My Turn: About America and its self-anointed authority

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

Steeped in historical analogy, the Bush administration has tried to persuade us that its war on Iraq may be justly compared with the Allied struggle against fascism during World War II. In the latest installment of this ongoing delusion, the president subtly reminded us Monday night of the hapless "policy of appeasement," which abetted the pointless atrocities of the last century. Posing now as the reincarnation of the hypothetical, foresighted assassin who failed to remove Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo from power at various points during the 1930s, Bush now promises to rewrite the global future and rescue us all from a horizon clotted with "evil men" who "plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror" against undeserving civilians.

This fable collapses under the slightest scrutiny. If the current crisis invites historical comparisons, World War II lacks the minimal components of a good analogy. Unlike any of the Depression-era fascist regimes, Iraq is a nation eviscerated by comprehensive economic sanctions that have killed and malnourished its citizens, ruined its infrastructure and left it with a military whose capabilities would be laughable if its troops were not facing wholesale extermination by the weekend. Unlike the U.S. embargoes enacted against Italy or Japan during the 1930s, the United Nations' chokehold on Iraq (and the inspections process that accompanied it from 1991-98) effectively contained Saddam Hussein's territorial ambitions. His regime, politically isolated within his own region and surrounded by a most extraordinary concentration of military power, enjoys no allies save the long-rumored and thinly-documented links to al-Qaeda. None of these conditions may seriously be termed "appeasement."

Bush is not a man who trifles with historical nuance. As recent hagiographers like David Frum contend, our president is a "man of action" who bases his decisions on "gut feeling" and "instinct" above all else. Thus, Bush's obsession with "the good war" as a model for his own stance toward Iraq should be understood for what it is - an unreasoned analogy that lends his campaign an instinctive though undeserved dignity. Because our popular memory of World War II tends to evoke a favorable range of images and concepts (such as wartime "sacrifice," the heroic encounter with "evil," the glories of the "greatest generation" and so on) the war itself has become a productive reservoir for American nostalgia since the fall of Soviet communism.

Since nostalgia always distorts the history it celebrates, we should be suspicious of anyone who claims to be acting in the spirit of an uncomplicated past. If we're interested in documenting concrete patterns of behavior, a number of Cold War tendencies are sustained by our current foreign policy toward Iraq and elsewhere. The United States continues unilaterally to violate and cancel international agreements, much as we flagrantly abused the 1954 Geneva accords while drawing ourselves into the Vietnam War. We continue to act as if United Nations resolutions are Rorschach blots; to justify our unilateralism, we employ interpretive techniques that would not be permitted anywhere else in the world. Building on the ignoble Cold War legacies of El Salvador, Indonesia and South Korea, the United States continues to fund state-sponsored violations of human rights in Colombia, Israel, Turkey and other nations who claim to be joining our war on "terror."

Bush speaks the language of liberty and nods toward multilateralism in the pursuit of peace. However, his administration is no less likely than previous generations to snub the counsel of democratic nations while aligning itself with autocratic ones. If anything resembles the moral and political universe that Bush believes existed in during World War II, this is not it.

The Second World War, however, remains highly relevant to the current crisis, though for reasons that Bush will likely never acknowledge or understand. Over the past two years, Bush and his administration have continued to demolish the very internationalism that World War II encouraged and necessitated. Although he claims to believe in the aims of the United Nations, he has clearly abandoned it in favor of an amorphous "coalition of the willing" that has willed itself beyond the reach of international law or accountability. For very good reasons, citizens of nations throughout the world, both free and unfree, are less satisfied (and more fearful) than ever with America's self-anointed authority, while our leaders and their allies - convinced they have inherited the legacies of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill - act with only a shred of the popular consent enjoyed by their forbears.

David Noon is an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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