I, for one, was sorry to see Hillary Clinton clarify her remarks comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. Yes, I know the rule. No Hitler analogies. No mentions of his name period. I know the rule, but I don’t like the rule. I think in some ways we need more Hitler analogies, because when political figures around the world do things like some of the things Adolf Hitler did, we ought to be able to say, for the sake of historical accuracy and for the sake of issuing warnings that will get people’s attention, “This is like that thing Hitler did.”
And what Putin is doing is like what AH did in Czechoslovakia. In both cases, the claim is that annexation is the only possible solution to ensure the protection of the German/Russian population. In fact, if we do want to think about differences, we could easily argue that Hitler behaved less brutishly than Putin. The Nazis were carrying on about the German population of Czechoslovakia for three years before they struck, so at least poor Edvard Benes had warning and knew what was coming. Putin seems to have cooked this up in mere weeks.
If, then, the analogy is basically accurate, why was it controversial for Clinton to say this? Can no one can never compare any action taken by any leader to any action taken by Hitler? That’s absurd. Let’s say there’s a dictator out there with two separate and competing private militias. Let’s even say that one private militia wears black shirts and the other wears brown shirts. And let’s say that on that dictator’s orders, the guys in the black shirts wipe out the guys in the brown shirts, who are led by a man who was once arguably the dictator’s best friend, to the negligible extent that our dictator is capable of having friends.
I have just described, as I hope most of you will know, the Night of the Long Knives, which Hitler ordered in 1934. So if a dictator today does just this, we can’t compare that to Hitler?
I’m well aware, the mere mention of the name sets off alarm bells, the most alarming of which is the six million. So it appears to have come to pass that if you compare anyone to Hitler you’re saying that that person wants to exterminate six million people. I think that’s ridiculous. In this case, Clinton was obviously talking about a specific incident, and she was correct. I think it was a useful and clarifying comparison. It suggests, I suspect quite rightly, that Putin may harbor fairly aggressive irredentist ambitions, as nearly any leader who saw his old country (USSR) split up and stripped for parts would. If Putin doesn’t have those ambitions, he’s a rare leader indeed, a modern-day Cincinnatus returning the fasces. Clinton’s comparison says only that. In itself it does not imply a particular policy or political response. It just says let’s keep our eye on this guy. And we should.
I seem to agree here with John McCain, which isn’t how things usually end up, but so be it. But McCain’s tweet endorsing Clinton’s remark, along with the more general hoo-ha over her choice of words, has cranked up the pundit machinery: She’s reestablishing her hawkish credentials. Liberals on MSNBC were pained. Conservatives on Fox were savoring the moment.
I doubt that Clinton would choose the occasion of remarks she intended to be private as her opportunity to unsheathe the sword. I know how she operates; she’d do that deliberately, in one of those Big Foreign Policy Speeches people like that give from time to time.
Even so, it does open the door to thoughts of 2016. Where will she come down on these questions? Republicans, mindful of her tough-gal credential, are going to try to hang what they see as Obama’s failures on her, notably the “reset.” As Ted Cruz said to reporters at CPAC: “I think it’s good to see her get on the late train. She didn’t seem to realize that when she was secretary of state and helped lead the Obama administration to appeasement, project weakness and suggest a reset even if she misspelled the Russian word for reset.”
It’s a good line—“reset” is one of those waffly liberal words, a real knee-slapper to the CPAC crowd. But the fact is that the reset was largely a success while it lasted—as long as Dmitri Medvedev was president. Here’s one observer writing in May 2012: “One major goal of the ‘reset’ was to repair relations that had fallen to a post-Cold War low in 2008. Even if it has not done as much as it could, it has undeniably done that. Much of the rest of Obama’s foreign policy has been unsatisfactory or underwhelming, but it should be possible to acknowledge that while crediting it for the successes that it has had.” Me? Peter Beinart? Tom Friedman? Les Gelb? Nope. Daniel Larison in The American Conservative.
Clinton has much to be proud of from her Foggy Bottom tenure, reset included. At the same time, maybe she should hawk it up a little, especially if Rand Paul is the nominee. That would just be delicious. Think about it. WWKD? What Would Kristol Do? And Bolton, and Perle (remember him?), and Krauthammer, and all the other PNAC luminaries? Obviously, they’d whip up some bogus justification for Paul, most likely based on Israel; but what a hilarious thing to watch it would be. To the extent that the verboten analogy has sown the seeds of that potential future confusion, this was one of the best “mistakes” Clinton ever made.