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Look to Sarajevo, Not Munich

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It is clear by now that foreign policy will be center stage in this Presidential election, as it should be. Conservatives have made much of the fact that Democratic nominee Barack Obama has pledged to meet with rogue leaders. They have even taken to calling Obama’s foreign policy appeasement.

Of course this is ludicrous. The problem in the 1930s was not that Neville Chamberlain talked to Hitler at Munich, but that he actively gave away the Sudetenland and encouraged the Nazis’ land lust. So unless anyone has some evidence that Obama plans to give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a nuclear weapon or Kim Jung Il South Korea in negotiations, the term is not appropriate. This is not to say that we shouldn’t debate whether meeting with a man like Ahmadinejad unnecessarily enhances his prestige, or whether Obama was wise to promise unconditional meetings with enemy leaders in a debate last year.

My larger problem is that too many conservatives want to make every foreign policy issue into 1938 at Munich. Any leader who talks tough and rattles his saber becomes Winston Churchill. Any adversary becomes Adolf Hitler. And everyone who urges any sort of diplomacy is suddenly Neville Chamberlain. But the foreign policy challenges we face today are much more reminiscent of the years before World War One than they are of the years before World War Two.

Prior to the First World War, there were many great world powers. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all jockeyed for global hegemony and influence. As militarism and nationalism dominated the European continent, career diplomats knew that the slightest misstep could lead to war. That misstep came on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand. This triggered a now infamous chain of events. Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, issued an extreme ultimatum which the Serbs rejected. Austria-Hungary promptly declared war. Russia rushed to the defense of Serbia, and Germany declared war on Russia. France and Britain were rapidly brought into the war.

The First World War would last for over four years and leave millions dead. Indirectly, it also caused the Second World War, which left millions more dead. If anything, this demonstrates the paramount importance of active diplomacy. What if European powers had engaged in more diplomacy, instead of going to war as a knee-jerk reaction? Foreign policy hawks don’t want to cause world chaos, but it is instructive for them—and for us—to remember that our actions can have dramatic consequences.

Today, the US is the world’s last superpower. But we have many rivals for world influence such as China, India, Brazil, Russia, North Korea, and perhaps most dangerously Iran. There’s no shortage of serious issues either. We have to keep Iran from deploying nuclear weapons to fulfill Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. We need to prevent the Iranians from aiding Shiite terrorists in Iraq as well. These are urgent matters, and responsible people from across the political spectrum agree that something has to be done.

President Bush’s invasion of Iraq demonstrates the problems of rash foreign policy decisions. Vice-President Cheney told us we would be greeted as liberators. Ideologues within the administration didn’t send enough troops, and didn’t adequately consider the fact that a prolonged occupation of the country would empower Iran. The war has sapped billions of dollars in treasure, taken millions of lives, and tarnished America’s reputation in the world. We shouldn’t have gone in the first place, but at the very least, neoconservatives who were bent on going to war could have considered the consequences more fully than they evidently did.

Some have speculated that Bush plans to attack Iran before the end of his Presidency. Others have actually counseled the use of military force against the regime. Perhaps some sort of military action will become unavoidable, especially if we know that Iran is planning to launch a nuclear strike. But in contemplating our options, we need to draw the right historical lessons. If we insist upon making an analogy, it’s 1914, not 1938. The wrong moves could lead to an all-out war which threatens Israel, further destabilizes the Middle East, and requires an untenable American military commitment in the region. The next leader who talks of aggressive unilateral strikes might be Winston Churchill, but he could also be George W. Bush.

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About Marcus Alexander Gadson

  • Alessandro

    Good point Marcus. You present it well. Though I don’t the think the Hitler analogy is entirely wrong. Maybe they can learn from both 1914 and 1938? That is, of course, if we accept there is a common thread between fascists, anarchists and modern terrorists and how they both threatened the nation-state.

    1914 was culmination of events that stretched back into the previous century. The balance of power structure (Treaty of Westphalia) was increasingly under stress and eventually destroyed in 1914. Nothing happens out of the clear blue. The Serb may have triggered the war but we all know the causes of it have a longer history.

