The war in Yugoslavia (a war in fact if not in official declaration) has suffered no shortage of casualties, refugees, destruction–and overheated, overblown references to Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
As is usually the case, what in debating circles is known as the "reductio ad Hitlerum" doesn't advance rational disputation. Rather, it shifts debate into the realm of emotional response, where facts and logic matter less than feelings and passion. Such a tactic may sometimes be appropriate in the classroom or the kitchen, but it's certainly no way to conduct American foreign policy.
To justify the NATO "action" in the Balkans, the Clinton administration has moved quickly to cast Slobodan Milosevic in the Hitler mold. In his first extended attempt to explain what "this Kosovo thing is all about," Bill Clinton rhetorically asked a crowd of AFSCME union members, "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many people's lives might have been saved, and how many American lives might have been saved?"
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has, as NBC's Andrea Mitchell put it, "demonized [Milosevic] as a modern-day Hitler." Other NATO supporters have similarly penciled in a mustache on Milosevic. Reagan administration U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, for instance, has said that Serbian actions in Kosovo constitute "the closest thing to genocide that we have seen since Pol Pot's killing fields in Cambodia or Hitler's gas ovens in Auschwitz."
It hardly exonerates Milosevic's grotesque policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo–responsible for at least a reported 2,000 deaths and as many as 40,000 refugees in the year before NATO attacked Belgrade–to point out that he is not Hitler and the Yugoslavian government is not Nazi Germany. Not only is the scale vastly different, so were the actual policies, at least before NATO intervened.
Prior to the bombing, and even for some weeks after it began, Milosevic's purpose was plainly not to annihilate all ethnic Albanians wherever they lived in Europe but to expel them from Kosovo. Milosevic's solution to his Albanian problem–however monstrous–is no Final Solution. Indeed, if there is a World War II parallel to be drawn, it may well be the stinginess with which NATO countries–including and, given its leadership role, especially the United States–have admitted Kosovar refugees.
On one level, the Hitler references serve an obvious purpose: to shut down debate about a "humanitarian" intervention that has so far only increased the toll of human suffering on all sides. After all, when you're fighting the Nazis, even your loyal opposition must sign on to the war; indeed, it becomes not simply unpatriotic but anti-human to question even the minor details of a plan, much less its larger purposes.
That official explanations for U.S. involvement came only after the bombings began–and have lurched uncomfortably and unconvincingly among realpolitik national security concerns, the need for international economic stability, and humanitarian intervention–only underscores the lack of national consensus on what, if any, action should have been taken in the first place.
Beyond obscuring that fundamental discussion, the Hitler analogies have a deeper, more insidious effect. Such glib equations preclude any sort of diplomatic or nonmilitary settlement of the Kosovo matter: You don't negotiate peace with a Hitler; unconditional surrender and total capitulation are the only acceptable terms.
"The bottom line," says Albright, "is that more and more people are asking [the] question, `Is it going to be possible to deal with somebody that is behind all this?'" Never mind that the United States sat down to deal with Milosevic long after he committed worse crimes in Bosnia–and that the United States routinely negotiates cheerfully with far more murderous heads of states. To ask such a question after invoking Hitler is to answer it in the negative.
There is another reason to worry over this latest cycle of reductio ad Hitlerum: Every false invocation not only cheapens the original referent, it distorts our vision and undermines America's ability to act meaningfully in the world. If Milosevic is Hitler, then the planet is thick with such monsters. In such a landscape, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the situations calling for U.S. involvement, much less its proper terms.
Neither of the predictable results of such a mindset–hopelessness and disengagement on the one hand, hubris and overreaching on the other–is likely to bring more peace to the globe. Better, then, to drop the Hitler rhetoric and get on with a legitimate debate over both the Balkans and U.S. foreign policy.