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Ghosts of the Holocaust

Memories of World War II are driving the idea of using force to make a better world.

June 03, 2007|Ian Buruma | IAN BURUMA is the author, most recently, of "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance," which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is a professor at Bard College and a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages.

BERNARD KOUCHNER, France's new foreign minister, has a long and distinguished record as an advocate of intervention in countries whose citizens' human rights are abused.

In 1971, he co-founded Doctors Without Borders and later explained to an interviewer that, in doing so, "we were establishing the moral right to interfere inside someone else's country." In the 1990s, he supported military intervention against the Serbs in Kosovo. Then it was Saddam Hussein's mass murder of Iraqi citizens that persuaded him to support the war in Iraq. One should always be careful about attributing motives to other people's views. But Kouchner himself has often said that the murder of his Russian-Jewish grandparents at Auschwitz inspired his belief in humanitarian interventionism.

One may or may not agree with Kouchner about intervention, but his motives are surely impeccable. And, indeed, there are many prominent intellectuals in Europe and the U.S. -- often those with a leftist past, many of them Jewish -- who, like Kouchner, are sympathetic to the idea of using American armed force to further the cause of human rights and democracy in the world. Some can be classified as neoconservatives, and others, like Kouchner, are better described as liberal interventionists, but their views often derive from the same wellspring: that the use of force is justified to avoid another Holocaust, and those who shirk their duty to support such force are no better than appeasers.

To be sure, if we were less haunted by memories of appeasing the Nazi regime in the 1930s, and the ensuing genocide, people might not be as concerned about human rights today as they are. And by no means do all those who work to protect the rights of others invoke the horrors of the Third Reich to justify Anglo-American armed intervention.

However, the term "Islamofascism" has not been coined for nothing. It urges us to see today's threat as a natural extension of Nazism. Hussein, who was hardly an Islamist, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is, are often described as natural successors to Adolf Hitler.

Yet analogies with the Third Reich, although highly effective as a way to denounce people with whom one disagrees, are usually false. The reality is that there are no Islamist armies about to march into Europe, and neither Ahmadinejad nor Osama bin Laden, nasty rhetoric notwithstanding, has a fraction of Hitler's power.

And although it's true that the refusal of many Muslims to integrate into European society (as well as high levels of unemployment and ready access to revolutionary propaganda) can easily explode in acts of violence, the prospect of an "Islamized" Europe is remote. We are not living in a replay of 1938.

So why the high alarm about appeasement? Why the easy equation of Islamism with Nazism? Israel is often mentioned as a reason, as though the existential alarmism that underlies the "war on terror" was really just a narrow concern among Jews over the security of the Jewish state.

But that is not the main reason why people have embraced armed intervention. It's certainly true that Israel would feel less vulnerable if Iran could be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But Kouchner did not advocate Western intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo because of Israel. If the Holy Land played any part in Paul Wolfowitz's advocacy for war in Iraq, it was probably a minor one. Both Kouchner and Wolfowitz believed in promoting human rights and democracy.

Another intriguing question is why there is such a remarkable, sometimes even fawning, trust on the part of some of these pro-interventionist intellectuals in the U.S. government to save the world by force. But perhaps even that trust is less mysterious than it seems. Here's one thought: Many neocons, and liberal interventionists as well, emerged from a leftist past, when a belief in revolution from above was commonplace -- "people's democracies" yesterday, "liberal democracies" today.

Among pro-intervention Jews in particular (and it is of course true that not all Jews are interventionists, just as not all interventionists are Jews), another historical memory may play a part: the protection of the imperial state. Austrian and Hungarian Jews, for instance, were among the last and most fiercely loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor because he shielded them from the violent nationalism of the majority populations. Polish and Russian Jews, at least at the beginning, were often loyal subjects of the communist state because it promised (falsely, as it turned out) to protect them against the violence of anti-Semitic nationalists.

If it were really true that the fundamental existence of our democratic Western world were about to be destroyed by an Islamist revolution, it would make sense to seek protection in the full force of the U.S. informal empire. But if one sees our current problems in less apocalyptic terms, then another kind of abdication of responsibility comes into view: the blind cheering on of a sometimes foolish military power embarked on unnecessary wars that cost more lives than they were intended to save.

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