The venerable journalist Alistair Cooke, who is old enough to remember the period, points out that Hitler reneged on the First World War peace treaty without much objection for two years before the Munich appeasement, compared with Saddam Hussein's 12 years of defying the terms of the United Nations' Gulf War cease-fire.
Then, as now, the timid and the fearful argued that a murderous tyrant may have terrible new weapons, but, after all, he hasn't turned them on us yet. The arguments for doing nothing were eerily like Western Europe's today, even down to the insistence that the comatose League of Nations, predecessor of the comatose United Nations, was the true guardian of world peace. The league exercised its guardianship by doing nothing about the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, approximately what the U.N. did when Syria seized Lebanon and China gobbled up Tibet.
"A majority of Britons would do anything, absolutely anything, to get rid of Hitler -- except fight him," Cooke said recently. Europeans were eager to talk but not to act. "The French especially urged, after each Hitler invasion, 'negotiation, negotiation.' They negotiated so successfully as to have their whole country defeated and occupied."
From 1939 on, it was an American president and a British prime minister standing up on behalf of the many backbone-free Europeans. Sounds familiar. "Western Europe has almost gone the way of Weimar," Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently on National Review Online. "Amoral, disarmed and socialist, it seeks ephemeral peace at all costs, never long-term security, much less justice." Just so.
Like the League of Nations, the United Nations today likes to fill the air with talk and content-free statements intended to placate all parties to any dispute. The aim is to keep the game going, not to solve anything. Hans Blix, the ultimate U.N. bureaucrat, is unusually good at this, issuing his many double-barreled statements that Iraq is both way out of compliance and almost in compliance at the same time.
Last week Blix announced that, on the one hand, Iraq has been "proactive" in complying with inspectors, although, on the other hand, its record of compliance "has not been good." The alleged proactivity consists of Saddam Hussein's striptease, throwing a few weapons overboard as pressure is applied, more as war comes closer. Blix of course was pleased and said he could use four more months of rummaging around the desert looking for weapons. Iraq agreed to comply in 15 days back in 1991, but if 12 years wasn't nearly long enough, 12 years and four months should certainly do it.
Bringing the United Nations along and coaxing it to live up to its 17 resolutions on Iraq would have been useful. But the notion that the U.N.'s "moral" approval was somehow necessary is ludicrous, particularly since U.N. morality includes turning over its human rights committee to Libya and repeatedly branding as racist the only Middle East democracy, Israel.
President Clinton got it right, verbally at least, in 1998. He said then that Iraq was "a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers or organized criminals." In urging strong action on Iraq, The Washington Post referred to Clinton's words as "perceptive but ultimately empty" because they led to no meaningful action. In the post-9/11 world, refusing to act is far more dangerous. Saddam has the ability and the hostility to churn out weapons for those who wish to inflict grave damage on the United States. It's time to do something about it.