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General McChrystal says we shouldn't believe him

If today's New York Times was reporting accurately, you should be very skeptical of anything that Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal says. Not because he's inherently dishonest, mind you, but because misleading everyone about the situation in Afghanistan may be part of his strategy for victory.

To be specific, today's Times also contains an article with the headline "Top U.S. Commander Sees Progress in Afghanistan." It quotes McChrystal as follows: "I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. So I'm saying the situation is serious, but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we'll make real progress in 2010."

This is nicely hedged, but McChrystal went to describe the war in a way that leads me to question virtually anything he might have to say now or in the future. According to the Times, the general also said that "The biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people ... This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants" (my emphasis).

On the one hand this statement is something of a truism, in the sense that resolve, morale, and expectations about the future can be critical factors (though what is actually happening on the battlefield is hardly irrelevant). But McChrystal's statement invites us to doubt anything he might choose to tell us about the progress of the war either now or in the months to come.  Why? Because if he believes it is "all a war of perceptions," then spinning the war in the most favorable possible light has to be part of his strategy, in order to try to persuade both Afghans and Americans that we are winning. And that means we can't accept anything he says at face value, because we can't know if he's giving us an honest appraisal or just deploying a lot of blue smoke and mirrors in order to influence perceptions (which he thinks are key).

It is worth noting, by the way, that the Times published two articles that suggested that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was not going particularly well. The first, by Ron Nordland, described the obstacles to our effort to train adequate Afghan police forces, and offered a gloomy assessment of progress-to-date. The second, which appeared in today's paper (along with McChrystal's somewhat upbeat account), described how the Afghan-Pakistan border remains incredibly porous, despite widespread awareness that this is a serious issue. I don't know who is right here, but by his own account General McChrystal has somewhat greater incentive to play fast and loose with the facts. 

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Stephen M. Walt

How to discredit Mein Kampf

My copy of Mein Kampf sits on a shelf in my study, along with a couple of dozen books on World War II.  It was the first book ever translated by the late Ralph Manheim (who also translated the works of Gunter Grass and others) and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1943.  I've used it to prepare lectures on the Second World War, where I quote a few of Hitler's more lurid and bizarre passages in order to convey to students the dangerous world-view from which Nazism sprang.

I mention this because authorities in Bavaria are reportedly trying to prevent new editions of this book from being published in Germany (where it has been banned), now that the original copyright (which is controlled by the Bavarian government) is about to run out. Their concern, which is understandable but in my view overstated, is that neo-Nazi groups will use the expiration of copyright as an opportunity to disseminate Hitler's hateful ideas anew.

I think this is a mistake. In addition to being filled with a lot of appalling racist claptrap, Mein Kampf is an awful book-turgid, tedious, badly organized, and mostly boring. So the danger that a German edition it will win a lot of new converts seems remote. Second, it's widely available in pirated versions on the Internet and in plenty of other countries (including the Untied States), so anybody with neo-Nazi sympathies can get a copy already. 

But most importantly, the best way to deal with a book like Mein Kampf is to expose it to light, demolish its "arguments," and remind everyone where Hitler's world-view ultimately led.  Apart from its obvious xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the book is filled with historical falsehoods, bogus prescriptions and sophomoric attempts at philosophy. If you want fascism to remain a marginalized social phenomenon, allowing qualified historians to dissect Hitler's ideas is a better antidote than censorship. After acknowledging the legitimate sensitivities of some who oppose publication, Stephen Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wisely counseled that the best course was not censorship but an open effort to put the work in context, with an appropriate commentary. As he told the Times, "Those who are already on the wrong side already have the book and already read it from their own point of view. Let's get it out there, and let's get it out there with a commentary."  Furthermore, banning publication would just let extremists argue that elites are conspiring to keep some valuable "wisdom" away from the people, and a few nutjobs might even believe them.

Two additional lessons are worth remembering as well. Books like Mein Kampf remind us that bizarre, incoherent, and hateful ideas can sometimes win over enough people to sway a nation and ultimately help lead to the deaths of millions. When you actually look at the the book, and read about the history of Nazism, it may be hard to believe that serious people in an advanced society could be persuaded by arguments of this sort. But they were. And while Hitler may be the extreme case, we live in an era where plenty of political (and I regret to say, religious) figures offer all sorts of memoirs and tracts of their own, some of them nearly as bizarre and illogical (if not as murderous) as Hitler's infamous tome. And I regret to say that some of them have a significant following.

The second lesson, of course, is that following beliefs of this sort was not only a tragedy for millions of innocent people in Europe, but it was also a disaster for Germany itself.  Anyone who is ignorant enough to be attracted by the program set forth in Mein Kampf needs to be reminded about what Hitler's world-view produced. In addition to directly causing the deaths of millions, his leadership led to Germany being extensively bombed, occupied by several foreign armies, divided for nearly half a century, and regarded with suspicion for many decades thereafter. Thus Hitler was not only one of history's greatest criminals, but also one of history's greatest failures. Mein Kampf is a blueprint for disaster, and anyone who might find it inspirational needs to be reminded of that fact.

The marketplace of ideas isn't perfect, but I have enough faith in it to believe that you can put Mein Kampf on a bookshelf in Germany today -- preferably in an annotated edition that exposes all of its errors -- and that the net effect will be to further discredit one of the darkest chapters in modern human history.