In this Reason Hit&Run post, the vile Patrick Buchanan takes a well deserved beating for his bizarre and ahistorical defense of Adolf Hitler in WWII. However, as loathsome, racist and stupid as he is, Buchanan is correct about one thing: Hitler did not intend to start a second world war that would drag in every industrialized country and leave 3/4 of the industrialized world in ruins.
Instead, Hitler planned on fighting a short, sharp war in Poland. Based on his experience at Munich, he expected that France and Britain would either merely raise a token protest or that they would would fight briefly, realize that they couldn’t recover Poland and then negotiate a peace. He never envisioned that he would fight a gotterdammerung war of global destruction.
Hitler miscalculated. In this he was far from alone. In the 20th Century every war that involved a liberal democracy resulted from the miscalculation of an autocratic leadership.
We know Hitler blundered not only from Hitler’s own words but also from the degree of mobilization of the German economy and military. Hitler did not put the German economy on a war footing before invading Poland. Indeed, he did not do so until early 1943. The “phony war” from September 1939 to May 1940 resulted in large part because the Germans had no previously-fleshed-out plans to invade Western Europe. Hitler kept waiting for France and Britain to negotiate. The Wermacht had to scramble to come up with a plan to invade, and contrary to standard German practice the plan was constantly being revised up to the last minute.
Hitler and most Germans viewed themselves as the protectors of Western European civilization against the threat posed by Jews, communism and eastern peoples in general. In Hitler’s racist world-model, everyone of Nordic blood, which included most of Western Europe, were natural allies and only the machinations of Jews caused them to war against each other.
In Hitler’s grand plan, he would invade Poland in concert with Stalin and allow Stalin to invade the Baltic countries as well. France and Britain would within a few months accept this fait accompli, leaving Hitler to do as he wished five-plus years later in Eastern Europe. He never in his worst nightmares expected the war to spiral out of control and to involve the entirety of the industrialized world.
The Imperial Japanese had a similar vision. They believed they could cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor and then fortify their gains during the year or two it would take the U.S. to rebuild. Then they would lure the U.S. fleet into a decisive battle in the western Pacific, and/or force the U.S. to fight on the ground while invading fortified islands at a staggering cost in lives. They believed that the war would last only a couple of years, and that the vast majority of the fighting would be concentrated into several episodes of only a a few weeks each. They did not make plans for a long, protracted and constantly intense war.
Likewise, Stalin did not envision the invasion of Finland as anything but a trivial exercise. Neither did he view Hitler as an immediate and direct threat following the non-aggression pact. After Hitler invaded western Europe, Stalin confidently predicted he was completely safe from Hitler, because he thought Hitler realized it would be suicide for Germany to launch a two-front war.
So, what lessons should we draw from the mistakes of Hitler, the Imperial Japanese and Stalin?
The major lesson is to discard the myth of the rational enemy of democracy. In the whole of the 20th Century, every enemy of liberal-democratic states has been in the grip of a delusional ideology. That ideology provided an erroneous world-view (a model of cause and effect) that led them to constantly misjudge the responses of liberal democracies to any actions they took.
Stalin blundered badly in Korea. Seeing the “want to go home” riots among American military personnel in Europe after the end of WWII, combined with America’s relatively massive demilitarization, he appears to have concluded that America had no taste for a protracted conventional ground war. He judged that America would not fight just to defend a little peninsula in Asia that America had never had any relationship with. 50,000 dead Americans and another 20,000 from other free countries proved him wrong.
The blunder of Korea caused Stalin’s successors to see that America could not ignore an overt invasion. Instead, they switched to a tactic of using heavily-supported proxy groups inside targeted countries or regions. This robbed Americans of a clear enemy and a clear moral case for war. Even so, the free world sucessfully fended off communist attacks around the world until our own internal conflicts crippled our responses.
Ho Chi Min launched the Tet Offensive in the mistaken belief that the vast majority of South Vietnamese wanted to live under his totalitarian communist rule, and that if he could just throw off the shackles of America’s (as he saw it) imperialistic forces, even for a short time, the people of South Vietnam would rally to his side in mass. This was delusional. The vast majority of South Vietnamese had no interest in living in a totalitarian client state of yet another empire. The Tet Offensive collapsed into a crushing defeat that destroyed 95% of the Vietcong in South Vietnam. From that point on the war was fought as a series of outright invasions from North Vietnam. Only the chattering classes of the western world saved Ho Chi Min (and Pol Pot) from utter defeat.
