June 22, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     Old newspapers sometimes poignantly remind us of how 
much excitement was created by yesterday's events, 
personalities, controversies, and fears that have already 
come to seem unimportant. As we now say, "What was *that* 
all about?" Did "that" ever really matter in the first 

     This is most tragically the case with war. Wars mark 
peaks of excitement when they occur. In its own day, 
World War I -- "the Great War" -- seemed of epic 
significance. Today it's hard to remember why it happened 
or what good anyone thought would come of it. Germany's 
Kaiser Wilhelm II was painted as a monster by British 
propaganda, most of it false, but today he seems a 
relatively civilized ruler, especially compared with what 
came later. The cost of the war that stopped him, roughly 
17 million lives, seems absurdly disproportionate to any 
harm he might have done if left unhindered.

     This is not to defend Wilhelm II. It's only to say 
that if he had been allowed to dominate Europe, his 
empire, however deplorable, certainly would never have 
matched the Great War itself in destructiveness.

     The Great War was not followed by a Great Peace. 
Woodrow Wilson led the United States into it, foolishly 
promising just that: "a war to end all wars." Instead, 
the bitter peace settlement of Versailles soon led to 
another war so much worse that it now sounds quaint to 
speak of "the Great War." World War II was followed by 
even more wars and brought the world into the age of 
nuclear terror.

     All this might have been averted if Wilson had 
heeded the counsel of Washington and Jefferson against 
American intervention in Europe's wars. He should have 
treated Wilhelm II as Europe's regional problem.

     But since Wilson, American presidents have almost 
forgotten the very concept of a regional problem. One 
local war after another has been turned into a strategic 
challenge, requiring American military intervention.

     Instead of seeing World War II for the colossal 
blunder it was, we have made it the model for further 
intervention. The story must be constantly retold, its 
propaganda constantly reheated as "the lessons of 
history." Few really ask what that war was "all about." 
Glib analogies with it seem to lend meaning and purpose 
to other wars.

     But Franklin Roosevelt's desire to stop Hitler at 
all costs destroyed any balance of power in Europe, 
requiring his successors to dominate Europe, at enormous 
cost and risk, to prevent the complete Soviet domination 
he had fatuously encouraged. This in turn led the United 
States to intervene in other local wars, mistaking every 
local Communist insurgency for a global threat. 
Intervention, in many forms, became a reflex.

     Even after the Cold War finally ended and the Soviet 
Union ceased to be, every local bully was seen as a new 
Hitler, and therefore a global menace. Nowhere was this 
habit taken to such an extreme as in Panama, which the 
United States invaded under the first President Bush in 
1989 in order to overthrow Manuel Noriega, who was easily 
ousted and somehow convicted in an American court, so 
that he still resides in an American prison. Are we safer 

     Soon after the terrible Noriega was vanquished, the 
same President Bush found another new Hitler in Iraq, 
which had grabbed Kuwait. This latest new Hitler, Saddam 
Hussein, was said to threaten "American vital interests," 
variously identified as Arabian oil, the integrity of 
existing borders, and "jobs, jobs, jobs." But this time 
Bush stopped short of conquering the country and 
capturing its mini-Hitler, disappointing the more extreme 
hawks and leaving a global menace his son would 
ultimately have to confront.

     Between the Bushes, who might be unkindly described 
as "Dumb and Dumber," Bill Clinton spotted yet another 
Hitler in Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, a country 
that survived as an odd relic of World War I. Of all the 
wars of the twentieth century, Clinton's rivals the Great 
War itself in provoking the question, What was *that* all 
about? But it was quickly forgotten, and Clinton is 
already remembered, contemptuously, as a too-reluctant 

     The second Bush saw the 9/11 attacks as his chance 
to deal with his father's unfinished Hitler, Saddam 
Hussein. As ever, World War II provided the template. But 
this time such novelties as preemptive war and regime 
change were introduced as American policies.

     Today, with Saddam in custody and his regime 
destroyed, the war continues for reasons that are not 
entirely ... well, what is *this* all about?


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