The Long View 2003-02-16: Bottle this Moment

Tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled program of Spengler and cyclical theories of history. It has been a little painful to relive John's commentary on the run-up to the Iraq war, knowing what I know now. However, I think it is necessary, because it helps us remember how easy it is to make foolish decisions.

Bottle This Moment
Having seen Dr. Hans Blix's performance before the UN Security Council on Friday, and the international peace demonstrations yesterday, we now know for certain that Hegel was right: the one thing we learn from history is that mankind never learns from history. These quotations about the peace movement of the 1930s, from Paul Johnson's Modern Times, make the parallels crystal clear:
"In this highly emotional atmosphere, with an ostensible concern for humanity forming a thin crust over a morass of funk -- so suggestive of the nuclear scares of the late 1950s and early 1980s -- the real issue of how to organize collective security in Europe was never properly debated. The mood was set by a ridiculous debate in the Oxford Union, immediately after Hitler came to power, which voted 275-153 'That this House refuses an any circumstances to fight for King and Country'...The League of Nations, supposedly the hard-headed, well-informed collective security lobby group, never put the issues clearly before the public because it was unable itself to take a clear stand on when and how force could be legitimately employed in international affairs...The clergy...saturated the discussion in a soggy pool of lachrymose spirituality. Three divines…proposed to go to Manchuria and 'place themselves unarmed between the combatants.'...The pacifist wing of the clergy…founded a Peace Pledge Union to collect the signatures to frighten off Hitler: among these who sponsored it were Aldous Huxley, Rose Macaulay, Storm Jameson, Vera Britain, Siegfried Sassoon, Middleton Murry and other literary luminaries.”
Listening to the Security Council on Friday was like listening to the trial of the operator of a Ponzi scheme. When such frauds are prosecuted, some of the victims will offer themselves as defense witnesses, pleading with the court to let the genius go who promised to make them so much money. Maybe they know that the operation is a hoax, just as the majority of the Security Council know that the inspections are a hoax. Still, it's possible to benefit from a Ponzi scheme, provided you enter early enough and stay in long enough. That seems to be the position of most members of the Council regarding the ruin of the world's nonproliferation machinery.
There are differences from the 1930s, of course. On foreign policy, the Bush Administration is far more foresighted and responsible than FDR's Administration ever was. In Britain, the Blair Government is like an exercise in happy alternative-history: we are seeing what would have happened, had Churchill been prime minister at the time of the Sudetenland crisis. Is this enough, though? Will the governments of Great Britain and the United States really have the courage to defy the rotten international establishment? Or do we wait a year, two years, three years, when that establishment is in ruins, along with a few of the world's great cities?
The applause that greeted the French foreign minister's address to the Council on Friday: remember it. It ranks with the film clip of Prime Minister Chamberlain stepping off the plane on the return from Munich, brandishing a piece of paper that guaranteed peace in our time. A few moments in history are wholly unambiguous.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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