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Guernica All Over Again

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

It was one of the most searing paintings of the modernist era: Pablo Picasso's scream of a masterpiece inspired by the fascist bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, a horror that would prove but a prelude to the Second World War that began a couple of years later.


The same evil empires that conspired to crush republican Spain in the 1930s -- Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia -- would unite again to invade Poland at the end of that decade, and set off worldwide calamity.

Spain was only an early victim. While the West continued to dither, refusing to intervene on behalf of the Spanish republic, both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy dispatched proxy legions to fight in Spain -- just as Vladimir Putin now sends his kontraktniki, his not very well disguised Russian invaders to seize more and more of Ukraine while the West only wrings its hands.

The amount of Nazi-supplied armaments shipped to Francisco Franco's fascist legions during the 1930s was impressive, not to mention all the German troops dispatched to fight in Spain. According to one tally:

"From 1936 to the defeat of the Republic three years later, Nazi Germany spent an estimated $215 million -- $3.6 billion in today's money -- to provide the Nationalists with 600 planes and 200 tanks and to pay the salaries of an estimated 16,000 German 'volunteers' of the Condor Legion. Encouraged by Germany, Mussolini sent the Nationalists 660 planes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns and 240,000 rifles. In addition to providing arms, Germany trained 56,000 Nationalist infantry, gunners and pilots. The Luftwaffe pilots secured Nationalist dominance in the air, strafing Republican troops and bombing Madrid with impunity, while the Italian Navy controlled the Mediterranean and bombarded Malaga, Valencia and Barcelona."


For more details, see Leon Aron's piece in the March 2 Weekly Standard ("Spain 1936-39; Ukraine, 2014-? The perversity of not arming victims.")

Meanwhile, Moscow was doing its nefarious part to undermine the Spanish republic by dispatching Communist forces more intent on crushing Trotskyite dissenters than on fighting the Germans or their Spanish allies. That was the trap real volunteers fighting for the republic -- like George Orwell -- were caught in. He was lucky to get out of Spain with his life.

As for Western governments in the '30s, they remained neutral on the side of the aggressors. When civil war broke out in Spain, the British declared "a strict and impartial attitude of non-intervention ... essential if the unhappy events in Spain are to be prevented from having serious repercussions elsewhere." Washington followed suit, passing a series of Non-Intervention Acts that hindered only the republican side, while leaving its enemies free to import arms and welcome "volunteers."

Sound familiar? To quote Aron, a long-time student of communist tactics, "while democracies usually seek peace, their opponents are always after victory. This is useful to recall in light of the arguments by the opponents of arming Ukraine that doing so would 'pour gasoline on the fire" and 'antagonize' Vladimir Putin into 'widening the war.' If only it were that easy!"

"Where and when," Dr. Aron wonders, "has 'not angering' dictators bound on conquering or destabilizing their neighbors ever worked? Where and when have such aggressors been dissuaded from proceeding according to their own plans and timetables, shaped by ideology, cold geostrategic calculus, and opportunity? Name one dictator whose aggression has been prevented or even slowed down by noninterference. Was Mussolini? Was Saddam Hussein? Did 'not angering' Hitler by not confronting him after Germany began to arm itself in violation of the Treaty of Versailles make him scale down his ambition? Did inaction help after Hitler violated another article of the Versailles treaty by moving troops into the Rhineland in 1936? Did ceding Czechoslovakia appease him?"


And so the West proceeds down this all-too-familiar road to the next catastrophe. But what is the alternative -- war with Russia? That is the familiar false choice -- either oppose aggression or declare war on the aggressor.

Professor Aron proposes a third and better way to deal with Russia's thug-in-chief: Arm the Ukrainians. But would "sending defensive weapons to Kiev force Putin to scale down his designs? Not right away. Putin has bragged of being able take Kiev in two weeks, which is probably not far from the truth. Thus, the Western strategy should not aim to force him out of Ukraine by securing a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. This is unlikely to happen any time soon.

"Instead, bolstering Ukrainian defenses would increase the domestic political price of Russian aggression. Any 'widening of the war' by a Putin 'enraged' by the delivery of Western defensive weapons would carry very real domestic political risks. Vast majorities of Russians interviewed by pollsters have consistently opposed a large-scale war with Ukraine. Soviet casualties in Afghanistan contributed mightily to the fall of the USSR, and Putin remembers the lesson.

"Denying Moscow a quick and decisive victory would raise the domestic cost of aggression. It would force the Kremlin -- unable to borrow in the West because of sanctions -- to choose between keeping hospitals open, paying pensions on time, raising the salaries of doctors and teachers to keep up with inflation, on the one hand, and spending on tanks, missiles, artillery batteries ... on the other. Only if the Kremlin is confronted with these tough choices will Putin begin rethinking his endgame objectives in Ukraine."


There is still time to restrain Tsar Vladimir by exercising good judgment, constancy of purpose and all the other elements of a prudent foreign policy so long missing from this administration's conduct of foreign affairs.

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