The same type of misjudgment led Saddam Hussien to invade Kuwait in 1991. Based on his experience in the Iran war, he believed that he could inflict heavy casualties on any invading force trying to free Kuwait. Looking back at the American abandonment of Indochina, he believed the U.S. would be unwilling to suffer even a few thousand causalities. He expected the world to turn away from possible mass bloodshed and acquiesce. (He might have been right if certain Democrats, like the late Edward Kennedy, had been President. On the other hand, even a blame-America-first Democrat would have had a hard time ignoring an invasion in an area so vital to the world economy.)
9/11 likewise resulted from the delusional belief by Osama Bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda’s leadership that the U.S. would not respond forcefully and effectively to a massive attack on two major cities. In the years leading up to 9/11 Bin Laden repeatedly pointed to both the U.S. abandonment of Indochina and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan to create a plausible argument (to his followers) that the U.S. would not hit back hard in Afghanistan, because America was so weak and craven that we would not pay the cost in lives necessary to do so. This idea resulted from his delusional model of not only America but also of general cause and effect in his entire radical Islam-based world model.
Most of the attacks on Israel from the Islamic world have also resulted from delusional models. The biggest delusion that infects the Islamic world (and to a lessor extent the European chattering classes) is the idea that the state of Israel is nothing but an economic project of imperialistic colonialism. Based on this model, the Muslims and Europeans believe that if they can just make Israel too expensive a project, that the Jewish population of the world will abandon it for more profitable ventures. In reality, the existence of Israel depends on the desire of the Jews of the world to have nation-state refuge, and no amount of wars, pin-prick attacks or even widespread sustained economic boycotts will convince a people fearful of extermination to relinquish their one source of security. Indeed, terrorism, boycotts and similar attacks merely convince Jews they need Israel even more.
The “Realist” school of foreign-policy thought is fatally flawed by its dependence on the presumption of the existence of the rational autocrat. The realist believe that even though autocrats hold vastly different ideologies, moralities and come from vastly different cultures and histories, they nevertheless evaluate real-world, on-the-ground conditions in the exact same way that someone inside a liberal democracy would. This idea depends on the premise that autocrats not only have all of the same information as do leaders of liberal democracies but also that they feed that information into the same model of cause and effect. As history has demonstrated repeatedly, they do not.
It wasn’t “rational” for Imperial Germany to fight a war on two fronts. It was not “rational” for Stalin to ally with Hitler. It was not “rational” for Hitler to assume the western allies would ignore the invasion of Poland. It was not “rational” for Hitler to invade western Europe and then to invade the Soviet Union. It was not “rational” for the Imperial Japanese to pick a fight with a country with 10 to 15 times its industrial might. It was not “rational” for Stalin to blockade Berlin or invade South Korea. It was not rational for Ho Chi Min to believe that the people of South Vietnam wanted to live under his rule. It was not “rational” of Saddam Hussein to believe the free world would let him have Kuwait. It was not rational for Bin Laden to believe he could kill thousands of Americans and walk away unscathed.
The 20th Century wars of liberal democracies have all resulted from the miscalculations of various autocrats, who had an exaggerated belief in their own military powers and who believed democracies to be weak, decadent and craven. We can never predict autocrats’ behavior with any degree of certainty, because they view the world and us in an intrinsically different way than we do. They believe themselves capable of acts we see as obviously impossible. They believe we will acquiesce to actions that we clearly see we must respond to strongly. They believe they can outlast us in a conflict, no matter the degree of provocation they provide, when we know there are some things we must always fight for.
This is why all such regimes must be continuously viewed as ongoing threats to the peace and security of liberal democracies. We should never base our policy on our estimations of what we think they will do, because we can’t think like they do or see the world as they do. We cannot get inside their heads. Instead, we should base our policy on what such regimes could do if they chose to.
Any other standard is foolhardy and dangerous. Our own belief that we can predict the actions of those with alien world views is our own near-fatal hubris-driven delusion. It has led us to folly again and again in the last century. We must learn our lesson, because as our technology progresses and weapons grow more destructive and easily available the consequences of misjudgments grow more dire.
Less and less can we afford to risk accidental wars caused by the misjudgments of autocrats.
[Update (2009-09-4 07:19): Veryretired nails it in this comment:
The conflict we face, and, as Shannon describes them, many of the conflicts we have faced in the past, are not fishing disputes with Canada, or trade dustups with the EU. We are dealing with an ideology which believes itself to be the word of god, whispered into the ears, or minds, of some very strange and dangerous men, indeed.
Our most significant peril is not that they are dangerous, but that we have mesmerized ourselves into believing they’re just like the guys down the hall, just looking for an edge before they make a deal. They are not.