    In this way, the Americans are best to consider the past to understand what brought them and Iran to this point before taking military action.

  • Dan Miller

    A Good, thought provoking article. I agree that merely talking with Hitler at Munich need not have been appeasement. It was not necessarily so; it just happened that way, largely because Britain was very tired of conflict and had been for some time. The Oxford Resolution of 1933 — resolved that this House will not fight for King or Country — reflected a widespread British pacifist sentiment which persisted until things got so bad that war became unavoidable. By the time that it was necessary to go to war, Hitler’s Germany had become very, very powerful and obdurate. It was not all that powerful when, even a year before the Munich talks, Britain and what became her allies took no steps to intervene. Had they done so, it seems likely in retrospect that Hitler would have paused — maybe even stopped; Germany’s military power was simply inadequate to do what Hitler had long wanted to do. Instead, the failure to intervene, coupled with the concessions made at Munich, enabled him to advance his by then massive preparations for war; preparations which were in flagrant violation of the treaty of Versailles which had ended WWI.

    As Alessandro points out in Comment #1, the assassination of the Archduke in June of 1914 was merely the spark which ignited the already exceedingly combustible mix which became WWI. The situation had been festering for years, and any small spark could just as easily have done the same thing. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August for an excellent history of the events leading up to WWI. Again, in retrospect, it is not difficult to see what was likely to happen.

    Thus far, and perhaps to the detriment of Western Civilization, the sparks which could have ignited an already equally combustible mix have thus far been put out before war occurred. I would suggest that the recent Danish cartoons, and the resultant Islamic outrage, are sparks which could have ignited a very broad conflict. The West caved in, with great pressures being put on the press to avoid such wicked conduct in the future. But haven’t we — Western Civilization — lost quite a lot in the process? Not territory, and not even necessarily pride, but even worse, some of our freedoms? It seems that nearly every day there is an article in the press about further concessions to radical Islam, and further retrenchment on our freedoms.

    These things suggest to me that territorial concessions are not the only possible form of appeasement, and that as we continuously relinquish our freedoms in the name of peace, we are making war all the more likely and also more likely to be horrific. I see the failure to act now, even through a modest and restrained show of strength, as encouraging a much worse war later; that was certainly true in 1938-39, and is probably at least as true now.

    As I suggested in Quo Vadis? II, talks are a good idea, not a bad one. However, the talks have to be undertaken from a position of strength, not weakness. Although being excessively hawkish is not a good thing, neither is being excessively dovish.


  • Dan Miller

    In line with my comment #2, here is an article well worth reading, if only as food for thought. It draws an interesting parallel between the situation in Iran and that which engulfed much of the world in WWII.


  • Baronius

    Every crisis is different, but I think the WWII analogy is more correct than the WWI in describing our current situation.

    The leadup to Sarajevo wasn’t ideological. All sides were jockeying for advantage, but only out of nationalism. At such a time, diplomacy could have worked. In World War II, at least in the European Theater, we had an ideology of destruction which Europe had allowed to grow. A strong, unified stand in Munich would have prevented war.

    I could see us getting into a WWI-model crisis. Right now, Russia and China aren’t driven by ideology so much as by competitive spirit. They’re each itching for a chance to assert their dominance. Both countries’ leadership misses the old days of Stalinism, but neither country is particularly governed by an ideology. This is the time for diplomacy.

    Militant Islam, however, fits in a WWII scenario. They have every intention to do harm to their enemies, for the sake of harming their enemies. It’s tough to see the benefit of diplomacy in this situation.

  • Ruvy

    This article, well written as it is, comes 18 years too late.

    These considerations should have been topmost when the United States duplicitously gave Saddam Hussein a “green light” to invade Quwait. The Bush administration then lied through its teeth, screamed and yelled and created “a coalition of the willing” which did not do the job in the first place.

    It was a “conservative” who got into this mess in the first place. It was a “conservative” who quailed before ousting Saddam Hussein.

