Why is it that those of us who remember World War II and the calls of the international peace movement in the decades before it started seem to see so much of that sordid past repeating itself? In his historic speech to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Powell became the equivalent of Winston Churchill, eloquently making the call for international action to disarm a murderous dictator before it is too late to stop him from attaining the worst of available modern arms.
But in much of "old Europe," as Donald Rumsfeld called it those who were saved from Hitler's conquest by America and its allies in the 1940s now seem to be the opposite of Churchillian; their representatives argue instead for trust in the words of Saddam Hussein, to whom the world is asked to simply give more time.
While Mr. Powell laid out the case against Saddam in striking detail, in Europe some of the would-be peacemakers are groveling at the dictator's feet, trying to make him appear as the victim of an unfair and imperial Western intransigence. Especially noteworthy was the television interview conducted in Iraq a few days ago, and televised one day before Mr. Powell's speech, by the former Labor parliamentarian, Tony Benn, once the strong leader of the Labor Party's far left-wing. Mr. Benn, as we might have guessed, did not confront Saddam with one tough question, be it his notorious record of human rights abuse, nor his use of chemical and biological weapons against his own people. Instead, Mr. Benn preferred to use his prestige as a vehicle for Saddam to spew forth propaganda to a British audience more than willing to give the Iraqi regime the benefit of the doubt, and whose intellectual classes seem content to cast aspersion alone on the hated "cowboy," President Bush.
In conducting this interview, Mr. Benn stood in a long line of British left-wing appeasers from the fellow-travelers of Communism like Beatrice and Sydney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, whose famous audiences with Soviet dictator Stalin led them to sing his praises as a benevolent and peace-loving world leader, to Hewlett Johnson, the "Red" Dean of Canterbury, who reported after a 1942 visit to Stalin that "there was nothing cruel or dramatic" about the dictator; he just "wanted a square deal for the masses."
Mr. Benn's interview is also reminiscent of the various trips taken by Charles Lindbergh to Nazi Germany in the mid 1930s. The aviator's aversion to war and good impressions of Germany ingenuity led him to oppose those British friends who saw the only rational response to Adolf Hitler as all-out war. Lindbergh received a medal from Herman Goering; Mr. Benn has received only the award of allowing himself to serve as a vehicle for the Iraqi dictator's most outrageous propaganda.
Before the war, of course, the British Labor Party joined others in the well-meaning peace camp, who sought always to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt and who favored helping Germany escape the consequences of the harsh Versailles Peace Treaty by handing over to Hitler the country of Czechoslovakia. Munich gave Hitler more strength for the war he would soon conduct, and for a long time, gave the policy known as appeasement a justly bad name. Why, one wonders, would an elder political figure like Mr. Benn seek so earnestly to repeat the pre-war errors at the start of a new century?
The attitude taken by many Brits, unfortunately, is far too widespread among opponents of administration policy in this country. Supporters of what is erroneously called the "peace movement" argue that the real threat to peace is from the hegemonic drive of America; that Iraq is a victim, not an enemy; that war means militarism abroad and repression at home, and finally, that the war will turn into a quagmire in which a new imperial war, driven by Jewish interests, endangers the peace of the entire world.
It is, in fact, a new left-right alliance similar to that which occurred in the pre-World War II days, in which the American First Committee included men like Lindbergh, old progressives turned nationalists like John T. Flynn, and radicals like Norman Thomas. Indeed, Lindbergh's famed 1941 speech that the drive for war was emanating from "the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration" is echoed today by Pat Buchanan and his fellow editors at The American Conservative, who scream about what they call an "imperial war on Iraq" and which Buchanan blames on the Israeli lobby, much as Lindbergh explained interventionist sentiment before Pearl Harbor. Back then, opponents of war argued that sanctions against Japan were only a pretext for military action and were unnecessary, just as today the "peace movement" argues that sanctions against Iraq are harmful only to innocent civilians and help perpetrate a war fever.
While the remnants of the Old Right and the ever-diminishing political Left may be united in a fight against what they call American "global hegemony" and "imperialism" even their language is now the same. Mr. Powell's logical and devastating account of Saddam's evasions and acquisition of banned arms so similar to the secret re-armament forbidden by the Versailles Treaty and carried out by Hitler with the West's acquiescence has put an end to any chance that the American government will be pursuing the policy advocated in the 1930s by Neville Chamberlain. As Hans Blix put it, we are "five minutes from midnight." After Pearl Harbor, the anti-interventionist movement collapsed overnight. Will the coming military action against Iraq lead today's peace movement leaders to finally show some common sense? Or will they prefer to continue shilling for Saddam?