Monday, July 02, 2007

Neville or Winston?

Lynne Olson, the author of Troublesome Young Men, has an article in Sunday's Washington Post arguing that Bush has more in common with Neville Chamberlain than he does with Winston Churchill. The comparison to Chamberlain seems forced and not really based on much factual evidence.

Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders... He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise.
Bush had little experience with foreign affairs coming into office. Fair enough. But at least he had the foresight to surround himself with people who were eminently qualified to speak on foreign affairs. Whether you agree with them or not, and whatever you thought about their performance in Iraq, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, etc. can not be said to have had limited foreign relations experience (this, of course, is why the American system of picking a cabinet is better than the Parliamentary system, but that’s for another day). Nor were they all that like-minded coming into office. Cheney and Rumsfeld were national power conservatives, Rice was the realist, Wolfowitz the neoconservative, Powell the liberal hawk and so on.

Chamberlain on the other hand, had the Viscount Halifax at the Foreign Ministry, who had made the rounds from Agriculture to Education, and whose only foreign affairs experience to note was Viceroy of India, which didn’t really help much when it came to Germany. His Secretary of State for War, the Baron Hore-Belisha, spent his career before that at the Transport Ministry and the Board of Trade. His Secretary of State for Air, Kingsley Wood, had been Minister for Health and Postmaster General.
Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel.

The comparison to Bush here is completely off. Chamberlain completely misjudged the threat. He underestimated Hitler and Mussolini’s power, their motives and their drive, and he assumed it was a threat that could be fixed with shuttle diplomacy. He was indeed naïve about human nature, and the nature of tyrants. Bush has made no such mistake. Whatever else his faults may be, he has no false assumptions of the threat we face, nor does he assume that peace is the natural desire of dictators and tyrants.

In the months leading up to World War II, Chamberlain and his men saw little need to build up a strong coalition of European allies with which to confront Nazi Germany -- ignoring appeals from Churchill and others to fashion a "Grand Alliance" of nations to thwart the threat that Hitler posed to the continent.Unlike Bush and Chamberlain, Churchill was never in favor of his country going it alone.

[...] After the League failed to stop fascism's march, Churchill was adamant that, to beat Hitler, Britain must form a true partnership with France and even reach agreement with the despised Soviet Union, neither of which Chamberlain was willing to do.

The truth, of course, is that Churchill spent years refusing to give the Soviets anything in return for their fight against the Germans on the Eastern front. He refused for years to open the second front and scolded the Soviet ambassador whenever the issue was brought up, saying the Soviets had “no right to make reproaches against us.” After El-Alamein, Churchill began to realize that, going forward and especially after the war, the Soviets growing power was becoming a major threat to the West. He wanted the West to take Berlin so the Soviets couldn't get it. Roosevelt often had to keep the peace between Stalin and Churchill when they met. Of course, the Soviet fight against the Germans was crucial to the Allied victory, and I doubt even Bush would insist the Soviets stop fighting the Germans so the Americans could have the whole fight. This really wasn’t much of a “Grand Alliance” though, and if anything its pattern of “take and give very little other than unintentional legitimacy” is very similar to our relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt today. Their counter-terrorism efforts have been immensely useful, but we try to avoid giving them anything and would be more than happy to have nothing to do with them if we could get away with it. Churchill’s Grand Alliance, by the way, about which he wrote a four volume history, was first and foremost the English-speaking peoples, especially Britain-America-Australia, the same alliance of forces currently fighting in Iraq.

Philip Klein also points out at the American Spectator blog, "Churchill, of course, was arguing for a "Grand Alliance" to confront Germany militarily, while opponents of the Iraq War were arguing for a grand alliance to confront Saddam diplomatically so America could avert military action."

As was true of Bush and the Republicans before the 2006 midterm elections, Chamberlain and his Tories had a large majority in the Commons, and, as Macmillan noted, the prime minister tended to treat Parliament like a lapdog legislature, existing only to do his bidding. "I secretly feel he hates the House of Commons," wrote one of Chamberlain's most fervent parliamentary supporters. "Certainly he has a deep contempt for Parliamentary interference."

Churchill, on the other hand, revered Parliament and was appalled by Chamberlain's determination to dominate the Commons in the late 1930s. Churchill considered himself first and foremost "a child" and "servant" of the House of Commons and strongly believed in the legislature's constitutional role to oversee the executive (even when, after becoming prime minister, he often railed against MPs who criticized him). In August 1939, when Chamberlain rammed through a two-month parliamentary adjournment just weeks before the war began, Churchill -- then still a backbencher -- exploded with anger in the House, calling the prime minister's move "disastrous," "pathetic" and shameful." He encouraged his anti-appeasement colleagues to mount similar attacks against Chamberlain, and when one of them, Ronald Cartland, called the prime minister a dictator to his face in the same debate, Churchill congratulated Cartland with an enthusiastic, "Well done, my boy, well done!"

To support the comparison between Bush and Chamberlain on this point, Olson compares Bush’s actions in office with Churchill’s rhetoric while out of office. She seems to ignore the fact that British politics are much more partisan within parties than American politics. It is not unusual for there to be intra-party divisions like the one that pitted Churchill against Chamberlain, or Michael Heseltine against Thatcher, or most of the Labour Party against Blair. So Churchill’s comments while out of office show little more than that he was as partisan as the next British politician. It’s his actions while in office that matter, and as Olson points out, he would frequently rail against the MPs when he was in office. I don’t think this means Churchill had no respect for Parliament, I think Olson is right that he had great respect for it. I also think Bush respects Congress and its role in American government – they both just got caught up in the natural flow of partisan politics.

