Critics of U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy surprised me somewhat this week. I was sure that they would make hay out of the private talks over Iran’s nuclear program at the recent Munich Conference on Security Policy. After all, it was in that German city that Britain and France sold Czechoslovakia down the river to Nazi Germany in 1938. Yet with the possible exception of Tom Wilson’s recent complaint in Commentary, I have yet to see Iran hawks capitalize on the negotiations’ symbolically fraught location to portray President Obama as this century’s Neville Chamberlain. Ah, well — we live, we learn.
Munich or no Munich, however, the president’s detractors will continue to lambast him for attempting to “appease” the Iranian regime in order to avoid another Middle Eastern war. Hopefully, President Obama will not let these baseless accusations faze him. The effort to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons diplomatically rather than militarily constitutes anything but appeasement. To equate it with the craven policies of the 1930s is illogical and ahistorical at best.
The Oxford Online Dictionary defines “appease” as meaning to “pacify or placate [someone] by acceding to their demands.” Given this definition, the word says something about the power relationship between appeaser and appeased. If the former seek to mollify the latter by caving in to them, then the appeasers are likely bargaining from a position of relative weakness. A strong party that is cut out for a confrontation would feel little need to appease a weaker adversary. Deploying accusations of appeasement, then, implies that the purported appeasers are both fearful and weaker than their enemies.
Ergo, the shameful geopolitical skullduggery of late-1930s Europe amounted to appeasement. Hell-bent on genocidal conquest, Nazi Germany made aggressive demands on its neighbors and armed itself to the teeth while its opponents reluctantly mobilized at a snail’s pace. Britain and France, desperate to avoid repeating the bloodletting of World War I, stood idly by while Hitler annexed Austria and served him chunks of Czechoslovakia on a silver platter. The “peace in our time” that they bought in the process proved illusory; once they gave the Führer an inch, he seized a country mile.
The Munich scenario could hardly differ more from the relationship between the United States, Israel, and Iran today. Nazi Germany was one of the world’s greatest industrial and military powers; Khomeinist Iran is an impoverished country bled dry by years of economic sanctions and political instability. Britain and France in the 1930s were fading colonial powers rattled by the Great Depression and haunted by memories of the last war. The U.S. today retains political, economic and military clout unmatched by any state in history. Israel is the most prosperous and powerful country in the Middle East, with its own nuclear arsenal and a military that has soundly thrashed its enemies in every conventional war it has ever fought. Both countries have top-notch intelligence services that are more than capable of keeping a watchful eye on the Iranian nuclear power program and sounding the alarm if the regime ever begins manufacturing nuclear weapons. Both countries have more than enough military muscle to crush the Islamic Republic — or to “obliterate” it, as Hillary Clinton put it in 2008 — if it ever dared lash out at Israel directly.
Yet the refrain that peaceful efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear somehow constitute “appeasement” continue. How the world’s lone superpower can be said to be appeasing an enemy that it so vastly outclasses in fisc and firepower is a mystery. Then again, it was much the same warmongers who smeared opponents of the Iraq War as appeasers more than a decade ago, and just as absurdly. Given how quickly and completely the casus belli against Saddam’s Iraq collapsed in the wake of that fiasco, we should receive the fulminations of today’s Chicken Littles very skeptically indeed.