Why November 2008 Looks Like March 1936

Near the conclusion of Tuesday night’s second presidential "town-hall" style debate, a questioner from the audience asked each candidate what he would do if Iran attacked Israel. Both candidates gave somewhat vague replies, focusing on the traditionally close relationship between the United States and Israel. In any event, if Iran ever attacks Israel, other than through its Lebanon-based surrogate Hezbollah, it will be with nuclear-tipped missiles, in which case Israel will be obliterated before the United States can respond.

The more pertinent question for the candidates is, "What will you do if and when Israel carries out a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities?" At that point both deterrence and appeasement will have failed.

On March 7, 1936, Adolph Hitler ordered his newly revived German army into the Rhineland, that strip of land between Germany and France that had been demilitarized by clauses in the Versailles Treaty, stipulating the area must be kept free of military garrisons and installations. On paper, the French and British army and air forces were so vastly superior to those of Germany that the German general staff planned a coup d’ etat to remove Hitler from power if the allies acted. France and England demurred. An emboldened Hitler accelerated German rearmament. War became inevitable.

Hitler did not believe western leaders would react because he felt they were distracted by a global depression, because French political leadership was in disarray and weak, and because other than belatedly voting economic sanctions against Italy for invading Ethiopia the previous year, the League of Nations did nothing.

Leap to 2008. Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a vile, anti-Semitic/anti-United States diatribe before the U.N. General Assembly, attributing the world’s economic woes to Zionist manipulation of the global economy. He declared Israel, that "rotting stinking corpse," to be in the throes of its last days, and predicted the impending end to the United States as a world power.

Intelligence services generally agree that Iran is six months to two years away from becoming a nuclear power. Ahmadinejad has vowed to use that power against Israel and the United States. Like Hitler, Ahmadinejad adheres to a millenarian apocalyptic worldview, and like the Fuhrer of the Thousand Year Reich, he would be just as willing to culminate his twisted vision in a horrific, possibly civilization-ending spasm of violence.

As surely as Hitler sensed Western weakness in 1936, Ahmadinejad senses it today. Following his address to the United Nations, quislings of the National Council of Churches, Mennonites and Quakers honored Ahmadinejad with a banquet. Left-leaning Christians from other denominations attended, including a trio representing the Presbyterian Church, USA, one of the leading liberal Protestant groups. Additionally, it seems Ahmadinejad follows the current American presidential race. If so, he knows that half the American electorate appears poised to vote for a candidate who opposed removing Saddam Hussein from power, opposed providing additional troops needed to implement the surge strategy and only belatedly conceded its efficacy, and also advocated unconditional talks with Tehran. Perhaps most encouragingly (to Ahmadinejad), that candidate evidently maintains a relationship with the unrepentant founder of the ultra-violent Weather Underground, University of Illinois at Chicago professor William Ayers; a man who according to a recent New York Times article, excuses bombings perpetrated by the Weather Underground based on a contrived moral equivalency between terrorism and U.S. military attacks on communist forces in Indochina. If appeasement prevails in the upcoming election, the gateway to war will swing wide in late 2008, as wide as in 1936. Another September 1939 may become inevitable.

Israel will not allow another September 1939. If the Iranians continue undeterred towards acquiring nuclear weapons, the Israelis are likely to strike; and from their perspective sooner rather than later. The vaunted Israeli Air Force (IAF) can carry out a substantial raid to degrade Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The IAF cannot, however, reduce Iranian military capabilities enough to forestall substantial Iranian retaliation.

Iranian retaliation will attempt to further undermine the world economy by attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf along with oil fields in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Shi-ite elements in Iraq and Afghanistan, possibly joined by Iranian forces, will try to overwhelm outnumbered American forces. Hezbollah, stronger in southern Lebanon today than it was in 2006 when it last attacked Israel, will strike again; this time joined by a dangerous Hamas militia in Gaza. Syria, sensing opportunity, may attack from the north. An overwhelmed Israel may resort to its nuclear option.

If Israel attacks Iran, the only way to prevent a regional catastrophe from mushrooming into a global one will be for U.S. forces to join in, to significantly degrade Iranian retaliatory capabilities. Only American air and sea power can accomplish what the IAF acting alone cannot. But it will take decisive leadership in Washington to opt for "full-commitment." Israel likely will wait for the results flowing from the first Tuesday in November before acting. If those results portend weakness and vacillation, Israel likely will strike before January 20, 2009.

Hitler’s re-militarization of the Rhineland decisively weakened France’s strategic position. France’s much-advertised and recently completed Maginot Line defenses running from the Swiss Alps to the Ardennes Forest became largely irrelevant once German troops were poised along the Rhine. Its allies in Eastern Europe grew wary of French credibility. Political leaders in Paris and London, seemingly feeling their political stature reduced, wallowed in indecisiveness. Defeatism in 1936 blossomed into appeasement at Munich in 1938 and then wilted into military collapse on the battlefields of western France in June 1940. Europe entered what Winston Churchill called, "a new Dark Age."

Regardless of who wins the presidential election in 2008, a fragile economic situation looms on the horizon, underscoring our precarious position. Ultimately, swords—not plowshares—stand between civilization and barbarism.

Dr. Earl Tilford, a fellow with the Center of Vision & Values at Grove City College, is currently working on a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A former Air Force intelligence officer and former Director of Research for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University.