This past month in Normandy saw speeches from the chieftains of the coalition of the willing that were heavy with implicit references to the Iraq crisis.
President George W. Bush said: "We defend freedom against people who can’t stand freedom."
Prime Minister John Howard joined the fray, declaring Australians "have never been … reluctant to play our part and to fight alongside others in pursuit of a just cause."
In fact, these are just the latest examples of attempts to play up the parallels between the two conflicts and thereby revive the esprit de corps of the grand alliance that won the Second World War.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush labelled Saddam Hussein and his alleged cohorts in Tehran and Pyongyang an "axis of evil", borrowing the terminology which described the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan.
In the countdown to war a year later, Bush and Tony Blair convened an Atlantic summit in the Azores Islands, evoking the other occasion on which a president of the United States and a prime minister of Great Britain travelled to a lonely Atlantic rendezvous to confer on an international crisis – the August 1941 conversation at sea between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
White House supporters also persisted in comparing Saddam with Hitler and making spurious allegations of appeasement, despite the massive disparity in threat posed by the two men.
Saddam was an evil dictator who brought suffering down on the heads of his own and other people. However, at the time that US forces commenced operations against his regime, he had been contained for a decade and posed little threat to international peace and security. In mid-1941, by contrast, Hitler had annexed much of western Europe and turned his guns eastward, and was a clear and present danger to the world.
In truth, the differences between the two eras are more apparent than any similarities, in no area more so than the nature of US leadership. To put it delicately, George Walker Bush is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One historian said of FDR that "details stuck in his mind like sand in honey" – not quite the description one would apply to today’s incumbent.
Nevertheless, Bush could do worse than read up on his predecessor, and in particular three aspects of Rooseveltian foreign policy.
First, FDR took a realist, not an ideological, approach to international relations. In establishing the United Nations, for example, he eschewed Woodrow Wilson’s idealism in favour of a system that recognised great power supremacy. A neo-con visitor to the Oval Office in Franklin’s day would have received a charming wave of the cigarette holder but very little presidential attention.
Second, Roosevelt invested time and prestige in building a reliable domestic foreign policy consensus in favour of involvement in a foreign war. He appointed Republicans to the most senior Cabinet posts in order to foster bipartisanship. Crucially, he deferred American entry until the moment was right, when opinion had swung away from isolationism and the surprise attack at Pearl Harbour demonstrated the moral and security imperative of intervention. He persuaded the American people that the European conflict was anything but a war of choice.
This foreshadows the third lesson: FDR knew the value of working with and through other countries to project American power. For two long years, Roosevelt fought the European war by proxy, arming, supplying, but not fighting alongside allied forces. For the postwar settlement, he designed institutions of global order that gave other nations a voice but ensured American predominance. As historian John Lewis Gaddis argues, Roosevelt established American hegemony by consent.
FDR intuitively understood the value of so-called "soft power" – the ability to get others to want the outcomes you want – and he deployed it alongside the tanks and aircraft carriers that constituted American hard power. In the prelude to Operation Iraqi Freedom, by contrast, President Bush appeared little interested in persuading the world of the righteousness of his cause, a stance he now plainly regrets. Recent weeks have seen several overdue but welcome shifts in US policy, including the involvement of the UN in the selection of the Iraqi interim government and the application of a lighter touch in trouble spots such as Fallujah. This trend must accelerate: the times require skilful and subtle statesmanship.
The current imbroglio is saddening to those of us who are instinctively sympathetic towards the United States: the great democracy’s mistakes are corroding the massive international goodwill built up towards her between D-Day and 9/11. As we reflect on the significance of the brave Normandy landings, and the great benefits to the world of US leadership in the 20th century, let’s hope that the president took an FDR biography to France to read on the plane.