When a country plans to go to war, the rhetoric leaders use to demonize the enemy and rouse the faithful are instructive. George H.W. Bush called Saddam “a new Hitler.” Saddam called the Iraq war the “mother of all battles.” George W. Bush had his embarrassing “mission accomplished” moment on board the U.S.S. Lincoln. Bibi Netanyahu regularly compares Israel’s battle with Iran to the Holocaust. One of his most memorable (and toxic) historical analogies is: it’s Munich, and the year is 1938.
Now John Kerry has taken a page from Bibi’s book and called the Obama plan to attack Syria Congress’ “Munich moment.” This is a ludicrous and false historical analogy that places the looming U.S. assault on Syria in precisely the wrong context. It may go down in history as one of those dumb overstatements to which U.S. leaders are prone.
First, with all his warts, Assad is no Hitler. The options in the current conflict are not black and white, not good vs. evil as they were during World War II. Munich was seen as a decisive turning point, when Britain’s appeasement allowed Hitler to prepare for the all-out war he’d planned. This is no Munich moment. If the U.S. bombs Syria it will not stop Assad. It will at most wound him. And a wounded dictator can be more dangerous than one who is intact.
Finally, if this is a Munich moment it means that Kerry is not contemplating giving Assad a bloody nose, but rather a battle to the death to topple his regime. After all, what followed Munich was not a bloody nose, but all-out war. That’s why Kerry’s historical analogy is grossly inapt, unless of course Obama intends regime change.
Leaders always get tripped up in demonizing the enemy, in overstating the righteousness of their cause. The result is that when the battle turns ugly and your side falls short, that your original words come back to haunt. That’s the sort of statement John Kerry has made today.
One of the Democrats on the conference call during which Kerry made this comment retorted quite aptly that the administration had “historical amnesia.” I’d say they have a case that’s far worse than amnesia. They’re mangling history rather than just forgetting it.
In Syria, we face a moral quandary: a dictator willing to use chemical weapons on his own people. Do we attack? If we do, we assuage our conscience. But will attacking help the situation? If not Assad, then who? The rebels? Who are they? What guarantees do we have they will govern any better than Assad? In such a predicament I turn to the doctor’s motto: do no harm. Attacking Syria will do some small amount of good, perhaps. But it threatens to do far more harm than good. Until we have a viable alternative to Assad, I don’t think we can take him on. If we do, and it turns out badly, we have only ourselves to blame.
Yesterday, Jodi Rudoren wrote that the Israel lobby was expected to stay out of the debate about attacking Syria. I doubt this can be true. Aipac is dying to topple Assad. After all, how often do you get a chance to overthrow an enemy of Israel? The only thing stopping it may be an explicit directive from Netanyahu to keep its powder dry. An interesting bellweather will be how J Street responds. It is what I call “Jews for Obama.” Thus far, J Street has denounced the Syrian chemical weapons attack. But it has not advocated military intervention. Frankly, I’m shocked, as there is almost never any daylight between Jeremy Ben-Ami and Obama administration positions.
Israeli analysts and journalists are almost universally derisive of Obama’s “waffling” on Syria. There is no understanding within Israel of America’s democratic process nor of the push and pull between the president and Congress. This is because Israel is not a true democracy. Nor is there a separation of powers or checks and balances between branches of government as here.
Israelis also have a peculiar view that when they face a challenge or threat the only option is to smash it with all their might. Talk, to the average Israeli, is sissy stuff. The only thing that matters is who has the biggest gun. That’s why Israel is in the mess it is. It’s why Israel has so few policy options available to resolve the issues it faces. It’s why Israel is a questionable ally and loose cannon.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam