Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2003 / 19 Adar I 5763

Paul Greenberg

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The Thirties revisited | History keeps coming back, sometimes like a bad dinner. In case you missed the Thirties, you could experience it again watching the Security Council at the United Nations, which begins to bear an uncanny resemblance to the late League of Nations.

Listening to the calm, neutral, simultaneous translation of the Security Council's proceedings over calm, neutral, simultaneous NPR, one was struck by how exactly this attempt to disarm Iraq paralleled the world's efforts in the 1920s to make Germany disarm -- in compliance with that defeated country's obligations under the Versailles Treaty.

Both regimes swore they were complying. And both were engaged in purely a paper exercise. An old joke, circa 1930: A German who works in a perambulator factory decides to sneak out the parts one by one so he can build his own baby buggy at home, but every time he puts all the parts together, all he gets is a machine gun.

The French foreign minister was perfect: so suave, so debonair, so elegant, so useless. Much like French diplomacy in the '30s, which also was in favor of giving peace a chance. In the Rhineland, on Austria, in Czechoslovakia . until it was too late to avoid the most destructive war in man's history.

Now the distinguished French representative was explaining, with what we can be sure was Gallic logic and an impeccable accent, that "war is always the sign of failure." This marks something of a change in the French position since the 6th of June, 1944, when American and British actions seemed more than welcome in France. Although then, too, the Germans were strenuously opposed to American and British initiatives, especially in Normandy.

You don't have to read the history of the 1930s to see it play out almost daily now. Among the 18 European countries that now have signed on with the Americans' latest crusade (as in General Eisenhower's book, "Crusade in Europe") was the Czech Republic. Of course. The Czechs remember. Specifically, they remember being sold out at Munich in 1938 by much the same stalwart Europeans.

The last time France pulled out of NATO, about the same time it was trying to push into Quebec back in the wild Sixties, the great de Gaulle informed Washington that American bases would no longer be needed on French soil. To which Lyndon Johnson, who was as Texan as Charles de Gaulle was French, told his secretary of state to ask the French if they'd like us to remove our war dead, too. I can't remember the French reply, but can only hope that for once they were silent -- out of shame if nothing else.

It all came back when Colin Powell followed the usual succession of ditherers and delayers on the Security Council. There was nothing elegant or eloquent about his remarks. They were in plain American. He said we were tired of Saddam Hussein's games after 12 years. He said enough was enough. He reminded the distinguished representatives that the U.N. resolution they were supposed to be enforcing wasn't about inspecting Iraq, it was about disarming Iraq. The inspectors were there only to verify that Saddam Hussein had disarmed, and, after three months of still more gamesmanship, they couldn't. Nobody else can, either, not even the French.

As the British representative just reminded the Security Council, once again the U.N. has been humiliated. Nobody actually had to invoke the old League of Nations; its memory hung heavy in the air as Colin Powell said his piece.

It wasn't the most eloquent presentation ever made, just convincing. Colin Powell was just an American getting the job done. Like another American general, a fella named Eisenhower and called Ike. Who got the job done.

So, no, everything isn't exactly like the 1930s these days. America is no longer isolationist. We're no longer going to sit around and wait for the sucker punch. We're not going to be surprised by another Pearl Harbor or even another Sept. 11. Let's hope.

After all the speechifyin' was through, I clicked off NPR and came away with the distinct impression that soon enough we'll be coming over, and we won't be back till it's over over there. If then. Because we can no longer turn our backs on the world. Because we might have to stay -- as long as necessary. We've learned a thing or two since the '30s. And even since the '90s. Unlike the French, we remember.

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