Why the Nazi Analogy Is on the Rise

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A well-known rule of Internet discourse is Godwin's law, which states that, as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches inevitability.

Let me propose Nyhan's corollary: As a foreign policy debate with conservatives grows longer, the probability of a comparison with the appeasement of Nazis or Hitler approaches inevitability.

The Bush Administration has launched its latest PR offensive to boost support for the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. But the rhetoric is familiar: an attempt to raise the specter of appeasement, starting with Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion Tuesday, in which he quoted Sen. William Borah saying "Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!" after hearing of Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. (Meanwhile, Rumsfeld barely mentioned Iraq until the last 500 words of the speech.) And today, in his speech to the Legion, President Bush described Islamic terrorists as the "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century."

Thus the administration truly is committed to staying the course, at least metaphorically. In his March 2003 speech giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq, the President said, "In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth." During the 2004 campaign, Bush and Vice President Cheney frequently invoked appeasement as well, saying that, as the President put it, "America is not to blame for terrorist hatred, and no retreat by America would appease them." And now, with support for withdrawal from Iraq growing, the Administration is suggesting that withdrawal would constitute appeasement of the terrorists — part of its long-term effort to link Iraq with al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hitler analogies are, of course, generally bad for democratic debate. They tend to stifle rational thought, paint one's opponents as Nazi sympathizers and appeasers, and reduce the complexity of foreign policy to a simplistic appease/don't appease framework.

But what's so revealing about the Bush Administration's offensive is that it's the same rhetorical playbook that conservatives have been using for years.

Consider Charles Krauthammer, an influential Washington Post — and TIME magazine — columnist and administration ally. He is the probable source of Rumsfeld's quote, having used it in his August 11 newspaper column about Iran. In doing so, he joined what writer Ross Douthat calls the growing number of conservatives who see "Iran's march toward nuclear power" as "the equivalent of Hitler's 1930s brinkmanship." And a Nexis search reveals that Krauthammer tends to see Hitler analogies everywhere — he trotted out the same Borah quote to denounce the alleged appeasement of China in 1989 and North Korea in 1994.

In fact, any negotiation with a rogue regime or decision to reverse course can be condemned as appeasement. More than a half-century after WWII, isn't it time for our foreign policy debate to move beyond a single inflammatory analogy?

To read more by Brendan Nyhan, visit his blog at www.brendan-nyhan.com