Americans Have Stopped Looking for Another Hitler

Photo: Beshr O/cc/flickr

Americans Have Stopped Looking for Another Hitler

U.S. foreign policy hawks once had an unbeatable trump card: the Hitler analogy. Just convince most Americans to see the leader of any nation as another Hitler, and it was easy to get public support to "get tough," show "will and resolve," and even go to war. Serbia's Milosevich, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda's bin Laden were all labeled as new Hitlers. All fell victim to America's firepower.

In recent months the hawks thought they had a rich crop of new Hitlers: Iran's Ali Khamenei, Syria's Assad, Russia's Putin. Each one seemed ripe for the Hitler analogy.

According to widely circulated press reports, Ali Khamenei sounded as anti-semitic as any Nazi when he declared it "acceptable to kill all Jews" and called Israel's leaders"animals." Assad, like Hitler, purportedly killed citizens of his own nation in massive numbers. Putin was perhaps the most Hitler-like. He annexed foreign territory with the claim that it really belonged to his nation because so many of his own nationals lived there.

If the Hitler analogy still held its once-invincible sway over American public opinion, the hawks should be riding high. The U.S. should be preparing to fight one, two, or perhaps even all three of these foreign leaders.

Obviously it's not working out that way.

The Russian annexation of Crimea has disappeared from American headlines as quickly as it arose. Photos of the U.S. secretary of state shaking hands with Russia's foreign minister, as they discussed plans to ease the Ukraine crisis, caused hardly a ripple in the mass media.

Renewed negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and its allies got even less notice. It's now apparently taken for granted that it's OK to cut a deal with the Iranians.

The most glaring failure of the Hitler analogy came last September, when the president of the United States tried to rally public support for an attack on Assad's Syria. Not only hawks but moderates and even some doves in the foreign policy elite supported Obama. But their immense efforts failed. The public simply wasn't interested in "getting tough" against another Hitler.

Part of the reason is that the current crop of new Hitlers just aren't acting like the original Hitler.

Putin called Barack Obama "to discuss ideas about how to peacefully resolve the international standoff over Ukraine" as the New York Times reported -- hardly a Hitler-like move. An NBC news crew, after traveling 1200 miles along the Russia-Ukraine border, found "no signs" of the widely but erroneously reported Russian military buildup.

When the UN passed a resolution calling on Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons, Assad simply said, "Of course we have to comply" -- hardly a Hitler-like response. And the process of removing those chemical weapons is moving toward completion.

Ali Khamenei has recently tempered his words about Jews and Israel. Of the Holocaust, he now says, "if it happened, it's uncertain how it happened." His foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claims that Iran has never denied the Holocaust.

Ali Khamenei's earlier, seemingly anti-semitic, remarks came in a legal brief arguing that Iran "would be justified in launching a pre-emptive strike against Israel because of the threat the Jewish state's leaders are posing against its own nuclear facilities" -- the very same kind of argument Israeli leaders have used to justify a potential strike against Iran. The whole record of Ali Khamenei's rhetoric tends to support Zarif's recent words: "We never were against Jews. We oppose Zionists."

However all these softening moves by the purported new Hitlers cannot, by themselves, explain the waning power of the Hitler analogy. It would be easy enough for the American public to ignore them or to frame them in ways that bolster the Hitler analogy.

The bitter truth for U.S. hawks is that the public no longer seems eager to see another Hitler on the horizon.

That poses a huge problem for the hawks. It's not merely that they have less leverage over public opinion. Even worse for them, they now have to deal with the question of foreign leaders' motives.

As long as a foreign leader could be portrayed as another Hitler, the issue of motives never came up.

In American mythology Hitler is the quintessential devil figure, the man who did evil purely for the sake of doing evil. The motives that drive most leaders' policies -- national security, power, wealth, pride, etc. -- are dismissed as irrelevant for understanding Hitler.

As usual in political mythologies, there is no doubt some degree of truth in this view. How much truth? Historians will go on debating that question forever.

But in American public memory the case is closed: Hitler's only motive was sheer evil for its own sake. So there was no way to placate him. No negotiations, compromises, or changes in U.S. policy could have affected the Nazi leader's actions one whit. International relations became a simple battle of America versus the devil. The only sensible option in fighting the devil's irrational, implacable evil was brute force.

Thus, if any leader could successfully be portrayed as another Hitler, there was no need to ask about that leader's motives. The question would be not merely foolish but dangerous. It would lead us down the primrose path of negotiation and compromise. We would appease the devil, let down our guard, and inevitably fall prey to his next evil move.

The only way to deal with another Hitler, it's assumed, is the way we dealt with the first one: violence and more violence, until we compel the enemy's unconditional surrender.

But if the Hitler analogy no longer sways public opinion, we are less likely to reach reflexively for our guns. So we have psychological space to think about the motives of leaders like Putin, Assad, and Ali Khamenei.

We can ask how they see us, whether they might be responding to the policies and actions of other nations -- including our own -- and whether they might have understandable reasons for the choices they make.

Once these questions are raised, the differences between today's leaders and the mythic Hitler quickly become apparent.

Putin is understandably afraid that Ukraine might join NATO. Imagine an American president's response if Mexico considered joining a Russian-led military alliance. And Putin's afraid that an unfriendly Ukraine would deprive the Russian navy of its only warm-water port, Sevastopol in the Crimea.

Ali Khamenei is waging a struggle for regional power with two much stronger nations, Saudi Arabia and Israel, both massively armed by huge U.S. aid grants. And he has faced threats of attack, for years, from two nuclear-armed powers: Israel and the U.S.

In both cases, the leaders' policies are perfectly rational, judged by the rules of the international power politics game.

Assad's case is different. He faces a powerful internal rebellion that might well oust him and his regime. Though it's easy to sympathize with the rebels' cause, it's equally easy to understand that any leader threatened with rebellion would resist. That's something Hitler never had to deal with.

Indeed each of the three contemporary situations is different from Hitler's case. That's inevitable, because every historical situation is unique; there never really was another Hitler and there never will be another Hitler.

One of the most potent roles of myth in political life is to deny that uniqueness, to create a frame that depicts new situations as exact replicas of old ones. Myth thrives, in part, because it offers a reassuring sense of familiarity. "Oh, I know what this situation is all about," we say, "because it's exactly like one I've been through before." It's never quite true. But the allure of this mythic message is undeniable.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the American public, offered three likely candidates for the role of new Hitler, has rejected all three.

That doesn't mean the mythic power of Hitler is gone forever. Finding another Hitler is an old habit. It goes back to the beginning of the cold war, when Stalin became the new Hitler, the "red fascist." (Never mind that reds and fascists despise each other; myth need not be troubled by such logical contradiction.) And old habits are hard to break.

For now, though, most Americans seem ready to break the habit. We have stopped seeing new Hitlers because we have stopped looking for them.

Who knows? Maybe it's the beginning of a long-term trend. Maybe public opinion will grow less and less likely to view the world in the simplistic terms of America versus the devil.

The idea that national leaders everywhere act for comprehensible reasons, even when we don't like their policies, might move into the mainstream of American public discourse. Then Americans might begin to assume that we should always negotiate, compromise, and acknowledge our own role in creating international conflicts.

Maybe, some day, the mythic Hitler will finally die. At least that demise now appears possible.

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