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Bush Invokes History of Europe

President raises specter of Nazism and Cold War to frame his campaign against Iraq's Hussein.

November 21, 2002|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As presented by President Bush in Prague on Wednesday, a war against Iraq would take its place alongside the great struggles that defined civilization through much of the 20th century.

In a speech to students in the Czech capital, Bush used the fight against the Nazis and the Cold War division of Europe to frame his campaign to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The perils facing the world are "just as dangerous as those perils that your fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers faced," he said.

But the analogy, in which Bush seeks the highest moral ground, drew some questions from historians -- as well as some recognition that it may be apt.

Militarily, Iraq is in a different league from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is not threatening to dominate the world, as those regimes did. And Hussein, unlike Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers, has not drawn the allegiance of millions of followers clamoring for a new world order, historians say.

"The notion that he represents on a geopolitical scale a threat in any way comparable to Germany or the Soviet Union is ridiculous on the face of it," said Lloyd Gardner, a professor of diplomatic history at Rutgers University.

In World War II and during the Cold War, he said, "you could say the majority of the world was on one side, intellectually and morally. Now, there's a lot of doubt out there."

But taken another way, Gardner said, the risks are every bit as great as those faced by the United States in World War II or by NATO during the Cold War. The danger Hussein could pose with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, he said, could cause death on a vast scale.

Bush's sweeping analogy between the current U.S.-declared war on terror and the conflicts of the 20th century is of a piece with the administration's broad view of the United States in the world, military historian John Lewis Gaddis said.

Writing in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, he contrasted Bush's ambitious foreign policy goals with the limited ones laid out by the Clinton administration in December 1999. Bush, Gaddis wrote, has adopted the mission begun by President Woodrow Wilson: "Spreading democracy everywhere."

Bush had previously sought to draw the analogy between Iraq and Nazi Germany when speaking to Europeans, most notably last Memorial Day. Amid the graves of a cemetery for U.S. troops in Normandy, he sought to use the memory of the D-Day landings to stir the European alliance.

But Bush's call to arms Wednesday was made to Europeans deeply skeptical of the war on terror, dismayed by the president's insistence that they should push aside all other concerns, and reluctant to join a military assault against Iraq that, to many, feels more like a war of choice than one thrust upon the world by empire-building tyrants.

Polls conducted in June and July by the German Marshall Fund and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that six out of 10 Europeans favored a U.S.-led war with Iraq, provided that it has the support of the U.N. and American allies.

But such support appears to have tumbled. Massive demonstrations have been mobilized in European cities to protest U.S. war threats against Iraq. Recent polls in nations allied with Washington -- Germany, France and Italy, among them -- found strong opposition. Even in neutral Switzerland, 87% of those surveyed for one poll opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

A senior Bush administration official, speaking with reporters in Prague, expressed disbelief that European leaders, not to mention their constituents, wouldn't regard the campaign against Iraq with the same sense of moral purpose that Bush brings to his argument.

But, said Michael J. Glennon, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the conflicts of the 20th century also brought death on such a scale that, after World War II, the global response was the creation of the United Nations and the recognition that the world would resolve disputes by peaceful means.

Now, Glennon said, the legal order that was established with the founding of the U.N. in 1945 is threatened by repeated use of force -- often unsanctioned by the United Nations -- to resolve conflict, and "we are moving ... to an abyss."

Glennon said, however, that if Iraq is found to possess chemical and biological weapons, and develops a nuclear arsenal, "it can dramatically alter the contours of everyday life in this country."

The fight against terrorism, he said, could be expanded to such an extent that machines to detect biohazards could be erected in the doorways of U.S. workplaces and vaster collections of personal data could be collected by the government, with a "consequent loss of privacy."

The Bush administration has framed the central question as this: Does the risk of inaction outweigh the risk of acting?

When the fight was against Nazi Germany, and against Japan after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Glennon said, "few people were willing to conclude not acting was a viable option."

In his speech Wednesday, Bush argued that the U.S. and its allies are once again facing only one viable option.

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