Knowledge be damned: Rice, Obama and the uses of history

Nowadays Ambassador Rice is a center of controversy, owing to her advocacy of that benighted video as a prime mover of the killings at Benghazi. Given that Ms. Rice might become our next secretary of state, I would much rather know why she thinks as she does about the Vienna summit. The “Innocence of Muslims” video was a canard that several leaders in Obama’s administration, including the president himself, used and re-used before finally dropping. The Vienna summit, on the other hand, was a central episode with huge and lasting repercussions.

Speaking of summit-meetings, the mother of them all still has something to tell us. No American leader was at Munich in 1938, but America’s Cold-War policymakers knew it chapter-and-verse. At Munich, with the leaders of France and Italy as witnesses, and with Czech leaders standing by in an ante-room, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler should be given the ethnic-German western regions of Czechoslovakia as a means to avoid war. Hitler, with relish, marched his troops into Czechoslovakia and wiped it off the map. He then went for the throat of Poland and delivered a global war.

The lesson most people have drawn from Munich is that one cannot mollify an aggressor. But maybe there’s an even more pointed one. Chamberlain, in fact, was not so wrong about Hitler. He was blindsided by his own arrogance. While finding Hitler despicable, Chamberlain was sure that the German leader would never pull a fast one on him.

An excessive regard for oneself is no good basis for diplomacy. President Obama would be wise to get a diplomat-in-chief who knows as much and can remind him of it.

David Landau, a San Francisco editor, used to be a foreign-policy expert but gladly gave that up to be a novelist and playwright.