NEW YORK—There’s an old rule of thumb in high school and college debating: The first side that is forced to bring up Hitler to defend its case automatically loses. (Sorry, MoveOn.org.) Referring to Der Fuhrer is a desperate act, the crotch-kick of rhetorical devices. It may get you out of a streetfight, but it is cause for disqualification in more formal settings, like political conventions.
But if you expand the Hitler rule to include all references to World War II, President Bush would have lost this election on a technicality several years ago. After all, if reflecting the glory of the Good War upon yourself is the only way you can make the case for combat, your case isn’t very good. Whenever the president is backed into a corner, he relies on a specious historical analogy to defend his policies. Iran, North Korea, and Iraq = Axis. Reconstructing Iraq = Reconstructing Japan. The analogies made by the president and his allies aren’t always clear—why is Saddam, for example, compared to Hitler instead of Tojo or Hirohito?—but no one seems to notice.
This administration’s embrace of Dubya Dubya Two to defend its foreign policy is as tiresome as the tendency among liberals to believe that the phrase “another Vietnam” is always sufficient proof that the antiwar side is right. So, I was going to challenge the Republican Party at this convention to make the case for its policies without referring to World War II, but it appears that I’m too late. On Sunday evening, excerpts of Rudy Giuliani’s Monday night speech were e-mailed to the press. Here’s Giuliani on why Bush is a good president: “There are many qualities that make a great leader, but having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.” Rudy’s first example: “Winston Churchill saw the dangers of Hitler when his opponents and much of the press characterized him as a war-mongering gadfly.” Come on, guys. You lost the bet, and the convention hasn’t even started yet.
The hoariest cliché in politics (other than “hoariest cliché”) is that elections are about the future. But it may be proven wrong this year. The Democrats held the all-Vietnam-all-the-time convention in Boston, and the Republicans look like they will flip the calendar back a few years further in New York. When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth moved on to John Kerry’s activities as an antiwar protester during Vietnam, the presidential campaign seemed to be creakily lurching toward the present, but with only two months to go, we may not have enough time to get there. And now that the GOP wants to talk about the ‘40s, we don’t have a chance.
“We have seen these kind of times in the past. We have seen a former enemy of America, Japan, become an ally in peace,” President Bush told USA Today last week. The administration strenuously objected when people tried, on the eve of war in February 2003, to compare Iraq to postwar Japan. Before the war, the Bushies got into a tizzy when anyone suggested there would be a seven-year military occupation. More like 30 days, or six months, or at the absolute maximum two years, they insisted. Now the president trots out the MacArthur comparison every chance he gets.
Earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, I saw Bush talk about “having Kobe beef” with the prime minister of Japan. “And here we are talking about peace,” he said. “Someday, an American President will be talking to a duly-elected leader of Iraq, talking about the peace, and America will be better for it.” Here was Bush on Sunday in Wheeling, W.Va., combining two of the most-overused historical analogies in politics, World War II and Harry Truman: “We’ve done this kind of work before. One of my closest collaborators in peace is the Prime Minister of Japan. It wasn’t all that long ago in the march of history that my dad and your dads were fighting the Japanese. And yet here we are, because we insisted upon the transforming qualities of liberty, we insisted that Japan be given a chance to self-govern and be a democratic nation. We believe that even an enemy could accept liberty as a way of life. Fortunately, my predecessor, Harry Truman, stuck with that point of view.” If Bush could have squeezed in a “party of Lincoln” reference and a Cold War riff, he would have hit the historical analogy Grand Slam. (For Democrats, replace “party of Lincoln” with Selma.)
George W. Bush is not FDR, and war opponents are not Neville Chamberlains. I’m tempted to engage the GOP in the historical debate to point out, for example, that one of the lessons of World War II was that international institutions like the United Nations and NATO would help keep the peace in a dangerous world. (That’s something Bush claimed to believe in 1999 when he was campaigning for the presidency for the first time. “My goal, should I become the president, is to keep the peace,” Bush said in his first debate in New Hampshire, according to Frank Bruni’s Ambling Into History. “I intend to do so by strengthening alliances, which says, ‘America cannot go alone.’ “) Or to point out that the reconstruction of Japan—no sovereignty, no flag, no national anthem, no diplomatic relations—was very different from the Bush policy in Iraq. Or, for those who prefer the Cold War analogy, that President Kennedy agreed during the Cuban Missile Crisis to remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev’s removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.
But that makes it sound like we should be negotiating with Osama Bin Laden over Turkey, which obviously isn’t the case. So let’s just say that historical analogies are, on their own, insufficient to prove much of anything. I say Saddam, you say Hitler. Let’s call the whole thing off.