Maybe some people have to have the tragic error of appeasement explained to them. Like Bruce Ramsey, a writer for the Seattle Times. Here is something he actually wrote Friday. I’ve left nothing out, contrary to usual blog practice. I don’t want anyone to think he mitigated his idiocy with lines I left out.
Democrats are rebuking President Bush for saying in his speech to the Knesset, here, that to “negotiate with terrorists and radicals” is “appeasement.” The Democrats took it as a slap at Barack Obama. What bothers me is the continual reference to Hitler and his National Socialists, particularly the British and French accommodation at the Munich Conference of 1938.
The narrative we’re given about Munich is entirely in hindsight. We know what kind of man Hitler was, and that he started World War II in Europe. But in 1938 people knew a lot less. What Hitler was demanding at Munich was not unreasonable as a national claim (though he was making it in a last-minute, unreasonable way.) Germany’s claim was that the areas of Europe that spoke German and thought of themselves as German be under German authority. In September 1938 the principal remaining area was the Sudetenland.
So the British and French let him have it. Their thought was: “Now you have your Greater Germany.” They didn’t want a war. They were not superpowers like the United States is now. They remembered the 1914-1918 war and how they almost lost it.
In a few months, in early 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of what is now the Czech Republic—that is, territory that was not German. Then it was obvious that a deal with him was worthless–and the British and French did not appease Hitler any more. Thus the lesson of Munich: don’t appease Hitlers.
But who else is a Hitler? If you paste that label on somebody it means they are cast out. You can’t talk to them any more. And it has gotten pasted on quite a few national leaders over the years: Milosevic, Hussein, Ahmadinejad, et. al. In particular, to apply that label to the elected leaders of the Palestinians is to say that you aren’t going to listen to their claims to a homeland. I think they do have a claim. So do the Israelis. In order to get anywhere, each side has to listen to the other. To continually bring up Hitler, the Nazis, the Munich Conference and “appeasement,” is to try to prolong the stalemate.
I trust that Barack Obama does not possess the same historical ignorance.
Hitler telegraphed exactly what he intended to do in his book, Mein Kampf, written years before 1938. Also by then he had violated the Versailles treaty and begun rearming.
There was no evidence that Sudetenland wanted to be part of Hitler’s empire. Hitler had destroyed German democracy. Britain and France presumably understood the difference between democracy and dictatorship, since both countries operated under a democracy.
There was already a flood of Jewish refugees. News of Hitler’s atrocities, albeit downplayed in the British and French press in order to massage public opinion, was still known to the U.K. and French leadership. Winston Churchill and his friends in British intelligence made sure of that. His parliamentary speeches exposed Hitler repeatedly. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s naivete about Hitler and his aims was willful. He had plenty of facts at hand to demonstrate to him that Hitler did not deserve the trust he was vesting in him.
Ramsey writes as if he thinks Hitler is unique in history, and that attempts to compare contemporary enemies to Hitler is…unfriendly? I can’t tell what he means by this: “If you paste that label on somebody it means they are cast out. You can’t talk to them any more.” I don’t think the comparison of “Milosevic, Hussein, Ahmadinejad” to Hitler is inapt, given what they did and what, in Ahmadinejad’s case, he’s openly threatened to do.
I realize the cries of “Munich!” have begun to bore some people. Bore, or agitate. It struck me as strange that Obama and other leading Democrats would rush to identify themselves as the targets of Bush’s remarks to the Knesset. Maybe Bush was trying to be crafty — which is always cute to watch, like watching a toddler try to kick a ball — but the smarter Democratic play probably would have been to say, “What he said.” Because appeasement is still something to be avoided, if you define appeasement correctly as:
- Letting your enemy know you will do anything to avoid war.
- Letting your enemy take this knowledge and use it to their advantage.
- Making excuses for enemy actions and policies that violate law and conscience.
- Giving your enemy concessions based on a flimsy rationale that ignores indisputable facts.
- Convincing yourself that your concessions are trivial — a cheap way to avoid war.
- Using PR spin to isolate domestic opponents to your appeasement policy as “warmongers.”
- Continuing to make excuses for the enemy until you have no choice but to fight back.
That last point is the ultimate folly of appeasement. It is a policy pursued by peacemakers that leads inevitably to war. True, it postpones war, which is sometimes politically desirable to the appeaser, who might only be thinking of the short run, i.e. the next election. But it also gives your enemy time to get stronger, a process accelerated by the act of appeasement, which convinces some fence-sitters that the future belongs to the enemy and not to you.
No one calls him or herself an appeaser. It’s not a philosophy. It’s a verdict, based on objective facts. Saying “I’m not an appeaser” does not prevent you from acting like one. In the moment, it is often easier for a politician to be an appeaser than not to be one. It takes a lot of leadership strength to overcome appeasement’s gravitational pull. The truly chilling thing about Chamberlain’s appeasement was the wild public enthusiasm it generated among French and British citizens. Within two years, members of these cheering crowds would be slaughtered by Hitler’s forces.
The big question Obama will have to deal with when he takes office is whether to fulfill his promise of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, at risk of making it appear to the radical Islamic world that by doing so, he’s appeasing them. Perhaps there is a way to do it and preserve our strength in the region. But if there isn’t, he’ll have to show a lot of strength, the strength to look his most fervent supporters in the eyes and tell them he’s changed his mind. This decision will define his presidency, and it will come at him early.