You hear it from time to time. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s virtually the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, sternly and constantly warning the world about the latest mortal peril. Perhaps Mr. Netanyahu believes it himself.
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make enamored of their own PR.
Now, historical analogies are never exact: one reason why they’re so beloved of those whose pleasure is to substitute imagery for understanding, and who regard history as a smorgasbord of convenient allusions. Still, the putative Bibi/Churchill historical hook-up might be taken seriously enough to ask a couple questions.
If Mr. Netanyahu’s to be compared to the Winston Churchill of the 1930s, it breaks down immediately. Churchill back then was a voice crying in the wilderness; Bibi’s in power. When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he rallied and inspired his nation and the world. There is no evidence that Mr. Netanyahu’s having a similar effect, and considerable reason to believe he’s accomplishing rather the opposite.
However, as long as we’re playing analogies, we might consider another from that period.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Charles de Gaulle.
Few Israelis, or anyone else, give much thought today to le Grand Charl. Many Israelis remember or know of him as the French president who cut off weapons deliveries in the run-up to the Six-Day War – if nothing else, a salutary warning about the perils of dependence on foreign arms suppliers whose interests extend beyond peddling their merchandise to us. De Gaulle accompanied his refusal with an insulting (he later claimed he meant it as a compliment) reference to “an elite people, sure of itself and domineering.”
That be us. And given General de Gaulle’s character and history, he might well have been talking about himself and what he hoped France might once again become.
If so, he blew it.
In 1940, de Gaulle was a French Army colonel, perhaps best known for his book predicting that future wars would be fought by small professional armies. That miscalculation notwithstanding, when the Nazis trashed the well-armed French Army in a few weeks, he did win some minor victories. Breveted to brigadier general, de Gaulle fled to England, where he persuaded Churchill to give him access to the BBC. He was thus able to broadcast himself as a rally point for all Frenchmen, both expats and at home.
Indeed, he was. And he made very sure that his countrymen had no alternative to him.
De Gaulle’s wartime career as leader of the French forces abroad and, in a murkier way, of the Resistance within France, consistently displayed his two guiding principles. France, its power and glory and image and self-image, was all that mattered. And he was France.
The British and Americans put up with him because he was indeed their only alternative, especially after his major rivals found themselves dead. He was also convenient. The Allies didn’t want to treat France as an occupied enemy collaborator state: an arguable characterization. The Allied desire was to get through France and on to Germany as quickly as possible. So it made sense to turn the country over to his forces, especially after it became clear how much of the internal resistance was Communist.
The Allies gave him his country back. His ingratitude didn’t astonish anyone. There followed endless minor and three major incidents involving boundaries and prestige. On at least one occasion, French and American troops almost starting shooting at each other. De Gaulle’s arrogance and intransigence had long ago permanently alienated Churchill, FDR and Eisenhower. When Harry Truman discovered that de Gaulle was trans-shipping American weapons from Europe to Indochina, he immediately halted all further aid.
De Gaulle resigned in 1946, having locked France into its dismal Fourth Republic normalcy and guaranteeing fifteen years of colonial war, first in Indochina and then Algeria. He returned to power in 1960 and remained for eight years, rarely passing up an opportunity to insult and infuriate the United States. Perhaps the final set of straws came when he announced that the French nuclear deterrent, the Force de Frappe (which occasioned some scatological English puns) was prepared to defend “360 degrees,” and when he pulled France out of NATO’s military structure.
And the United States, its government and its people, decided that they’d had enough of France. She simply wasn’t worth the aggravation or the bother. What she thought of herself, was her concern.
De Gaulle retired for the final time in 1968, but his legacy remains. In America, notions of French grandeur, and even significance, evoke little beyond smirks and pity. And when the French occasionally do something impressive, it’s dismissed with a shrug.
Sorry, guys. Too late. We’re just not interested anymore. We haven’t been for coming up on fifty years.
Charles de Gaulle liked to quip that “the cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” He got that one right. But it may be asked: Had he aimed for less and been less abrasive about it, might he have achieved more durable and beneficial results for his country and the world?
No, analogies are rarely exact and history has no iron laws. But certain patterns do recur. And recur. And recur.