Scott Alexander gave a typically lucid review and summary of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem last week, wrapping up with the question on everybody’s mind- could It happen here, now? Scott implies that if It is “mass genocide perpetrated by the US government, inside the United States,” the answer is probably no; on the other hand, if the It is, “is the present-day United States in danger of repeating the mistakes of the United States in the 1930s, by not allowing refugees in,” the answer is perhaps yes. The failure of European and American governments to allow Jews to escape from Nazi Germany and its occupied territories was, Scott believes, a key and not an ancillary contributor to the Holocaust; prior to and early in the war, the Nazis would have accepted mass emigration of Jews that would have obviated the need to turn concentration camps into death camps. The implication is that the United States should weigh its decision to turn away refugees from war zones like Syria very heavily, with conscious awareness that genocidal violence could be the consequence of refusal to take refugees in.
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t really weigh in decisively on whether this is a correct inference about the Holocaust even from Arendt’s analysis. I think, from the perspective of late 1939 on, it is clearly wrong that a determined United States or Britain could have successfully resettled millions of displaced persons from Nazi-occupied Europe. The early chapters of Tony Judt’s Postwar for example, are all about how much trouble the Allied powers had in resettling refugees within the areas of Western Europe they actually controlled in the late 40s, quite aside from the millions in Soviet-occupied territories, who often ended up in Soviet labor camps and (more often still) just never made it home. The idea that 1940, say, would have permitted complex negotiations with Hitler’s lieutenants, a temporary armistice, and movement and resettlement of Europe’s Jews seems absurd. The United States no doubt could have done more than it did, but…well, this is why counterfactual history never much appeals to me. What happened, happened. Most of us wouldn’t be here if it didn’t.
This doesn’t mean historical analogies aren’t helpful in understanding the world, but Trump or Obama’s United States isn’t much like FDR’s United States or Hitler’s Germany, in of itself or in relationship to the situation in Syria. Chiefly, I think there are a few items of importance to remind ourselves of in relationship to Syria before we get carried away with Preventing History from Repeating Itself.
- The main cause of the violence in Syria is the conflict between Assad’s government and ISIS and other paragovernmental actors, set off first by the destabilization of the region from George W. Bush’s Iraq War and then probably amplified by the removal of US troops from Iraq by Obama.
- The secondary cause of the violence in Syria is the broader set of uprisings (the Arab Spring) that the Obama Administration pursued as a deliberate strategy of opposition to authoritarian regimes and encouragement of populist regime change. The Presidential Study Directive-11 completed in 2011 advised the Administration to support “moderate Islamists” in the region as they combated authoritarian governments, a policy change which to a fair degree was hinted at by Obama’s own 2009 Cairo Address.
- The American-led deposition of Gaddafi, along with numerous “red line” statements, would make it almost impossible for Assad to relinquish power if he wanted to stay alive (or for his family to stay alive.)
- The United States, through the CIA, has continuously armed and funded “moderate rebels” against Assad who are in fact a branch of Al Qaeda, while also funding other groups fighting against them,., and dropping air supplies on Kurdish groups and bombing other Al Qaeda-allied groups, along with our continuous bombing and drone attacks against ISIS since 2014. We’ve also “inadvertently” bombed Assad’s troops, most recently I believe in September.
- Putin has certainly strengthened Assad’s regime and Russian air raids have killed around 10,000 Syrians directly in the last year alone. That said, it is entirely mysterious to me how direct military confrontation with Assad and Russia as Hillary Clinton proposed as of late October would even plausibly reduce the violence rather than escalating it.
- Aside from our support for Israel, we are engaged in active military confrontations in Yemen that has amounted to an unannounced war over the last several year, culminating in Trump’s disastrous raid last week,
The point here is that the last fifteen years of US policy have almost continuously acted to destabilize the Arab world through both military idiocy and self-deluding diplomacy and rhetoric. The main thing is to stop doing it. Stop digging the hole deeper. Stop funding “moderate rebels,” stop supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen, stop deluding ourselves that we can transform the Arab world into a shining set of havens of democracy either through bombing raids or through CIA-supported “color war” partisans. Demand a declaration of war and clear military objectives rather than open ended “authorizations of use of force.”
To go back to Scott Alexander’s analogy, there is a fair argument that Nazi Germany used racism and anti-Semitism to consolidate public opinion around foolhardy wars that not only murdered millions of innocents across Europe but ended in the near-total destruction of Germany. Well, if we’ve been using ideology to consolidate public opinion around foolhardy wars, it hasn’t been racism and Islamophobia that we’ve used. Hell, George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on his opposition to racial profiling of Arabs in airports, had ordered John Ashcroft to remove such profiling as of May 21, 2001, and spoke positively about Islam as a religion throughout his two terms. (When Bush said in his memoirs that nothing hurt him like Kanye West calling him racist, I think he was sincere.) Obama and Hillary Clinton are many things, but they are not Islamophobes, but that didn’t stop Obama from escalating the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts or Clinton from making a hash of things in Libya. The pervasive idea that the amount of good and evil the US does in the world can be determined by the amount of racism exhibited by the people running the US government and military is totally unsupported by the last fifteen years, and the Nazi analogy is not helping us. Chuck Schumer weeping over refugees but voting for each of the military adventures that forced the refugees from their homes is not helping us. We are neither the bulwark against a rising tide of 1930s-style fascism nor can we “convince” Yemen to turn into Sweden by being nice to their distant cousins here. We have legal and moral obligations to Islamic American citizens, and we have obligations to try not to set the world on fire, as the world’s central military power. But putting everything through a lens of racism and “how much like Hitler is this guy?” doesn’t do anybody any favors, analytically or morally. America has done and will almost certainly continue to do a lot of evil- it’s a fallen world, how could we not?- but we seem to be able to do it without much racism just as well as with.