Jacob Heilbrunn

Richard Cohen, the Holocaust, and Libya

[amazon 0307408841 full]Was attacking Libya morally tantamount to going on the offensive against Nazi Germany? In writing about neoconservatism, I've made the argument that the memory of the Holocaust has left a deep impact upon neoconservatives in shaping their foreign-policy views. The same is also true for liberal hawks.

Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post today is a case in point. It is called "When It's In Our Interest to Intervene." Cohen begins by discussing Erik Larson's excellent new book, In the Garden of the Beast, about Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha, who lived in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Cohen uses it to remind readers of the indifference, if not hostility, of the State Department to any measures intended to assist German Jews. The State Department did not believe that America had any vital interests in Germany. It spurned Dodd's pleas to lodge protests with the Nazi regime and took every measure possible to prevent Jews from emigrating to America. Of course it was reflecting broader sentiments in America, which was firmly isolationist. In addition, anti-Semitism was pervasive.

Cohen leaps from this to Libya: refusing to help Libyans would have amounted to standing by as another genocide took place.

In Cohen's words,

Libya under Moammar Gaddafi was not Germany under Adolf Hitler. But lives were at stake, mass murder was threatened and the man doing the threatening was capable of unspeakable acts of terrorism. Did any of this have anything to do with our vital national interests? Not really. But we had the wherewithal to avert the killing. That gave us the moral obligation to do so.

U.S. policymakers now grappling with the question of America’s role in the world ought to look to the past as well as the future. We were once an uncaring nation, not selfish by any means, but tone-deaf to the cries of victims elsewhere. We defined our national interests narrowly and dismissed morality as the preoccupation of amateurs or special-interest pleaders.

Actually, this sounds pretty much like the Bush administration's justification for Iraq, doesn't it? Imagine this sentence: "Iraq under Saddam Hussein was not Germany under Adolf Hitler. But lives were at stake, mass murder was threatened and the man doing the threatening was capable of unspeakable acts of terrorism." Perhaps Libya will turn out to be a shining episode in American foreign policy. But the perils of operating on what is perceived as moral, as George F. Kennan, among others, the subject of a new biography by John Lewis Gaddis, knew is that it can lead to its own of immoral results.

Will Libya become a new Iraq that descends into chaos? Will calls mount for America to intervene in Syria? The Assad regime appears to have compiled a higher civilian body count than did Col. Qaddafi. Or is the criterion for intervention convenience rather than ultimate morality?

When it comes to turning to historical analogies they can also get you into a lot of trouble. Munich was the watchword of the generation that plunged America into Vietnam. Disputes raged over whether Vietnam was a vital or a peripheral interest. Defenders of the war continue to argue that it was both a moral and strategic imperative to defend the South from the Communist North.

The problem, then, is that World War II—and the Holocaust—can be used to justfiy just about any intervention on moral grounds. Statesmen do it all the time, which is why George H.W. Bush, at the outset of the first Gulf War, suddenly likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler. But invoking World War II and the Holocaust can sometimes obscures more than it reveals.