The Appeasement Paradox

George W. Bush, never one to miss an opportunity for a partisan cheap shot, decided last week that a Knesset speech to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence was an appropriate moment to smack Barack Obama around a bit. Specifically, Bush compared Obama's view that it might make sense to enter into some good-faith negotiations with Iran to the actions of those who appeased Hitler prior to World War II. John McCain couldn't resist chiming in: "There have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain."

Thus we plunge once again into an incoherent line of argument the American right has employed for decades. Of course, back in the 1930s when there was actual appeasement happening in Europe, American conservatives weren’t complaining. But after the war, conservatives started flinging the accusation willy-nilly. Franklin Roosevelt was said to have sold freedom down the river to Stalin at the Yalta conference, General Douglas MacArthur criticized Harry Truman for waging a limited war in Korea and sought to move to all-out battle between the United States and the combined forces of the USSR and China. Barry Goldwater deemed the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis appeasement, and Ronald Reagan termed the SALT II arms-control treaty signed by the Carter administration appeasement. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was regularly accused of appeasing China.

Nor have Republicans been immune to the charge. When Dwight Eisenhower, having wisely sidelined the far-right elements of the GOP that wanted to "roll back" communism agreed to a meeting with Nikita Khruschev, William F. Buckley Jr. deemed it "an act of diplomatic sentimentality which can only confirm Khruschev in the contempt he feels for the dissipated morale of a nation far gone." Indeed, as Peter Scoblic has noted, even Reagan wasn't immune to the charge, facing allegations from his right flank of appeasing the Soviets after he embraced arms control and negotiated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Needless to say, none of the oft-forecast dire consequences of appeasement flowed from any of these incidents.

In part, this is all political opportunism, but on other levels it reflects a fundamental conservative misapprehension of how the world works.

One defining feature of appeasement-phobia, after all, is a curious tendency to underrate the importance of objective reality in determining the behavior of foreign countries. In a speech Tuesday on Cuba policy, McCain derided willingness to "sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro" on the grounds that this would "send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators -- there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms; they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy." The idea that Cuban decision-making would hinge on a "signal" from Washington is baffling. After all, the past 50 years of failed American efforts to starve the Cuban people into rebelling against the Castro regime is better evidence than any signal that Havana has no need to back down in the face of our embargo. Similarly, Buckley worried that meeting Khruschev would signal low U.S. morale to Moscow, with unspecified dire results. And McCain says the trouble with meeting with Iranian leaders (when he's not too busy being confused about who the leaders of Iran are) is that a meeting "is the most prestigious card we have to play" and scheduling one might give the Iranians an ego boost and "confer both international legitimacy on the Iranian president and could strengthen him domestically."

That's all fine, but the premise of the appeasement frame is that we're dealing with hardcore irrational ideologues who'll stop at nothing to destroy us. Adolf Hitler actually was such a man and, not coincidentally, he wasn't particularly interested in acquiring the international prestige and legitimacy associated with a sit-down with English politicians -- he wanted a giant war. In general, the right wants us to believe that world history is littered with countries whose rulers, like Hitler, will stop at nothing short of world-domination but who also spend their evenings fondly dreaming of the chance at a White House photo-op. But that’s absurd. One shouldn’t, of course, strike a bad bargain with a foreign country just because you held a meeting, but to fear that the very act of holding a meeting is a blow to the national interest is silly. Genuine madmen aren’t going to care what “signal” we’re sending, and non-crazy people can be productively bargained with.

The truth, however, is that conservatives don't just make this mistake over and over again, they fundamentally don't understand the use of diplomacy. McCain describes Iran as "an implacable foe of the United States" but the truth is that the Iranian government made several post-September 11 overtures to the U.S. seeking to improve relations. The real implacable foe of our era is al-Qaeda, the same al-Qaeda that's recently been denouncing Iran Bush/McCain-style for an alleged plot to dominate the Middle East. But the Bush administration rejected those overtures out of hand, preferring to hold out for regime change. As Dick Cheney said of North Korea, "we don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it."

But in truth we rarely have. Rather, we've historically tried to maintain enough military strength to prevent ourselves from being defeated, while working to build up the prosperity of ourselves and our allies and watching liberal democracy -- the worst system of government except all the others -- spread as alternative regimes inevitably collapse. War and conflict are incredibly costly and destructive. Wise statesmen recognize the negative-sum nature of relating to foreigners primarily by blowing them up. Moreover, it's usually possible to reach agreements with even very bad people that both sides deem preferable to fighting. In refusing to even contemplate negotiations, conservatives are being flatly irrational, spurning offers of a half a loaf for no real reason.

They're acting, in short, like the demonic foreigners of their own anti-appeasement rhetoric, impervious to objective reality and hell-bent on total victory no matter what the cost or how dim the prospects of success.

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