Thomas Sowell

President George W. Bush's speech on Iraq in effect reiterated what Edmund Burke said more than two centuries ago: "There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men." Today, in a nuclear age, those words apply more strongly than ever.

To many Americans, it was almost incomprehensible how men could fly airplanes into crowded office buildings, to their own certain destruction and the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. But they did. Now, it is equally incomprehensible to many Americans how a two-bit dictator, thousands of miles away, would dare to pose a nuclear threat to the United States.

If the September 11th attacks did not demonstrate how far hate-filled men will go, then more than a decade of Saddam Hussein's innumerable violations of the agreements that ended the Gulf War should give us a clue. He has provided more of the "proof" that President Bush's critics demand than anyone could possibly supply, short of a mushroom cloud over some American city.

What Saddam Hussein is doing is nothing new. Hitler played all these kinds of games during the 1930s, while he was building up his military forces until he reached the point when he was ready to strike. He understood that he needed to buy time above all and that, when he became powerful enough, many would see the futility of resistance.

The same kinds of people in the West who refused to see the crucial importance of time in the 1930s are today saying that we should "wait until" this or that happens before we take military action "as a last resort."

Military action is already a last resort. Where have these people been during the past 11 years, while Saddam Hussein played cat and mouse with the United Nations and their inspectors, who were allowed "unfettered" access until Saddam Hussein decided otherwise?

Maybe it would be useful to see how this game was played by Hitler, in order to understand why time is crucial.

Germany's ability to attack other nations in Europe was stifled by a treaty which required them to station no troops in their own industrial center in the Rhineland. This meant that, if Germany attacked any other country, French troops could easily seize German industry and paralyze its economy.

Because the French army was then much larger than Germany's, since the German army's size was limited by treaty, the threat of aggression from Hitler was thwarted, so long as he lived up to these treaties. Otherwise, as the potentially strongest nation on the continent, Nazi Germany was a threat to all its neighbors.

After Hitler took the desperate gamble in 1936 of sending troops into the Rhineland, in violation of this treaty, he remarked privately, "If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance."

Moreover, Hitler understood that such a fiasco would have brought down the Nazi regime. He took this huge gamble precisely because he was convinced that the French did not have the guts to act. Neither did Britain -- especially after Hitler appealed to the wishful thinkers by offering a 25-year non-aggression pact.

Those who deal with the gritty life and death choices of the real world as if they were discussing abstract questions around a seminar table said that Hitler had "just gone into his own backyard." Other nations station their troops anywhere they want, inside their own borders, why not Germany?

By the time they realized why not, Hitler had devastated half the continent and had come within a hair of destroying Britain.

At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill said that never was there a war that would have been easier to prevent. The earlier that preventive action would have been taken against Hitler, the lower the cost would have been. But history, he added, showed "how counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger."

Caution is sometimes the most dangerous policy. And this looks like one of those times today.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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