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.
The larger issue is the tendency of foreign policy analysts to over-learn the lessons of history. As D.J. Goodspeed put it in his 1977 book The German Wars: 1914-1945, the Anglo-French appeasers of the 1930s had over-learned the lessons of the First World War, when hegemonic saber-rattling and a tangled web of military alliances plunged Europe into a river of blood. Since they failed to recognize how different a foe they faced a generation later, they applied a pusillanimous policy to a situation that cried out for stern muscularity. Today’s tub-thumping interventionists make the opposite mistake, viewing too many encounters with blustering despots through the Munich lens — and embroiling the United States in avoidable wars in the process.
This threat-perception problem is not academic; thousands of human lives hang in the balance. We will solve it, and avert the misguided conflicts it produces, only when America’s foreign policy mavens learn that no two wars or enemies are identical, and stop trying to navigate the 21st century with a map from 1938.
Akil Alleyne is a Young Voices Advocate and writes for Montreal’s print journal The Metropolitain and online platforms such as PolicyMic.com and the new Law Street Mediais. He is a 2013 graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City and a 2008 graduate of Princeton University (with a major in Politics). Before attending law school, he worked in radio and print news reporting. He was born in Toronto, Canada and raised in Montreal.