One of Josh Marshall’s posts last week noted the dismal failure of the Bush administration’s attempt at a Radio Free Europe for the Arab world, al-Hurra (“The Free One.”) Like most of the Shrub crew’s schemes, this one was doubly incompetent, both erroneously conceived and poorly implemented. It was dopey enough to think that the situation in the present Middle East resembles Eastern Europe during the Cold War at all. Al-Hurra competes with a brace of widely-watched Arabic-language satellite channels and web sites while Radio Free Europe supplied peoples who were starved for outside information by their Communist state media monopolies. Then the dopey idea could not even be executed properly. The men behind al-Hurra turn out to be the news geniuses responsible for Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40″ and other syndicated national radio programs. It seems that none of the managers knew Arabic or much of anything about the Arab news media, but the founder (Norman Pattiz) is, like Casey, a Lebanese-American, so people in D.C. must have assumed that was qualification enough.
This story crystallized for me something that is going to be an historical hallmark of the present era. In this Age of Analogies, with television chat shows defining the public sphere, we have American leaders not just using dumb historical analogies as cheap talking points, but actually trying to put the dumb analogies into practice, as the basis for policy. We can’t just compare a foreign leader we don’t like to Hitler, we have to take the approach toward the world’s “bad guys” we think we would have taken towards Hitler, if we were time-travelling nincompoops from the 21st-century with 20-20 hindsight supplied by Hollywood. That is very close to what most of our current national leaders and pundits really seem to think they are.
So we have the current debate over “appeasement,” a word rolled out anytime someone suggests there might be some other way of dealing with regimes and peoples we don’t like other than bombing, invading, and overthrowing them, not necessarily in that order. The appeasement concept was problematic even back in the Cold War when it was cultural gospel, taught at the deepest level possible, that every conflict was a case of handing Czechoslavakia and your manhood over to the Nazis, or standing up and fighting. Westerns, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch could all agree on that. Fight, or Hitler wins and millions die! Interestingly, the promise that Cold War popular culture often made was that if you stood up and showed you could fight, the Romulans or the bully or the outlaws would go away and leave you alone. In fact, when the Allies stood up to Hitler they had to fight history’s greatest war machine for years, and millions still died. And that would have been the case even if the standing took place in 1938 rather than later.
But how much dumber is “appeasement,” and the implicit Hitler-Chamberlain comparison, when there is no continent-sweeping dictator demanding that we let him have some defenseless country? Who would we appease even if we wanted to? How would we go about it? What could we give the Islamists that we haven’t already? Pakistan and Iran aren’t enough?
Of course, “appeasement” is raised to twist the debate, not advance it. In the Bush-Cheney worldview any solution not imposed by force on a weaker foe is inherently suspect; any other form of adjudication or discussion is idle chit-chat of a particularly dangerous kind. Making every enemy into Hitler, the guy we know for sure was a psychopath bent on world domination, stacks the deck in favor of the force-first point-of-view:
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Mr. Bush said, in a speech otherwise devoted to spotlighting Israel’s friendship with the United States.
“We have an obligation,” he continued, “to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
(Yes, thank God Ronald Reagan finally cut loose and let our military show those Soviets who was stronger, otherwise the Iron Curtain never would have fallen. Oh, wait. . . . ) At any rate, the “appeasement” concept resonates very well with conservative hatred of egalitarianism and its suspicion of legal processes, but its universal application to real life is just a little lacking, considering that 99.9% of real conflicts actually do not end with the total defeat and suicide of the Big Bad. Really pretty much just that one. Not sure how to score the Pacific theater.
Munich and World War II have loomed over U.S. policy minds since the end of that war, but there is something particularly goofy and post-modern about way the analogies work today, when so few of the top policymakers or journalists have any first-hand experience that goes back earlier than the Kennedy era. The historical analogies are taken sooo literally, regardless of whether they are remotely applicable. So I saw Newsweek wondering from the airport newsstand a couple of weeks ago, “What Would Winston Do?” The accompanying article actually does a pretty reasonable job distinguishing past from present and puncturing some of the Munich myth, but that cover says the opposite, much more powerfully. In any case, Evan Thomas’s article seems to be one of many belated efforts to catch up with reality by the sort of pop-history-writing journos (like Tom Brokaw and Evan Thomas, among many others) who have worked so hard to build up the power of the World War II analogies.
P.S. Based on the quite good and relatively even-handed new museum at the Churchill Memorial in Fulton, MO (the site of the Iron Curtain speech), what Winston would have done is attack something.