaust," former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle, a central figure in the U.S. neoconservative network, told BBC as U.S. forces drove toward Iraq two years ago.
To Perle, who like many neoconservatives is Jewish (although most U.S. Jews are not neoconservatives), the Holocaust is irrefutable proof of the existence of "evil" a word that recurs frequently in their discourse. World events are viewed as a perpetual battle between, as one of their heroes Reinhold Niebuhr called it, "the children of light" and the "children of darkness."
In the last century, "totalitarianism," whether of the right or the left, was the evil. But, as noted by the highest-ranking neoconservative in the Bush administration in a talk late last year, evil never dies and now takes the form of what some call "Islamofascism."
"The thing that hasn’t changed, unfortunately, is that there still is evil in the world," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "It is a fascist totalitarianism not fundamentally different from the way it was in the last century no more God-fearing than [the Nazis and communists] were."
Significantly, the White House chose Wolfowitz rather than a top State Department official to speak as the U.S. representative to the Holocaust ceremony at the United Nations Monday.
Wolfowitz, a close friend and colleague of Perle since 1969 when they both arrived in Washington, did not mention that all members of the family his father left behind in his native Poland in the 1920s died in the Holocaust.
A similar fate befell the family of the father of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Dalck Feith, a leading Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist, managed to survive the Holocaust, which, however, took the lives of both his parents, four sisters, and three brothers.
These men, key players in the Bush administration’s foreign policy for the last three and a half years, obviously do not see the Holocaust and the notion of "evil" in international affairs as a relic of history.
For neoconservatives, the fact that the United States played a decisive role in the defeat of the evils of Nazism, fascism, and communism in the last century offers compelling, if not conclusive, evidence of its redemptive, beneficial, and "exceptional" mission in world affairs. It justifies the idea that its freedom to act should not be constrained by multilateral organizations or even international law if evil is abroad.
International politics, then conceived as a battleground between good and evil presents a moral challenge for neoconservatives that transcends simple legalisms, as expressed on the eve of the war with Iraq by commentator Charles Krauthammer.
"By what moral calculus does an American intervention to liberate 25 million people forfeit moral legitimacy because it lacks the blessing of the butchers of Tiananmen Square or the cynics of the Quai d’Orsay?" he asked in reference to the argument by some that Washington should not go to war with the UN Security Council’s approval.
For neoconservatives, the 1930s the period that, in their view, created the conditions for the Holocaust to take place offer the major lessons for preventing such a catastrophe in the future.
First, the rise of Adolf Hitler, in their view, within Germany resulted from the moral weakness of the Weimar Republic, particularly the failure of democrats and liberals to defend it against extremists of the right and left.
Their humanism, relativism, and secularism gave rise to a nihilistic spirit in the general population that ultimately made it receptive to the Nazi appeal. Thus, while neoconservatives extol liberal democratic ideals in their rhetoric, they spend much of their time trying to discredit liberals.
A similar phenomenon albeit on the international level also helped bring on the Holocaust. Like liberals in Weimar, the "liberal democracies" of prewar France and Britain failed to confront German rearmament and expansion and instead pursued a policy of "appeasement."
This is a serious charge in the neoconservative lexicon and one wielded without fail by neoconservatives whenever any political figure or foreign ally suggests compromise or negotiations with perceived enemies, be they Nicaragua in the 1980s, Serbia in the 1990s, or Iran or South Korea today.
A corollary of the "appeasement" lesson is the necessity at all times of having overwhelming military power against any possible challenger. While "soft power," such as economic pressure, cultural influence, etc., has its uses, ultimately, according to the neoconservatives, it’s "hard power" that counts in international affairs.
Indeed, just as the failure of France and Britain to arm quickly in the face of Hitler’s challenges actually emboldened him to become more aggressive, "the main threat arises not from the United States’ being too powerful, but from its being perceived abroad as weak," wrote Frank Gaffney, another Perle chum who heads the Center for Security Policy (CSP) here.
The final lesson derived from the 1930s is the overriding necessity of keeping the United States, which is seen as the greatest force for good in international relations, engaged with the rest of the world and preventing it from taking what yet another Perle colleague and DPB member, Kenneth Adelman, calls the "default option" of U.S. foreign policy: isolationism. Washington’s disengagement from Europe in the 1930s, in their view, also contributed to the rise of Hitler.
For neoconservatives, the most effective way to avoid a return to isolationism is to identify enemies that may pose future threats against which public opinion can be rallied, as they tried to do in early 2001 against China, when a U.S. spy plane was forced down and its crew held on Hainan Island, and then against "Islamofascism" after 9/11.
A former neoconservative, the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once cited this tendency as the reason he broke with the movement in the 1980s.
"They wished for a military posture approaching mobilization; they would create or invent whatever crises were required to bring this about," he wrote.
And thus Perle, in his 2004 book, An End to Evil, pulled no punches in laying out the stakes in the current "war on terrorism."
"For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation’s great cause. There is no middle way for Americans: it is victory or holocaust."
(Inter Press Service)