1939 and 2009: Two not es­pe­cially good years

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Nine­teen thirty-nine was not a good year. World War II started, and much of the world was still in the De­pres­sion. The leaders of too many coun­tries were ei­ther despots or naive and weak.

And 2009 has not been a good year, con­sid­er­ing the global re­ces­sion. Seventy years later, as in 1939, the leaders of too many coun­tries are ei­ther despots or naive and weak. Just look at the per­for­mance of the world’s leaders at the United Na­tions and at the Group of 20 sum­mit of ma­jor eco­nomic pow­ers in Pittsburgh last week.

Crack­pots such as Libya’s Col. Moam­mar Gad­hafi ranted on while leaders of ma­jor coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, en­gaged in mean­ing­less bab­ble about how “we” (i.e. they) will do bet­ter this year. The fi­nal com­mu­nique from the G-20 was a long, em­bar­rass­ing, self-con­grat­u­la­tory state­ment of how, if it had not been for the won­der­ful at­ten­dees at the meet­ing, the world econ­omy would be in even worse shape — con­ve­niently over­look­ing the fact that it largely had been this group of peo­ple who had made the mess in the first place. The sum­mit’s fi­nal, and very pre­dictable, con­clu­sion was that the leaders were go­ing to take away more of our fi­nan­cial free­dom and more from our wal­lets. This is not a good omen for the fu­ture.

Too many of to­day’s leaders all too closely re­sem­ble the leaders of 1939 and seem equally ca­pa­ble of start­ing the chain of events that de­stroyed much of mankind in the 1940s. Iran’s Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad is the wannabe Adolf Hitler, not only in his ha­tred of the Jews, but in his plan for elim­i­nat­ing many of them. Hitler had his cult of the mas­ter race, which was sup­posed to gov­ern all of mankind, and Mr. Ah­madine­jad has, as his cult, a par­tic­u­lar vari­ant of Is­lam to which all are sup­posed to sub­mit.

Many con­sid­ered Hitler a clown and a fool in 1939, much as Mr. Ah­madine­jad is por­trayed by much of the press to­day. Ger­many in 1939 had about the same pop­u­la­tion as Iran of to­day. Hitler had a bet­ter-trained mil­i­tary, but he did not have a nu­clear bomb, which Mr. Ah­madine­jad will have soon. Hitler was a mas­ter at de­tect­ing and ex­ploit­ing weak­ness in his op­po­nents, and Mr. Ah­madine­jad seems to have much the same tal­ent.

An­other 1939 throw­back is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who is the Ben­ito Mus­solini of to­day — both na­tional so­cial­ists, i.e. fas­cists. Like Mus­solini, Mr. Chavez is a despotic clown who can be af­fa­ble and charm­ing while re­press­ing his cit­i­zens. Mus­solini had big­ger am­bi­tions than Italy, which caused him to first top­ple the gov­ern­ment in Al­ba­nia and then in­vade East Africa. Mr. Chavez has not con­fined his mis­chief to Venezuela. He has plot­ted against and en­gaged in covert op­er­a­tions against sev­eral of the demo­cratic coun­tries in Latin Amer­ica.

Even though there is no Josef Stalin type on the world stage at the mo­ment, the broth­ers Cas­tro prob­a­bly would have been ca­pa­ble of the mas­sive crimes of Stalin if only they had a larger coun­try. Like Stalin, Fidel Cas­tro is a hard-core, com­mit­ted com­mu­nist, more con­sumed with his own power than the well-be­ing of his peo­ple. The broth­ers Cas­tro, al­lied with the younger Mr. Chavez, may suc­ceed in over­throw­ing gov­ern­ments in Latin Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they have rea­son to be­lieve they have lit­tle to fear from the new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin seems cut out of the same mold as Ja­pan’s Hideki Tojo of 1939. Like Tojo, Mr. Putin has fol­lowed the fas­cist model of putting more em­pha­sis on con­trol of busi­ness than ac­tu­ally own­ing ev­ery­thing, un­like the tra­di­tional so­cial­ist.

Tojo in­vaded his neigh­bors when he thought it would serve his in­ter­est, as­sum­ing the big pow­ers would tol­er­ate it be­cause they were bogged down with other prob­lems. Mr. Putin has en­gaged in sim­i­lar be­hav­ior in Ge­or­gia and may think he can get away with an in­va­sion of Ukraine, in the same way Tojo cor­rectly as­sumed that the United States and oth­ers would do noth­ing when he had his Ja­panese army in­vade China.

What is par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing is that Pres­i­dent Obama seems to view the world as Bri­tain’s Neville Cham­ber­lain did in the late 1930s. Cham­ber­lain’s name has be­come a syn­onym for the fail­ure of ap­pease­ment.

Mr. Obama’s dither­ing on mak­ing a de­ci­sion about Afghanistan, his re­peated use of words as a sub­sti­tute for lay­ing down firm mark­ers in deal­ing with Iran, and the clumsy way he re­neged on the mis­sile-de­fense com­mit­ments to the Poles give the im­pres­sion that he is made of no sterner stuff and is at least as naive as Cham­ber­lain.

The world be­came safer when Pres­i­dent Rea­gan and Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher were in power. The world’s tyrants were, for good rea­son, afraid of Rea­gan and Mrs. Thatcher. As a re­sult, the Cold War ended al­most without a shot be­ing fired, and many petty dic­ta­tors lost power or stayed bot­tled up in their holes — and free­dom blos­somed around the world as never be­fore.

Un­for­tu­nately, Rea­gan has died, and Mrs. Thatcher has passed from the world stage, and now the eco­nomic and for­eign-pol­icy fail­ures of the 1930s seem to be re­peated ev­ery day — as if no one in power or in the main­stream me­dia re­mem­bers (if any of them ever learned) his­tory.

Do we have any in­di­ca­tion that Iran’s Mr. Ah­madine­jad, Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez, Rus­sia’s Mr. Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have any real fear of Mr. Obama, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown, French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel? Do we have any rea­son for real con­fi­dence that Mr. Obama and his Euro­pean al­lies re­ally know what they are do­ing with both eco­nomic and for­eign pol­icy?

Richard W. Rahn is a se­nior fel­low at the Cato In­sti­tute and chair­man of the In­sti­tute for Global Eco­nomic Growth.

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