Friday, May 16, 2008

When lazy thinkers apply the “lessons of Munich”

This week President Bush used the forum of the Israeli Knesset to attack Senator Obama’s foreign policy proposals regarding the greater use of diplomacy to resolve international conflicts and specifically those conflicts with Iran. Aside from the facts he felt he had to travel to another country to criticize the presumptive Democratic nominee for President and had nothing to show for his own policy of promoting conflict in the Middle East, he used the worn out cliché of the so-called lessons of the 1938 Munich Agreement as a reason to avoid diplomacy with enemies.

Neville Chamberlain, the U.K.’s Conservative Prime Minster from 1937 to 1940, attempted to negotiate a way out of what many saw as a growing threat of war with Germany. He was willing to purse peace at almost any cost. The British and other Europeans were very mindful of the horrors of the First World War that ended just two decades before. Following Germany’s annexation of Austria, British and French politicians agreed to Germany’s takeover of a portion of Czechoslovakia to keep the peace. The policy had widespread support and became known as appeasement. However, Hitler did not keep up his end of the deal and siezed the rest of Czechoslovakia. The British were forced to declare the war they hoped to avoid when the Germans later invaded Poland.

The “lessons” of Munich have not so much been learned as have become a simple minded slogan by those who oppose diplomacy at any cost. (Earlier this week a right-wing radio talk-show-host ranted on and on about appeasment and Munich on Hardball but didn’t have a clue as to what actually happened in 1938 other than it must have been something bad.) History must be our guide to the future but it is absolutely necessary to understand that few historical analogies are universal. Seeing every enemy or opponent as another Hitler is next to useless. It is critical to recognize false analogies. It is critical to understand what historical analogies apply to what situations. It is worth remembering that the flip side of “Munich” was 1914 when European nations did stand their ground and immediately went to war. The First World War (or, the Great War as it was known at the time) resulted in the slaughter of millions and laid the groundwork for the rise of Nazi Germany and other fascist movements across Europe.

The Munich analogy is dangerous in its haphazard use by lazy thinkers who have power. It’s time to give it a rest.

Matt Eckel of Foreign Policy Watch has these thoughts:

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 actually 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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