    Unfortunately, for all the good analysis here, it is necessary to destroy Iran’s capability to project nuclear power before it creates a regional war. And it is a “conservative” who is quailing before doing what he really needs to do today. And this “conservative” is the son of the “conservative” who got you all into this hell hole. Gutlessness personified. The apple did not fall far from the tree.


    This has nothing to do with conservativism or liberalism. This has to do with survival.

    The United States has lost only 4,000 lives in a stupid, foolish war in Iraq. For a country of its size, 4,000 lives is a terribly small price to pay for stupidity lasting 18 years.

    The United States did not do what it ought to have done in 2001 – crush the Wahhabi terror network based in Saudi Arabia, by crushing Saudi Arabia. So, now it is paying the price several times over.

    Cowardice, and an unwillingness to destroy one’s enemy when necessary will cost America – and many others – thousands of more lives in the future.

  • Baronius

    Ruvy, you’re the one who brought conservatism and liberalism into the discussion, only to declare that it’s not relevent. Look at the facts of the situation today. Which paradigm applies, WWI or WWII? You say that we should enter conflict sooner rather than wait and increase the cost of lives. That’s Munich, not Sarajevo.

  • Ruvy


    You say that we should enter conflict sooner rather than wait and increase the cost of lives. That’s Munich, not Sarajevo

    I’m not looking at either Munich or Sarajevo, but a very different example – Pearl Harbor, replicated thrice over – the attack on a ship in Yemen (I think it was Yemen), the attack on a Marines barracks in Lebanon, and most importantly, the attack on the World Trade Center. Ugly as those buildings were, thousands didn’t have to die merely to remove an eyesore from New York’s skyline.

    Bottom, line – when your enemy attacks you, you go in and finish him off – literally – or pay in blood later.

    Sorry didn’t get back to you earlier. My attention has bee distracted some over financial matters.

  • Actually, the economy is going to be centre stage in this election, as it should be, not foreign policy.

  • Dan Miller

    Christopher Rose,

    You are probably correct in thinking that the economy will be central to the election.

    However, I don’t understand how the economy can be separated from U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. economy is dependent, and increasingly so, on economies elsewhere; all are very much dependent on oil prices. A conflagration in the oil producing countries would clearly impact on oil prices and therefore on the economy.

    It seems clear to me that such a conflagration will come, and that to the extent that U.S. foreign policy assists in having it come under the least disadvantageous circumstances for the U.S., the better. Current political realities strongly suggest that energy independence, otherwise a perhaps viable alternative, is a pipe dream, and that it would be foolish in the extreme to count on it as a solution to anything.

    I may have been dozing, but I don’t recall either of the two candidates speaking seriously to the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the U.S. economy.


  • Dan, I didn’t say anything about the economy being separated from foreign policy, I was just rebutting the central contention of this article.

    I don’t share your pessimism about a “conflagration in the oil producing countries” though, but I do hope that the next US president will take a more constructive international approach than we have seen in the last 8 years.

  • Dan Miller


    I certainly hope that you are right and that I am wrong about a conflagration over there. It is usually better to be pleasantly surprised than unpleasantly, even if that proves one dead wrong.

    As to a hope that the next US president will take a more constructive international approach than we have seen in the last 8 years, that would be a very pleasant surprise indeed. Unfortunately, I fear that it would be naive to bet too much on it happening.


  • I’m not sure about that, Dan. It may be as simple as who wins, Obama or McCain…

  • bliffle

    Gee, too bad we can’t simply settle on some historical precedent and then figure out what to do. Assuming that we could choose the correct precedent and then determine what’s right to avoid past mistakes.

    Maybe we have to think deeply about the present situation on it’s own merits, figure out what the consequences and repercussions would be, discuss everything, and then act. Having a good strategy and providing for flexibility in the face of unforeseen changes, of course.

    But that would be hard work and would require honesty to supercede boosterism, of course. Maybe it’s asking too much.

  • Toby Hanks

    I completly aggre with that.