I guess the months between now and November will be rich with fodder for the blogosphere- the first slavo of the general election campaign has been lobbed by of all people the lame duck president- George W. Bush. (I’m sure Senator McCain is thankful for the President’s support!)
I am a little late to the party writing about the President’s inappropriate remarks at the Knesset because in many ways the remarks speak for themselves- they are wildly inappropriate – like most of the actions of his administration. I won’t even dignify the President’s discussion of domestic politics at the podium of a foreign parliament or the evocation of Hitler to the Israeli Knesset. But Senator McCain has grabbed onto the word Appeasement- a word they have so blatantly misused and he is like a dog with a bone. So I guess this is with us for a while.
After watching Chris Matthews eviscerate conservative radio host Kevin James trying to get James to define what appeasement really is and what the act of appeasement was in 1938 by Neville Chamberlain, I would have thought that the conservative right would think twice before using this word so recklessly.
The actual definition of appeasement, literally: calming, reconciling, acquiring peace by way of concessions or gifts (the verb ‘to pay’ also goes back to the Latin ‘pax’ = peace). Most commonly, appeasement is used for the policy of accepting the imposed conditions of an aggressor in lieu of armed resistance, usually at the sacrifice of principles. Usually it means giving in to demands of an aggressor in order to avoid war. Since World War II, the term has gained a negative connotation in the British government, in politics and in general, of weakness, cowardice and self-deception.
President Bush, who brandished about the ill-remembered prime minister’s name in the Israeli parliament, last week. Bush implicitly likened Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s statements about diplomacy to Chamberlain, and the idea that aggressive dictators should have their demands appeased. Dispelling any doubts about the target of Bush’s remarks, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has made the same accusation, while naming Obama. Both men have simultaneously, however, unfairly maligned one of the best tools that American leaders have at their disposal: presidential diplomacy.
Obama sparked controversy when he declared last summer that he would be willing, without preconditions, to meet with unfriendly foreign leaders, such as the presidents of Iran or Venezuela. Obama bases his stance on the history of U.S. diplomacy, citing presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Anti- communist to his core, Reagan still thought that the risks of nuclear war made dialogue with Moscow a moral and political necessity. Nor did Reagan regard dialogue with Soviet leaders as any kind of appeasement. Reagan’s commitment to dialogue paved the way for a peaceful conclusion to the Cold War.
Another vigorous practitioner of presidential diplomacy was a Democrat whom Reagan particularly admired: Kennedy. Like Reagan, Kennedy came to office believing that the United States stood at a critical point in the Cold War, and that it desperately needed to regain its good standing in the world. During his first year in office, Kennedy met with the feisty Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, and numerous other foreign leaders. Many of these men were widely disliked in the United States – Kennedy did his political standing no favors by meeting with them. Nonetheless Kennedy, a decorated World War II veteran, and the author of a bestselling study of Chamberlain’s policies, never thought meeting with these leaders was akin to appeasing them. Indeed, Kennedy always argued his case vigorously, giving his counterparts reason to respect and take him seriously – as either a friend or a foe. The Kennedy years witnessed real improvement in the image of the United States throughout the world, as shown by a remarkable global outpouring of grief that followed his assassination.
This is the tradition of diplomacy to which Obama refers. It is a strange turn of events when our leaders cast off the bipartisan U.S. commitment to diplomacy in the belief that we give something away just by meeting with foreign leaders.
Speaking this week, McCain deemed this policy reckless; but it would have been far more reckless for either Kennedy or Reagan to shun the Soviet Union or make dialogue with it contingent on extensive preconditions. It would be ideal if, as McCain has said, such meetings could only occur when they promise to advance American prestige, but neither Reagan nor Kennedy thought the issues that they faced could wait for the diplomatic stars to move into perfect alignment – nor should we.
Confronting the problems of a fractured world, we can reassure ourselves by invoking Chamberlain’s errors one more time. Or, perhaps, we can remember his successor, Winston Churchill, who stood up bravely to Hitler, but who also remarked about dialogue: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
But Barack Obama is not the only one who should be taking offense at President Bush’s insistence that anyone having truck with terrorists is no better than Neville Chamberlain and, furthermore, ignores the lessons of the Holocaust.
According to an opinion poll last February, 64% of Israelis — many of them Holocaust survivors or their relatives and descendants — wanted their government to talk directly to Hamas.
Many Israeli analysts and senior military officers have long felt the same way. For example:
Hamas is not going to disappear,” says Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military chief of strategic planning. “They’re not Al Qaeda; they’re a national political movement.” Brom, who favors indirect negotiations with Hamas, says he believes a dialogue could help moderate the Islamists.
