The Munich Analogy

29 August 2002

The Munich Analogy

By Gwynne Dyer

If you really want to attack somebody and you can’t come up with any convincing reasons, your best tactic is to accuse your opponents of being appeasers who are planning another Munich. Which is why US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has taken to comparing himself to Winston Churchill.

He was at it again in a speech last Tuesday in California, telling 3,000 Marines that “it wasn’t until each country got attacked that they said: ‘Maybe Winston Churchill was right. Maybe that lone voice expressing concern about what was happening was right’.”

The Lone Defence Secretary’s message was clear. Saddam Hussein is another Adolf Hitler, and if he is not stopped now, he and his weapons of mass destruction will gobble up one country after another. Next thing you know, the Iraqi hordes will be casting lascivious eyes on the United States itself.

Rumsfeld couldn’t be that far off his trolley? Try this gem, from the previous week: “Think of all the countries that said, well, we don’t have enough evidence. ‘Mein Kampf’ had been written. Hitler had indicated what he intended to do. Maybe he won’t attack us. Maybe he won’t do this or that. Well, there were millions dead because of the miscalculations.” As there presumably will be again if America doesn’t destroy Saddam now.

So let’s explore this analogy a bit. Hitler’s Germany in 1933 was the second-biggest industrial country in the world: a scientific and technological leader in the heart of Europe with a fairly homogeneous population of about 80 million people. In only six years Hitler gobbled up all or bits of three countries, and was starting in on Poland when Britain and France finally went to war to stop him. (The United States remained neutral for over two more years.)

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by contrast, is only the fourth-biggest country in the Middle East. Industrially and scientifically, it ranks about fortieth in the world, and its population of just over 20 million people is deeply divided into mutually hostile Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. Saddam Hussein has been running the place for decades, and in that time he has conquered nobody.

True, he did launch an aggressive war against Iran in 1980, but Mr Rumsfeld doesn’t dwell on that episode much because Saddam launched that attack with tacit US backing. Even when Saddam used poison gas on his own rebellious Kurdish population during that war — not to mention using it regularly against Iranian soldiers — Washington made no criticism of his methods, because he was a de facto ally at the time.

Saddam was lucky to escape from the war with a no-score draw after eight years. It left him desperately deep in debt, a problem he attempted to solve by invading Kuwait in 1990. He would never have done it if he had realised that the United States and its allies would respond militarily, but he doesn’t know much about the way the rest of the world works. So he got thoroughly whipped, and has spent the past ten years just trying to hang on to power. Not only is he not a Hitler; he barely qualifies as a mini-Mussolini.

The choice is not between ‘appeasing’ Saddam and launching a pre-emptive attack against him (as Vice-President Dick Cheney advocated in a speech to US war veterans on 26 August), because he isn’t trying to expand. Nor is he likely to pass on any ‘weapons of mass destruction’ he may have to al-Qaeda and its various emulators, because he and they are profoundly hostile ideological enemies.

As Saddam’s domestic insecurity has grown, he has begun to make a great public show of his devotion to Islam (though a thoroughly mainstream, non-radical brand of Islam). However, as a lifelong member of the Ba’ath Party, a pan-Arab and radical socialist movement with no time at all for religion, his whole intellectual and political background is secular and even anti-clerical. Saddam may or may not be a believer in private, but Osama bin Laden would certainly regard him as an infidel.

If an appeal to patriotism, as Sam Johnson said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then analogies with Munich and appeasement are the last resort of a bankrupt foreign policy. But there is one aspect of the long political career of Winston Churchill (whose bust is prominently displayed in the Oval Office) that the Bush administration would do well to study: his views on what should be done about Iraq.

Iraq was a British colony in the 1920s, and a very fractious one where the tribes were forever rising in revolt: a permanent nuisance to Britain but not a grave threat, rather as Saddam’s Iraq is to the region and the world today. Churchill was Colonial Secretary, and did not want to waste a lot of British soldiers’ lives dealing with the revolts — so he advocated using the new Royal Air Force to bomb the rebel villages instead. Local administration by fighter-bomber, you might call it.

That is very similar to what the United States and Britain have been doing, with a fair measure of success, since Saddam threw out the United Nations arms inspectors three years ago. It’s the kind of low-key, low-cost containment policy that radicals hate, but until last September 11th neither Washington nor anywhere else showed an interest in a more aggressive policy. Absolutely nothing has changed since then except the psychology in the White House, which is a poor reason for a war.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 10. (“Rumsfeld…now”; and “The choice…infidel”)