The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 has always been somewhat a mystery to me, very often misunderstood, more often mischaracterized, and the players and factions were very confusing. It was, of course, a precursor to the main event, World War II, with Germany and the Soviet Union using it as a proxy for their respective interests, but beyond that I didn’t understand it very well until I recently read The Last Crusade – Spain: 1936, by Warren Carroll. This is an admittedly Nationalist partisan treatment, but it lays out the background, the detailed history of the conflict, the factions, and the issues very well.
The book also gave me the insight to understand a couple of essays on recent and current conflicts in the Middle East, comparing the contemporary conflicts with the Spanish Civil War. Stephen Schwartz writes in 2006 of the Iraq war being a harbinger of bigger things to come and takes the analogy further by suggesting that there is another lesson, because the Spanish Civil War was the first major example of the modern proxy wars, in which local conflicts are exploited in the pursuit of global or regional interests. In this context, it anticipated the Communist-incited civil wars of the last half of the 20th century.
Pat Buchanan follows in June 2012 with an essay analogizing the Spanish Civil War with the current conflict in Syria and commends both FDR and the current U. S. administration, respectively, for maintaining neutrality, but worries that the Syrian conflict could yet become what he calls a “dress rehearsal for a Mideast War” . He likens the configuration of the various factions, religions, allies, and strategic interests in the Middle East that are manifest in Syria today with similar characteristics in Spain in the late 1930s.
These comparisons with history could be appropriate, and time will tell. But what bothers me is the response to the current situation, and Schwartz and Buchanan have very different ideas about what that should be. Buchanan is well known for his isolationism, and I can’t agree with that for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that, as the leader of the free world, we have a responsibility to confront tyranny and support freedom, particularly when it is in our interest to do so. As George W. Bush recently said, “We do not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere; we only get to choose what side we are on”.
We have possibly already undermined the long-term success of democracy in Iraq with our premature withdrawal and I worry that we are squandering an opportunity to make a significant difference in the outcome in Syria by relying on the feckless United Nations and not more directly confronting Iran and Russia on their support for the murderous incumbent regime. Stephen Schwartz ends his essay by suggesting that “by winning the battle of Iraq, and by fostering real change in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, the democratic nations may save the world from a later, longer, bloodier, and more terrible war”. This is the analogy with the Spanish Civil War that we want to avoid.