Appeasers all, in President Bush’s world view (and John McCain’s, apparently — although it differs with what McCain said about Hamas a couple of years ago)
As for Iran, also the focus of Bush’s and McCain’s appeasement wrath, here is Bush’s own Defense Secretary:
In a speech given to a group of former American diplomats, Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, stated that his country needs to seek dialogue with Iran. He advocated engaging Tehran diplomatically, rather than simply attempting to intimidate it.
Let’s be clear what Chamberlain’s appeasement really was:
The policy of appeasement, embraced in vain by Great Britain and France in the 1930s, was ultimately a bid to reach a peaceful understanding with Germany. The major powers were anxious to abort any German influence over Eastern Europe. While the countries of this region were equally anxious, their interests rested elsewhere–unrestricted barter of agricultural products for that of German manufactured goods. As it was, Czechoslovakia remained the sole nation who relied upon support from Great Britain and France.
On May 5, 1936, the Italians invaded the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, using both merciless air power and indiscriminate poisonous gassings. By the time Emperor Haile Selassie had been deposed, the west African nation suffered more than three times the number of battle casualties than its aggressors. On June 30, 1936, Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations Assembly for league assistance against the Italian antagonists: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow. In response to the Italian descent from the northern colony of Eritrea, the League imposed feeble economic restraints on the aggressors. After proving ineffective and even producing uninvited results, the measures were dropped, leading Mussolini towards an alliance with Hitler and the idea that subsequent actions would result in similar leniency.
Accordingly, in 1935, Hitler announced that Germany was undergoing preparations to rearm itself, a fervent violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936, Hitler continued to disobey the restrictions that followed the Great War by announcing the mobilization of troops in the French-occupied Rhineland. Though the German army was under strict order to retreat in case of resistance, it was a simple victory. With France and Great Britain at odds with one another and a lack of support for France from Great Britain, Hitler was allowed to believe that his defiance of the Treaty of Versailles was tolerable.
Following the German conquest of the Rhineland and Italian success in Ethiopia, there was a great expansion of both the distinction and appeal of the authoritarian orders. The various dictatorial regimes of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia were quick to emulate the forms and methods of their Fascist and National-Socialist mentors. Those tyrannical rulers insisted their governments were the embodiments of a new political essence. Just when it seemed the situation could not reach a more volatile state, a cooperation was forged between Hitler and Mussolini, giving the Rome-Berlin axis a concrete foundation.
As the Allies reeled at the thought of a Fascist-dominated Europe, the western democracies were also faced with two alternatives-opposition by force or negotiations which would ultimately end in concessions to Nazi Germany. In August 1938, negotiations began after local German officials asserted that the Sudeten people had been discriminated against by the Czech government. On September 29, 1938, the Munich Pact, which allowed for the cession of four specific districts of the Sudetenland to Germany, was signed.
The transitions of power in the Sudetenland and ensuing actions were overseen by an international commission comprised of delegates from France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and representatives of adjoining German territories. Additionally, Germany, as well as Great Britain and France, agreed to guarantee the new borders of Czechoslovakia. The commission also addressed the issues of the plebiscites. By 1939, it was abundantly clear that the policy of appeasement had rendered ineffective by any standard.
In March 1939, Hitler continued his rampage by invading the remains of Czechoslovakia without resistance from the French or the British. That action, which led to the revocation of the Munich Pact, had two engaging, quite opposing effects. It was Hitler’s invasion that finally convinced France and Great Britain that the Fuhrer would not terminate his actions voluntarily. It was also that action which in August 1939 persuaded Stalin of the cowardice of the western allies. That was cited by Soviet statesmen as leading to the non-aggression pact that chiseled Poland into German and Soviet territories.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, with the firm belief that Britain and France would condone his action. Ironically, in March, 1939, a British-French alliance pledged to aide Poland with all available power “…in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces,” (Neville Chamberlain, Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 3e45, March 31, 1939). On September 3, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war against Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Ultimately, appeasement failed. The commencement of World War II forced the western allies to realize the flaws of the policy of appeasement. Though appeasement appeared to be the solution to all problems, it ensured a peace that would have been very costly to maintain. To a great extent, appeasement was a course that tended to ignore some hard political ideas. The question of the Rhineland occupation presented differences in diplomatic procedures, testing the durability of the French-British alliance. The western Allies emerged from the war having defeated Hitler and his army in 1945, yet somehow, the word “winner” seems inappropriate.
So, Mr. President and Senator McCain – I realize that neither of you were very good students- but please get your facts straight. Senator Obama is talking about talking not about appeasing.
The President and the Senator from Arizona are not just poor students of history, they obviously forgot that diplomacy not saber rattling should be how the greatest and most powerful nation on the planet should conduct itself in the community of nations.