A little history is a dangerous thing, and George W. Bush has been sipping from its well all too skimpily. Last week, in an effort to put a positive spin on the breakdown of Iraq's constitutional assembly, the president noted that Federalist America went through a decade of turbulence before completing its own constitution—a dreadful analogy, in part because the two situations are so radically different, but more because, if the comparison were apt, it would imply that Iraq will be a cauldron of blood and chaos for many decades to come.
Now, President Bush is going further—this time, gulping more than anyone should have to swallow—likening the nature, scope, and stakes of America's battle in Iraq to those of World War II.
He made the comparison in a speech at San Diego's Naval Air Station on Aug. 30 to mark the 60th anniversary of V-J Day. In a sense, this is what presidents are supposed to do on such occasions—draw links between the heroes of "the greatest generation" and the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who are fighting for freedom today. But Bush took the analogy beyond the demands of protocol. The clear claims of this speech: Bin Laden and Zarqawi = Hitler and Mussolini. Terrorists = Nazis. Suicide bombers = kamikaze pilots. 1930s isolationists = Clinton-era Democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt's determination to spread democracy across the globe = ... (could it be?) Bush's own freedom-spreading policies.
As with his constitutional comparison, it's a tossup which aspect of this rhetorical game is more egregious: the fact that the two wars are so vastly different in nearly every way imaginable, or the fact that, if they were as similar as President Bush proclaims, he is doing so remarkably little to wage this one.
Accept for a moment the argument that Iraq is but one theater in a global war on terrorism. Overlook that, to the degree this is true, it's because Bush's invasion of Iraq—and his many miscalculations afterward—helped make it so. Even so, it would be an enormous leap to claim that the war in Iraq—or the broader war on terror—is the political, strategic, or moral equivalent of World War II.
Al-Qaida or its sundry offshoots could crash many more airplanes, wreck many more buildings, and bomb many more subways—and the magnitude of their power, and the urgency of their threat, would still fall far short of that posed by Nazi Germany. The panzers of the Wehrmacht rolled across the plains of Europe, toppling governments with ease, imposing totalitarian regimes, and killing millions in their wake. This was a war of civilization on a level that today's war—however you might define it—doesn't begin to approach.
But let's say that the two wars—World War II and Iraq (or the broader war on terrorism)—are comparable, that their stakes are even remotely as high. Then why is President Bush fighting this war so tentatively?
From December 1941 to August 1945—the attack on Pearl Harbor until the declaration of Allied victory—the United States manufactured 88,430 tanks and 274,941 combat aircraft. Yet in the two years after the invasion of Iraq, much less the four years since the attack on the World Trade Center, the Bush administration has not built enough armor platings to protect our soldiers' jeeps from roadside bombs.
To fund World War II, the United States drastically expanded and raised taxes. (At the start of the war, just 4 million Americans had to pay income tax; by its end, 43 million did.) Beyond that, 85 million Americans—half the population at the time—answered the call to buy War Bonds, $185 billion worth. Food was rationed, scrap metal was donated, the entire country was on a war footing. By contrast, President Bush has asked the citizenry for no sacrifice, no campaigns of national purpose, to fight or fund the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, he has proudly cut taxes, heaving the hundreds of billions of dollars in war costs on top of the already swelling national debt.
If this war's stakes are comparable to World War II's, the entire nation should be enlisted in its cause—not necessarily to fight in it, but at least to pay for it. And if President Bush is not willing to call for some sort of national sacrifice, he cannot expect anyone to believe the stakes are really high.