Sean Spicer is no historian, that's for sure.
And for a man whose job it is to talk in front of cameras, Spicer is spectacularly inarticulate. That said, it was almost hard not to feel sorry for him on Tuesday as he frantically scampered through a bunch of half-sentences and aborted ideas about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Adolf Hitler, chemical weapons and the Holocaust, in a desperate search for an exit out of the rhetorical chamber of horrors he had locked himself into.
But I'm not here to make fun of him. (Okay, maybe just a little.) I want to argue that there are reasons why Spicer found himself saying ludicrous things about World War II, having to do with the Trump administration's morally and logically bankrupt policy in Syria, and likely in the rest of the world.
When Spicer began sharing his thoughts on World War II, he was trying to explain why it was that President Trump decided to lob a few dozen missiles at a Syrian air base after Assad's government launched a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the first such attack since Trump took office. It required explanation, since Trump had spent years as a private citizen telling President Obama not to intervene militarily in Syria, even after a much worse chemical attack in 2013. And there's the matter of the half million or so civilians Assad has already killed with conventional weapons, which also did not lead Trump to consider military action.
So to justify Trump's decision, Spicer had little choice but to argue that what happened in Khan Sheikhoun was qualitatively worse than anything that had come before. That justification can be found in the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, one that is widely shared but almost never seriously interrogated. Without going into too much detail on the question, it's difficult to argue that having your family gassed to death would be worse than having them blown apart by a bomb.
But when Trump made his decision, it was then left to his aides and allies, none more than Spicer, to explain why it was that these particular victims of Assad's boundless brutality demanded American military action. If you have to argue that a chemical weapons attack on a single town is by far the worst thing that has happened in a bloody civil war that has lasted for six years, and you're desperately trying to make the case to skeptical reporters, you might find yourself reaching for something like, "You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons."
The likely thought that was spinning around Sean Spicer's addled mind at that moment was probably that the Germans didn't use chemical weapons on the battlefield (to which one would have to reply, so what?). But facing a room full of dropped jaws and frantically tweeting fingers, Spicer tried to explain, and just made things worse:
I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing, I mean, there was clearly [...] There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns. It was brought — so the use of it — I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.
The clear implication, at least in that moment, was that as bad as it may have been to kill millions in death camps (or "the Holocaust center"), dropping chemical weapons on a town is even worse. With time to reflect and choose his words more carefully, Spicer surely wouldn't say such a thing. And afterward he apologized, not only to the public but also in a phone call to billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, apparently on the theory that when you offend the Jews, making amends requires a personal apology to the richest Jew Donald Trump knows.
But right then it was what he found himself saying, because he was charged with arguing that the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was so horrific that it outweighed everything else that Assad has done. And his statement was peppered with other words and phrases meant to convey the unique horror of this event: that the victims were "innocent" (unlike other Syrian victims, not to mention those in the Holocaust?), and that Assad had killed "his own people" (as though German Jews were not German, not to mention the implication that it wouldn't have been as bad had it been someone else's people he was slaughtering).
Even in ordinary circumstances, Sean Spicer's job is exceedingly difficult, because he has to defend Donald Trump. This task requires him to do things like go before the cameras and insist that Trump's inauguration was the best attended in history, when both he and everyone listening to him knows he's lying. But it gets even harder when he has to defend incoherent policies like the one the administration is executing in Syria.
And it is incoherent, because it seems to be based mostly on Trump's whims, like his desire to seem tougher than Barack Obama. Which of course you can't say out loud, so you have to offer a humanitarian justification for what was ultimately a weak and ineffectual military strike, given the fact that the Syrian government not only resumed flights out of the airfield we bombed within a day or so, but even resumed bombing Khan Sheikhoun itself.
The administration's foreign policy doctrine used to be "America First," meaning we would do whatever was in our own narrow interests, with little or no regard to alliances or humanitarian concerns. Now its position seems to be that America will intervene militarily in a civil war if and only if somebody uses chemical weapons, because those weapons are more awful than any other kind of weapon, provided the president is sufficiently moved by photos of dead babies.
Would you want to go in front of reporters and try to defend that? If you had to, you might not be dumb enough to make Hitler comparisons. But you'd have a pretty hard time.