Who Set the Wayback Machine for 1939?

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

With George W. Bush talking so much about Nazis and fascism, Donald Rumsfeld warning ominously against lily-livered appeasement and Dick Cheney quoting Franklin Roosevelt on the "dirty business" of war, one might worry that this direction-challenged administration has wandered into some sort of time warp. Somebody's going to have to break it to them that Churchill and Stalin are gone and the Dodgers don't play in Brooklyn anymore.

Condi Rice seems to be the only one of the so-called Vulcans who missed the memo that it's 1939. When she made her obligatory pilgrimage to the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City last week, she referred to the enemy in the war on terrorism as "violent extremists," which sounds so 2006.

For some reason, Bush and Rumsfeld also decided to drop in on the Legionnaires' 88th yearly gathering. Cheney, meanwhile, was spending quality time with the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their convention in Reno.

Do we discern a pattern? The lavish attention being paid to veterans' groups isn't about what year it is, it's about what month it is. Unless the Republican base is somehow energized and the rest of us somehow scared stiff by November, the Democrats have a decent chance of taking the House of Representatives and even an outside shot at the Senate.

That's where all the administration rhetoric about Nazis, commies, fascism and appeasement has to be coming from, because, absent the political context, it makes no sense. It's all heat and no light.

We can pretty much set aside Cheney's recent remarks, since he's been wandering in the rhetorical wilderness for a long time now. But I can't resist citing one line. He told the VFW that the "Bush Doctrine" is to hold accountable "any person or government that supports, protects or harbors terrorists." So what about the newly installed Iraqi government, with its suspected ties to Shiite death squads? And what about the Pakistani government, which gives the Taliban and al-Qaeda safe harbor?

Okay, one more from Cheney. To those who point out that Iraq wasn't a nexus of terrorism until we invaded, Cheney responds, "They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway."

Huh? The terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11 didn't come from Iraq. Except in Cheney's mind, I don't know where the fact that we were attacked by terrorists trained in Afghanistan (and sent by Osama bin Laden, who's probably now in Pakistan) somehow mitigates the fact that we've made Iraq a hotbed of terrorism.

Back at the American Legion convention, Bush and Rumsfeld were rewriting history. Ever since the president settled on "Islamic fascists" as the enemy in his war on terrorism, he has taken every opportunity to evoke the specter of World War II. We are engaged in "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century," Bush told the Legionnaires.

Perhaps because the term "fascist" doesn't really describe the transnational jihadist movement, Bush went further with the Legionnaires. He called the jihadists "the successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians" as well. The fact is that the jihadists are pretty much sui generis -- they aren't fascists or Nazis and certainly aren't communists, but yes, you could make a good argument for "totalitarians." I guess one out of four isn't bad.

Rumsfeld went furthest of all in claiming that it is, in fact, 1939 -- that the jihadist terror movement presents the same kind of threat to the world that Hitler did when he invaded Poland. He set up a straw man, warning that those who do not see the threat as clearly as he does are as blind as those who tried to appease Hitler. But he doesn't specify who he's talking about. Who wants to appease terrorists? Is it Democrats? Nervous Republicans who've seen the latest polls?

Nobody wants to appease terrorists. But some people have a different idea of how to fight them. The president is right when he says this conflict is unlike other wars, but he seems to miss the essential difference: It has to be fought in a way that doesn't create two new terrorists for each one who is killed.

That's not what the president wants to talk about, though. Between now and November, he wants to talk about a war that we can all agree on, even if it has no bearing on the war being fought today. Yes, Mr. President, Hitler was bad. And your point would be?

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