What did Hitler sound like to those hearing him speak in the 1930s? Did he sound any less menacing than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran?
The question is important because the civilized world famously failed to deal with Hitler in 1930s, when the threat he posed was still gathering. Indeed, to many of the leading statesmen of the era — Neville Chamberlain was not alone — Hitler was someone who could successfully be appeased: Give him what he wants, a piece of Czechoslovakia, and that will placate him, turning him away from militarism, conquest and aggressive war.
Well, that didn’t work. And the point about its not having worked is that we know it didn’t because of what subsequently transpired: the invasion of Poland, the conquest of most of continental Europe, the Holocaust, the extraordinary expenditure of Allied blood and treasure required to defeat Nazi Germany. So we can look back fairly easily and say, we really should have taken action to nip this menace in the bud. Just about anything that might have spared the 20 century the horrors of the Second World War would have been worthwhile. Perhaps it could not have been done. Perhaps Hitler would have figured some other way to drag the world down in flames with him. But something, anything, would have been worth trying.
But suppose something had been tried and suppose it had succeeded: Hitler, prior to Poland, no longer an actor on the historical stage, the Nazi regime discredited in its infancy and succeeded by something more in line with Germany’s liberal and humanistic streak, the side of Germany that made Jews feel at home there, good German citizens. What then? Would we congratulate those who had made the decision to stop Hitler? Would we credit them with having averted a world war and the Holocaust? The point is that there would have been no world war and no Holocaust, so how could we say what had been prevented? We wouldn’t know.
A similar problem arises with respect to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Now, one might think that given Saddam’s track record of genocide against his own people, his propensity for wars of conquest, his well-documented interest in acquisition of the world’s worst weapons, his willingness to make common cause with terrorist organizations, the general brutality of his totalitarian police-state regime and his evident desire to ensure that one of his even-more-sadistic sons succeed him, people would take a look at his removal from the world scene and breathe a sigh of relief.
Whatever it is that Saddam was going to perpetrate in his remaining years in power, whatever he intended to bequeath to his sons and whatever in turn they would do to follow up on his legacy, this we have prevented. The problem is, we don’t know what that is. It’s impossible to say. We could have left him in power and waited. Perhaps nothing much would have happened. If you think the sanctions regime would have persisted against his effort to get out from under it, I can’t prove you wrong on that point, either, except to remind you that it was crumbling before September 11 intervened. Perhaps, on the other hand, we would by now or soon hereafter have had ample justification for our hindsight view that we should have taken Saddam down in 2003, when we had the chance.
Instead, of course, we have a nasty debate over how dangerous Saddam really was and therefore whether or not it was worthwhile to take action against him. I think we would have had exactly the same debate if we had somehow managed to stop Hitler in the late 1930s, which would surely have been an undertaking of some difficulty and complexity, entailing anything but a rosy scenario.
What happened in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbian military targets in an effort to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo? I know what I think happened: We prevented a genocide in Kosovo. I can’t prove that, but I have no regrets, excepting that we didn’t confront the menace posed by Slobodan Milosevic earlier in his career.
Which takes us back to Iran. Is Mr. Ahmadinejad just blowing smoke when he talks about wiping Israel off the face of the map and the coming end times? Why shouldn’t we take him at his word? If you were an Israeli, what would you think? “Oh, there he goes again! He can’t possibly have in mind acquiring a nuclear weapon in order to fulfill his clearly stated intention to destroy Israel, can he?” Sure he can. And he makes Kim Jong-il look moderate by comparison. Mr. Ahmadinejad looks to have a desire for nuclear weapons not so much for the sake of security but for the sake of a strategy of using them to achieve his theologico-political objectives.
I don’t think it would be a good idea to wait around in the hope that we never arrive at the moment when we realize we should have done something.