"We are here faced by fascists," Hilary Benn, a Labour member of the British Parliament, declared last week in reference to the Islamic State. It was a stirring speech. But as historical analysis, Benn's speech was wrong — as parallels with the 1930s usually are.
The more we try to cram today's problems into the framework of the mid-20th century, the more we shall be inclined to keep waiting for the Islamist Führer to emerge, mustache and all, before getting serious. We shall fail to see that while the structure of fascism was always hierarchical, the structure of Islamism is that of a network; that while the appeal of fascism was always national, the appeal of Islamism is international.
At the other extreme is the modish argument that the root of all our troubles is "climate change." President Obama was at it again in Paris last Tuesday. "If we let the world keep warming as fast as it is, and sea levels rising as fast as they are . . . then before long, we are going to have to devote more and more and more of our economic and military resources . . . to adapting to the various consequences of a changing planet." Like the argument that the origins of the Syrian civil war lie in global warming, drought, and an exodus of impoverished farmers from the country to the city, this encourages false inferences. Does anyone seriously believe that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the way to stop Middle Eastern states from disintegrating? Do all droughts lead to civil war, or just Syrian ones?
Let's try another approach — one that better captures what we are up against.
The Syrian civil war is a bewildering five-sided conflict in which at least 15 foreign powers have intervened at varying times since it began four years ago. There are the Syrian government forces plus various Shia militias, including Hezbollah, which have received support from Iran and Russia. There is the Free Syrian Army, plus affiliated Sunni militias, which have been assisted by not only the United States, France, Jordan, and now Britain, but also by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
Unfortunately, these three Sunni states also support Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as Al Nusra Front. And, illustrating the point that in the Middle East my enemy's enemy is also my enemy and my friend's friend is probably my enemy too, these jihadists periodically fight against the Islamic State, which finances itself with private donations from the Gulf and sales of oil to Turkish buyers. Then there are the Kurds, who fight under at least three different banners — the biggest being that of the People's Protection Units — and have support from Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the United States, Britain, Canada, and France.
Confused? Now imagine being a pilot flying over that mayhem. On reflection, it might well be easier to blame it all on climate change and just drop water wherever the crops look a bit parched.
By comparison, the 1930s were easy. When appeasement was finally abandoned, it was clear who and where the enemy was. In the same way, it was straightforward to deal with the problem of the enemy within. In Britain, after war broke out, tens of thousands of Germans and Italians were interned in makeshift camps. In the United States more than 100,000 people of Japanese origin were interned, the majority of them US citizens. Today, such crude and inhumane measures are unimaginable. But we appear to have swung to the opposite extreme.
What happened in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday may of course have been just another of those "mass shootings" for which the United States is notorious. Maybe, had he lived in another country with stricter rules (no, not France), Syed Rizwan Farook would just have stormed out of the office party bust-up and gone home to sulk.
Or perhaps not. It is in the early days, I know, but it does seem more than a coincidence that Farook, the son of Pakistani immigrants to Illinois, had gone to Saudi Arabia multiple times; had met and married his wife Tashfeen Malik there; had been in contact with at least one FBI subject of investigation; and had accumulated at home not only thousands of rounds of ammunition but 12 pipe bombs. I know we're all supposed to hate the National Rifle Association, but something tells me the Farooks had joined a different club.
From Syria to San Bernardino, Islamic extremism is killing people. And yet Hilary Benn thinks we are fighting fascists, and Barack Obama thinks the bad guys are Republican gun nuts, not forgetting climate change deniers. I wish somebody would make a stirring speech about the absurdity of it all. But I don't suppose anyone would clap.
Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the author of "Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist.''