On a number of occasions here, I have remarked on the lack of proportion shown by almost everyone with respect to the current state of the world. President Bush has already compared the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism to Nazism or Communism, and few, if any prominent politicians have taken this comparison on. But today, teaching a class on Hitler and the origins of the Second World War, certain problems with those comparisons became clear to me.
Germany in the 1930s was still one of the leading industrial powers in the world, with a population (after the addition of Austria) of close to 80 million. It had a very robust military tradition and a ready reserve of young men, and its arms industry was eventually capable of impressive achievements. In addition, Hitler was dedicated to a very specific program of expansion, involving the absorption of German-speaking territories and the conquest of a vast empire in Eastern Europe. Germany had pursued similar goals during the First World War, and had had some success before its final collapse.
The Middle East, by contrast, remains a very poor region, utterly unable to challenge the United States with conventional arms of any kind. It is torn apart by factional conflicts, and by tension between the peoples of the region and their authoritarian governments. Its religious fervor is a double-edged sword, since, as we see in Iraq, splits within Islam are at least as violent as splits between Islam and the rest of the world. Al Queda does not control any states (although some key states, led by Pakistan, apparently tolerate it.) No new Nazi Germany or Soviet Union, that can rival us in conventional or nuclear arms, is on the horizon.
In a sense President Bush has acknowledged how fatuous the analogy is. If he truly believed things were as serious as he claims, he would be raising taxes rather than lowering them, instituting a draft, and at least doubling the size of the United States’ armed forces. The philosophy of Herbert Hoover could never have secured victory in the Second World War, and the kindred philosophy of George W. Bush can’t supply nearly enough troops to pacify Iraq. No major war--not even Vietnam--can be fought with peacetime forces. A war over the future of a substantial part of the world requires a vast, temporary expansion of military production and power such as the US experienced in the Civil War, the two World Wars, and even in Vietnam.
There are, it seems to me, two real aspects to the fundamentalist threat. The main one is political. More widespread Islamic fundamentalism will be bad for the people of the region (although that remains their choice, not ours, to make), and more importantly, it could substantially de-stabilize a good deal of Europe. Our attempt to conquer and occupy a leading nation of the region has made that part of the threat much worse, all the more so since it is failing. The other is terrorism. That cannot be stamped out, but better intelligence and improved security could keep it at a sufficiently small scale, I think, to prevent another 9/11 in the United States. The nuclear aspect of the problem, the most serious, can only be addressed by a broad coalition along the lines I have suggested during the last few weeks.
Despite everything, one simply cannot compare the perils we face with those of the 1930s. By 1937 two substantial states, Germany and Japan, were committed to territorial expansion by force to solve very serious economic problems. Both had efficient armies and distinguished military and naval traditions, and both in the end had to be completely conquered to create a peaceful world. Now, more than sixty years after the end of that war, war between major industrial states still appears almost unthinkable. The worst thing we could do would be to allow another series of splits within the more advanced world. While the Bush Administration’s policies have not had that effect, they do threaten, in the long run, to do so. The war in Iraq was in many ways similar to the Japanese conquest of Manchuria—a unilateral decision by a major power to assume sovereignty over a foreign land for a mixture of economic and security reasons. Let us hope that it does not, in that respect, become a precedent.
In Politics and War: European Conflict from Phillip II to Hitler, I analyzed what Europeans were fighting about in four critical eras from the sixteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. In two of the four—1559-1659 and 1914-45—I concluded that their goals were unachievable, not worth the cost of pursuing them, or both. (It is intriguing that civilization made the greatest advances from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.) The end of the cold war has probably left military establishments far smaller proportionally than they had been since the mid-18th century, and that is a very good thing. We still are not threatened by major war, but partly as a result, we are involved in an endless, though small-scale, struggle for the future of what remains a relatively poor, though populous, area of our world.