Leave the Munich Pact Out of This, John Kerry

Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact—the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a musty storage closet, “is the table on which the pact was signed.”

I was dumbfounded, finding it hard to believe that such a key artifact in one of the most infamous episodes in modern Western history was now tucked away behind some folding chairs and a stepladder. But perhaps that’s the best place for it— it’s lost its meaning as it’s gotten so ubiquitous as a hawkish smear that some of the people using it don’t even know what actually happened there.

Which is why I was disappointed to see that Secretary Kerry reportedly trotted it out in a meeting over the weekend with Congressional Democrats, telling them that the United States faced a “Munich moment” in deciding whether to support military action against Syria. It was a page right out of the neocon playbook. Look, it’s fine to highlight the risks of inaction. But it should hardly need pointing out that there is a yawning chasm of difference between a dictator poised to overrun Europe and one who doesn’t even control large portions of his own country.

Things didn’t get better in yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Secretary Kerry suggested that those voting against the administration’s proposed Syria strikes were voting with Iran. “Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry said. “Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip.” To my ears, this echoed the worst of the right’s rhetoric in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when skeptics of the invasion—you know, the people who turned out to be right—were accused of being “pro-Saddam.”

The president’s decision to seek Congressional authorization for military action in Syria is the right move. With action by the UN Security Council blocked by a Russian veto, and last week’s surprising vote by the British parliament against British participation in a U.S.-led strike on Syria leaving President Obama without the support of America’s closest and most important ally, the legitimacy of U.S. action in Syria is in serious question. Going to Congress is a risky but necessary move to generate domestic support that can then be parlayed into greater international support.

A new Pew poll shows that most Americans skeptical of the proposed Syria action, but also believe that international support is necessary if it is taken. A 59 percent majority—including 54 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Republicans, and 58 percent of Independents—think that the U.S. should “get a United Nations resolution to use force before taking military action against Syria.”

Even though, as I wrote last week, I don’t think a Syria intervention is a wise course, I appreciate that the administration is taking steps toward addressing its current lack of legitimacy But I wish they would do this without resorting to the sort of fear-mongering that has so distorted our national security debates over the past decade. 

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