Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Long, Unfortunate Shadow of Munich

The New York Times reports today that President Bush issued a "veiled attack" on Senator Obama during his address to the Israeli Knesset. From the article:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Mr. Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

First off, that's not much of a veil. That's a pretty direct attack on Obama's foreign policy proposals, and his campaign responded quickly and angrily, calling the President's remarks an "extraordinary politicization of foreign policy." I've repeatedly avoided getting into the tit-for-tat of the American election, so I won't belabor the specifics. Suffice to say that my view of the situation is closer to that of Mr. Obama than to that of Mr. Bush. The President's address, though, brings up a larger issue that has nagged me for some time, to which I would like to take an opportunity to speak.

I would like to respectfully request that statesmen, political scientists, pundits and analysts the world over stop making historical analogies to the Munich conference, and to the supposed universal folly of "appeasement." Any benefits of Munich as an instructive historical precedent are now far outweighed by the analogy's power as an intellectually lazy rhetorical cudgel that is too often used to bludgeon any diplomatic initiatives that are, well, diplomatic. Not every autocratic country is Nazi Germany. Not every foreign dictator we don't like is Hitler. Not every threatening situation is most appropriately handled by eschewing diplomacy in favor of a "firm stance."

Please understand, I am not suggesting that thinkers and decision-makers stop allowing history to inform their judgement. Such a course would be asinie in the extreme. I would submit, though, that an oversimplified and overgeneralized reading of the events that immediately preceded the Second World War has haunted Western political elites for more than half a century. Aversion to "appeasement" among the post-war generation played a role in escalating the Cold War beyond any sane level, it played a role in America's tragic inability to rationally assess the situation in Vietnam, and in a more contemporary context, it played a central role in the thinking that led to the Iraq war, and is now informing those who would advocate the same in Iran. The "lessons of Munich" - that dictators must always be strongly opposed, that firey rhetoric must always be taken at face value, that diplomatic give-and-take is a fatal sign of weakness, that we must always be ready to fight to defend our perceived interests - obscure the reality of an international problem far more frequently than they illuminate it. Invoking such "lessons" unfairly paints those with different views as modern-day Chamberlains, unable to perceive the intractible perfidity of a determined enemy, and thus frames the debate in narrow and destructive terms wherein the only appropriate response to a problem is sanction and force, and all who think otherwise are weak, or cowardly, or both.

To bring things back to specifics, Iran is not Nazi Germany. Though the Iranian regime is anti-democratic, and espouses values that are indeed antithetical to those of the liberal West, the notion that Iranian armies and proxies are poised to make a genocidal sweep across the Middle East is absurd. Even the Iranian nuclear threat, though serious, shows every sign of being able to be contained with an intelligent deterrence policy (should things come to that). Iran does not have a particularly impressive industrial base. Its infrastructure is mediocre, its economy is sclerotic (propped up only by high oil prices), and its regime is unpopular. Even the outrageous statements about Israel made by President Ahmadinejad should be taken with a grain of salt, remembering that the Iranian President is not the head of state, and that he is acutally at odds with much of Iran's clerical leaders.

Obama's willingness to talk with the Iranian leadership is not a sign of weakness or delusion. It is a sign that he understands that there are things we want from Iran (cooperation in Iraq, nuclear disarmament, reduced political and material support for Hamas and Hezbollah) and things Iran wants from us (a security guarantee, diplomatic relations, a lifting of sanctions, membership in the WTO), and that a deal might be possible that is more amenable to American interests than the current situation. Clear-headed strategic thinking is sorely needed among American leaders today. It is time to stop letting ideological blinders, reinforced by poor analysis and bad history, get in the way.

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