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War in our time: the myth of appeasement

Ramesh Thakur

The European backing for “tough” American policy towards Iran suggests that the age-old instinct for appeasing the predatory propensity of the great and powerful is alive and well.

In 2002-2003, President George W. Bush presented the United Nations with an interesting test of relevance: if the Security Council did not endorse the ultimatum to force Iraqi compliance on American terms, he warned, Washington would reserve the right to launch a full-fledged military assault on its own. Analysts and commentators wondered: would the U.N. lift its performance and remain relevant to the U.S. foreign policy on Washington’s terms, or in doing so would it risk being seen as bending to the U.S. will without demanding American compliance with global norms from arms control to environmental regimes and international criminal justice; that is, a quintessentially unilateralist version of multilateralism?

The gauntlet-cum-ultimatum came after weeks of raging debate on whether the war clouds were a genuine or fabricated crisis, and whether President Bush was being remarkably prescient or provoking a crisis where none existed. Part of the publicity spin in the preceding weeks had drawn historical parallels with the discredited and dangerous policy of appeasement. Saddam Hussein was the contemporary Hitler (an evil dictator bent on aggression). President Bush was portrayed by spinmasters as the modern-day heroic Winston Churchill, crying his warnings in the wilderness against a chorus of voices to the contrary. The international isolation of the American President thus was turned into a virtue.

One of the great success stories of the twentieth century was the progressive delegitimisation of aggression and war. Once considered a normal and acceptable condition of sovereign statehood, warfare has been so successfully stigmatised that the bar became extraordinarily high for any country to launch an unprovoked attack on another.

Among other tragic setbacks to international order and justice, the neoconservatives succeeded in reversing the burden of proof. Opponents of war had to prove beyond reasonable doubt and to the warmongers’ satisfaction why war should not be waged. Else, they would be tarred and dismissed as wimps and peaceniks. So when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan counselled patience and cautioned against the war option, the neocons waged a war of words against him, branded him guilty of appeasement, and compared him to Chamberlain. Thus was virtue turned into evil.

As a student of world affairs, I had definite views on the gathering war clouds and on the metaphor of appeasement. As a senior U.N. official at the time, I deemed the risk worth taking of writing on the substance of the Iraq crisis but chose discretion as the better part of valour on the analogy with 1938. If anything, though, far from changing, my views have hardened.

Historical metaphors are powerful tools of political mobilisation for all sides. In the debate over the Kosovo war in 1999, calls of “No more Vietnams” collided with warnings of another “Munich.”

Open to political manipulation

But the lessons of history are as open to political manipulation as any other tool of rallying the troops. And they are full of pitfalls if misapplied. Anthony Eden was misled into the Suez debacle in 1956 in part because of his fixation with Gamel Abdel Nasser as another Hitler and Mussolini. In 2003, the Munich and Hitler analogies proved useful to the task of demonising Saddam Hussein (not a very difficult task).

But how accurate was the analogy of appeasement?

The lesson of Munich in 1938 for the major powers (Britain and France) was that you do not buy peace with fellow major powers tomorrow by giving in to their demands today. This merely whets their appetite. They live by the sword, and shall perish only by the sword. Better therefore to confront them, including risking going to war if necessary, at a time and place of your choosing before they become fully armed. But most countries of the world are not major powers and the lesson for smaller powers was different. Faced with the prospect of war with a major power, your allies and guarantors will sell you out rather than risk a war. Thus the motor of appeasement was the wish to avoid war at any cost.

The same logic has led to repeated efforts to appease the U.S. appetite for war, with results no more promising than history’s big lessons. The party threatening to go to war in 2003 was the U.S., not Iraq. Saddam Hussein had been quite successfully contained. His regime was pathetic, weak and isolated. He had been defanged and disarmed through international coercion and U.N. inspections. These could have been toughened still more, with the right to any-time-any-place search and investigation, without having to wage war to unseat him.

There were three pertinent attributes about Hitler’s Germany at the time of the Munich Pact in 1938: dictatorship, major power status, and territorial imperialism. Dictatorship in itself is irrelevant to appeasement: no one would contemplate giving in to bluster from a weak tin-pot dictator. Saddam Hussein’s challenge in 1990 — when he was a relatively powerful regional power — was met with decisive force by the U.S.-led international community. In 2003 no credible analysts considered him powerful enough to be a threat to any other nation in the region, let alone to the world.

In 1938, Germany was Europe’s strongest power and bent on military aggression. The others were so terrified of war breaking out that they forced Czechoslovakia, the intended victim, to cede to German demands as the only way of avoiding war.

The world’s strongest power in 2003 threatened a war of aggression under the label of preventive defence. Public speculation on motives ranged from defeating and killing evil to preventing a threat from materialising, completing the unfinished agenda of 1991, avenging the attempt on the life of Bush Sr., diverting attention from corporate scandals at home that had come uncomfortably close to the administration with mid-term Congressional elections looming, catering to oil interests that also have extremely close connections with this administration, or an ideological belief in manifest global destiny.

Regardless, the world was so terrified of a new war that it wanted to force the intended target of attack, Iraq, to give in to U.S. demands without a war. The result? War in our time, yet again. The analogy with Munich 1938 did not quite work. The strength of the German opposition to the war option was intriguing. Maybe, an intuitive grasp of what appeasement means?

There was a simple way to grasp the point in 2003 in relation to Iraq which can yet be grasped today in relation to Iran. Take out a map of the world. Free yourself of all preconceptions. Put green coloured pins for Iran’s military forces stationed, based or in any form deployed outside its territory. Now place blue coloured pins for U.S. military forces stationed or deployed outside the United States, including — indeed especially — in the Middle East and Central Asia, the energy heartland of the world. Then think through the implications of this.

Leaving aside the question of the source of moral authority of nuclear-armed France threatening war on Iran if it seeks to acquire nuclear weapons: are Europeans pressuring Iran because they fear that otherwise Washington will go to war? Since the end of the Second World War, has Iran or the U.S. been the more belligerent and aggressive in its foreign policy? Which country promulgated the doctrine that no other country must be allowed to acquire the capacity to defend itself even in its own region against the one and only superpower? Excuse me?

The European backing for “tough” American policy towards Iran suggests, therefore, that the age-old instinct for appeasing the predatory propensity of the great and powerful — another abiding lesson of history — is alive and well.

By the standards of great power behaviour throughout history and occasional lapses notwithstanding, the U.S. was exceptional as an essentially benevolent hegemon from 1945 until the advent of this administration. Maybe it will revert to being a benign hegemon with a change of administration in January 2009. In the meantime, we cannot fault other countries for taking to heart the old national security adage about hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Before some readers put furious pen to paper about intellectual pacifists, let me confess: in 1990-91, from the start, I supported firm military action to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Aggression must be opposed, not appeased. Opposition should be based on the fact of aggression and not on the identity of the aggressor.

(Ramesh Thakur is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.)

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