Likewise, Churchill almost certainly would look askance at the Bush administration's years-long campaign to shut down public debate over the "war on terror" and the conflict in Iraq -- tactics markedly similar to Chamberlain's attempts to quiet his opponents. Like Bush and his aides, Chamberlain badgered and intimidated the press, restricted journalists' access to sources and claimed that anyone who dared criticize the government was guilty of disloyalty and damaging the national interest.

Actually, Churchill despised the BBC (which at the time WAS the British media) as they had essentially censored him throughout the 1930s. John Reith, the head of the BBC, openly admired Hitler and Mussolini. Ironically, he was Minister of Information under Chamberlain – not really the minister someone wants when they are contemptuous of the media. When Churchill became PM, Reith could no longer block him, but deemed it “awful” that Churchill was the premier, and, incidentally, thought Churchill was concentrating too much power in his office by making himself Defence Minister as well as PM, essentially giving himself the power to run the war.

Churchill, by contrast, believed firmly in the sanctity of individual liberties and the need to protect them from government encroachment. That's not to say that he was never guilty of infringing on them himself. In June 1940, when a Nazi invasion of Britain seemed imminent, he ordered the internment of more than 20,000 enemy aliens living on British soil, most of them refugees from Hitler's and Mussolini's fascist regimes. But as the invasion scare abated over the next few months, the vast majority were released, also by his order. "The key word in any understanding of Winston Churchill is the simple word 'Liberty,' " wrote Eric Seal, Churchill's principal private secretary during the early years of the war. "He intensely disliked, and reacted violently against, all attempts to regiment and dictate opinion. . . . He demanded for himself freedom to follow his own star, and he stood out for a like liberty for all men."

Err, she argues that Churchill would have been against Bush’s indefinite detentions, but then point out that Churchill not only did the same thing, only more so. He not only detained thousands of civilians, but he did so based solely on their country of origin, something I'm pretty sure Bush has never done. She argues that Churchill ordered their release months later, but there were still 14,000 “enemy aliens” interned on the Isle of Man nearly a year later, and probably long after that. Furthermore, other civilians from Axis countries were limited in where they could go, were forced to check in with the authorities every day and had a curfew.

Incidentally, Andrew Sullivan approvingly links to Olson's article based on this point about detainees. He argues:

Churchill would be appalled by the indefinite suspension of habeas corpus and even more by the shameful adoption of torture by the Americans. He was a realist, a pragmatist and a defender of actual liberty.
Oops, that's inconvenient. Besides proving that all Andrew Sullivan does these days is post these kinds of meaningless and vapid attacks on Bush, it also shows that's he's not really one for facts. Anyway, back to Olson.

Throughout her article, Olson argues Bush and Chamberlain, unlike Churchill, concentrated too much power in their respective offices. However, like I mentioned before, Churchill went as far as to create new posts that he assigned to himself in order to have the greatest ability to run the war. Also, if Bush had known about the bombing of an American city, like Churchill knew about Coventry, and kept it quiet in order to protect crucial intelligence, he would have been impeached and probably arrested long ago. Also, she points out, perhaps unintentionally, with her quote from Eric Seal, how Churchill felt about allowing others to take control. “He intensely disliked, and reacted violently against, all attempts to regiment and dictate opinion…He demanded for himself freedom to follow his own star.” That sounds a lot to me like “He didn’t like other people telling him what to do. He did things the way he wanted.”

Finally, she belittles our opponent compared to Churchill's defeat of Germany (which, I think, America had something to do with as well).

But Churchill would snort, I believe, at the administration's equation of "Islamofascism," an amorphous, ill-defined movement of killers forced to resort to terrorism by their lack of military might, to Nazi Germany, a global power that had already conquered several countries before Churchill took office in 1940.

At The Corner, Steven Hayward points out that Churchill was actually ahead of his time in understanding the seriousness of Islamic radicalism. But as for unconventional conflict, surely Ms. Olson knows Churchill was again PM from 1950-1953, when the British faced both the Mau Mau and the Malayn uprisings, both of which they were unable to put down until well after Churchill had left office - and even then they didn't really win

Like I said earlier, I don’t know if Bush is like Churchill, but I’m fairly certain he has little in common with Chamberlain. I also tend to think Olson puts Churchill on a pedestal that is perhaps a bit too high, and in doing so makes unfair contrasts to Bush. Churchill was not perfect, and neither is Bush. She argues, “As the world's two most prominent and powerful democracies, the United States and Britain had a responsibility to serve as exemplars of democracy for the rest of the world, Churchill believed. But to be fitting role models, he argued, both countries had to do their best to ensure that the "title deeds of freedom" were strongly safeguarded within their own boundaries.”

I agree - I think both America and Britain are the best examples of freedom and democracy in the world today. That we are perhaps the two countries with the greatest immigration crises in the world is no coincidence. But like Churchill said about democracy, we’re not perfect – and we won’t always be perfect – but we’re better than everything else.


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