Godwin’s Scale

Hillary Clinton, frantically flailing to keep her brand fresh until 2016, this week compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and then, having secured the requisite attention, “clarified” her remark, saying she wasn’t comparing Mr. Putin to Mr. Hitler.  Got that?

You might say Ms. Clinton was invoking Godwin’s Law, which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”  Which is to say, sooner or later, someone’s gonna call someone else “Hitler” or “Nazi.”

Ms. Clinton would no doubt argue that her comment was not made online and thus doesn’t count (although I and millions of others read it online).  Perhaps we have different definitions of “is.”

Perhaps it’s also wrong to single out Ms. Clinton.  She was just the first US politician over the starting line.  As the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor points out, Lyndon Johnson compared the North Vietnamese to Hitler, former Secretary of State George Schultz compared Nicaragua to Nazi Germany, as did George HW Bush with Iraq.  Bill Clinton put Serbia and Nazi Germany in the same category, former Defense secretary Don Rumsfeld compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and Barack Obama kinda, sorta did it in regard to Syria.

All of which caught my interest, because our neighborhood foreign affairs discussion group had just held a round(kitchen)table on Mr. Putin.  The Nazi/Hitler comparison was raised and we promptly agreed that Godwin’s Law should not be invoked in this case – at least not yet.

The problem with Godwin’s Law or, more accurately, the need for Godwin’s Law is that people reach for Hitler/Nazi because they lack the knowledge to reach for anything else.  Since Mr. Hitler belongs to the 20th century and that century is now closed, the discussion group agreed that if we want to take Mr. Putin’s measure, there’s a great range of leaders.  Where should he land on the scale?

At one end – the good end – are people such as Nelson Mandela and Franklin Roosevelt.  (Theodore Roosevelt?  While admirable for his domestic agenda, this Godwin thing is about foreign policy, so Teddy’s marks are not so great.)  Many would put Winston Churchill in with Messrs. Mandela and F. Roosevelt.  I would not.  He had six good years (1939-45) in an otherwise blemished record.  Just ask the Irish or the Kenyans.

(Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., paragons of virtue though they were, never held elective office and are excused from this exercise.)

Some might argue that looking only at foreign policy would elevate Richard Nixon on the Godwin Scale, the whole “Nixon Goes to China” thing.  I would not be among the some, because of  “Nixon Goes to Cambodia and Secretly Bombs It” and “Nixon Stays Home but Sends His Thugs to Chile.”

The bad neighborhood is – obviously – Hitler and Stalin.  The discussion group agreed Mr. Putin is (somewhat) closer to the middle of the scale.  (For now.  Unlike Hitler and Stalin, Mr. Putin is neither dead nor out of office, so his final rank on the scale is not yet settled.)

For now, I think Mr. Putin should be nestled beside Benito Mussolini – a second tier of badness, combined with a large splash of bad taste.  I’ll admit much of my inspiration for this lies in Mr. Putin’s Mussolini-like opera buffa antics – all the shirtless running about, drugged tigers and so forth remind me of Il Duce.

Invading the Crimea isn’t exactly analogous to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, but it did involve a semi-strong state finding a country not it’s own size to pick on.  Similarly, other nations were disapproving, but no leader would expend blood or treasure to ensure Ethiopian freedom.  So it is with the Crimea.

Is this the prelude to something bigger, in a late 1930s or mid-1914 way?  Is it the dawn of a new cold war.  (The cold war, like the Hitler/Nazi comparison is an easy reach for a lazy pundit.)

I answer: none of the above.  I don’t know how this will unspool, but the one factor to keep your eye on here is fossil fuel, natural gas in particular.  Europe’s dependence on Russian natgas has been the principle cause of its demurral and Mr. Putin knows it.

Spring is coming; it may be autumn for the Crimea.

© Mark Floegel, 2014

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