But seriously, don’t you think that this isn’t a binary situation? Aren’t there, in fact, ways of dealing with the Iranian threat, for example, that don’t involve pre-emption but aren’t legitimately characterized as “appeasement.” During the Cold War, containment of a much more threatening foe seemed to turn out pretty well. The series of treaties and summits and negotiations with the Soviets managed to limit the casualties on both sides, and ended up getting us where we wanted to go when communism died with a whimper, rather than a bang. Similarly, we’ve engaged the Chinese – another very serious totalitarian threat – with economic carrots and diplomatic relations since the early 1970s.
I don’t know whether Iran is a regime that will or will not respond to that sort of overture. But why are you so sure that it won’t? More importantly, why do you so glibly label anything other than a pre-emptive war against Iran as “appeasement”?
Me: Iran isn’t responding to “that sort of overture.” And we never let the Soviets gain an offensive strategic advantage that would leave us defenseless–except within the logic of a nuclear arms race that had the world on the precipice of nuclear war for decades. MAD only seems like a good idea in retrospect because it worked, but it was a strategy of desperation. And at the time, we were pretty sure it would work because the Russians did not claim to “love death” and were exceedingly rational in their strategic analysis. Even then, we almost went to war in the Cuban Missile Crisis — to prevent them gaining an offensive strategic advantage which would have left the national defense significantly degraded. And we weren’t worried about proliferation into the hands of terrorist groups.
What worries me is that we might get cornered (at some crisis-point) into a choice between preempting a new strategic offensive advantage for our adversaries — once they seek by angry confrontation rather than good-faith negotiation — or conceding it, which is appeasement. Permitting a stable defensive equilibrium to be disturbed by an adversary’s acquisition of an offensive capability for which you have no certain defense, which allows the enemy to escape some important element of containment, and which will operate (even by its very existence) to upset a delicate peace, is reckless. This is the reason for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meanwhile, the risks of limited primitive strikes have been greatly exaggerated. The reason Iran wants the nuclear advantage is that without it, they cannot risk a real war with the United States. But with it, their freedom to behave aggressively will vastly increase.
And that brings me to the most important point. For the moment, there is a third option between preemption and appeasement: diplomacy. Our diplomacy now is packaged to seem like it might succeed, but it is not calculated to succeed. If you give them a clear choice between a negotiated settlement and military confrontation then we can negotiate in good faith and perhaps arrive at a resolution that will achieve “peace in our time” on a secure and rational foundation.