Politics & Policy

The Calculus of Appeasement

The British response.

NORFOLK (Furious) Are you threatening me, Cromwell?

CROMWELL My dear Norfolk … This isn’t Spain.–Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, Act Two

The Britain of July 2005 is not the Spain of March 2004, either. To say the least of it, there is no general election due in Britain this weekend. There is, in fact, none to be expected for at least three years. Nor did a weak, distracted, and incompetent prime minister immediately try to stick the blame for the London terrorist attacks on the IRA, as José María Aznar did with the Basque terrorists.

The British have behaved well in the immediate crisis; though this is not very surprising, as there is no case of a civilized modern nation behaving badly under such circumstances–rioting in the streets, attacking suspicious foreigners, and so on. We of the Western world are too civilized for all that. Too civilized for some other things, too… but I shall return to this point in a moment.

There were, of course, many ringing declarations of resolve from British politicians. Tony Blair: “When they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated. When they seek to change our country or our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed.” George W. Bush: “We will not yield to these people.” These are the things folk want to hear; these are the things politicians feel moved to say. Nobody is speaking untruths here; nobody is being insincere. (Though there is some hyperbole, some understandable stretching: “An attack on civilized people everywhere,” said Blair. No, actually; it was an attack only on British people, because of Britian’s presence in Iraq.) Lower down the political scale, upper lips were just as stiff. Watching those fine, stoical Londoners on my TV yesterday, I expected at any moment to see the interviewer encounter some chirpy cockney in a pearl-button suit saying: “Cor, we didn’t ‘arf cop it!…”

And yet, in all probability, Britain will yield to “these people.” This can be said with fair certainty because Britain did yield to the previous concerted series of terrorist attacks on her soil, the one carried out by the so-called Irish Republican Army (not to be confused with the actual army of the actual Irish Republic, which is a quite different thing), from the early 1970s through to the late 1990s. The terrorists who carried out those attacks were in many cases arrested, convicted, and imprisoned; they have now all been released, even those serving life sentences. Those who evaded the police are not now under investigation. The terrorist leaders who organized and directed the attacks have been given well-paid jobs in the British civil service, with secretaries, chauffeur-driven cars, and handsome pensions. The arm of British law enforcement that bore the brunt of the attacks, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has been disbanded at the terrorists’ request, and its decades of brave and honorable service to the Crown are being flushed down the memory hole as fast as it can be done. Tiocfaidh ár lá, boasted the IRA men–”Our day will come.” It has.**

Yes, Britain will “do a Spain.” I am sure of it. Britain’s Spain will not be as dramatic or obvious as Spain’s Spain, for the reasons I started out by enumerating. The British anyway have far, far more experience of appeasement than the Spaniards. They know how to do it slowly, imperceptibly, so that nobody much notices. You could ask a Turkish Cypriot, or a white Rhodesian, or of course an Ulsterman.

Why will they do it? Well, why did they do it in the case of the IRA? Because of a simple calculus of self-interest. In the first place, the integrity of their homeland was not threatened, and is not now. Outside a few “Orange” neighborhoods in Glasgow and Liverpool, no person in mainland Britain regards Northern Ireland as part of his homeland. Even at the height of the IRA terror, nobody though that Britain’s existence was at stake, as they thought in 1940 or 1588. Similarly today: Islamic terrorists can make a terrific nuisance of themselves, but nobody imagines that a petty rabble of third-world anarchists is going to sweep away the structures of the British state–massacre the Royal Family, seat themselves in parliament, take over the Royal Navy, loot the Bank of England. Absurd!

Since the existence of the nation does not appear to be at stake, citizens, and their alert representatives, are free to ponder, with a clear and patriotic conscience, where their self-interest lies. In a whole-hearted cooperation with America in the war on terror? Or in accommodation with the terrorists? What are the pros and cons, from the point of view of an ordinary British citizen who does not give a fig about America, or Israel, or Iraq? Who just wants a quiet life? To ask the question is to answer it. There have been no IRA bombs in London since Gerry Adams got his government limousine; there have been none in Madrid since the Spaniards kicked out the Aznar government, and pulled their troops out of Iraq.

I don’t mean to imply that the British are mean or cowardly. If a man seeks to steal my car, burn my house, and assault my wife, it would indeed be cowardly of me to appease him; but if a man shows up to break a couple of my windows every third or fourth year, he is just a nuisance, not a threat, and there would be nothing dishonorable in paying him off for a few hundred dollars, if the law could not help me. Back in the 1930s, many English people thought that appeasing the kaiser in 1914 would have been a wiser policy that rushing to the aid of Belgium, and would have saved the nation from a ghastly catastrophe and millions dead and maimed. Some respectable historians agree. When Hitler showed up, appeasement was therefore the natural response. It might have worked, if Hitler had not been Hitler. However, no English person of today thinks that Osama bin Laden is Hitler. Appeasement of the jihadists is a rational course of action.

Is it the correct course of action? I don’t myself believe it is. I believe that weapons of mass destruction alter the old logic, in ways that not many people outside America–and not a very satisfactory number inside, come to think of it–have thought through. I support the war on terror; would, in fact, support a much more vigorous and ruthless one.

Here, though, you come to another equation in the calculus of appeasement. Is the United States willing to fight this war the way it needs fighting, with grim ferocity and cold unconcern for legalistic niceties? To lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike, to level cities, to burn forests and divert rivers, to smite our enemies hip and thigh, to carry out summary execution of captured leaders? Of course not–how barbaric! And yet (whispers the ancestral, tribal voice in our heads, and in British heads too) if not, then what’s the point? War is a tribal affair, one tribe exterminating another, or reducing it to utter impotence and ignominious surrender. That’s what war is, and it isn’t anything else. We know this in our bones, from a million years of tribal living and fighting. If we are not willing to fight a war like that–which apparently we are not, being much too civilized–then we should not be too surprised if our allies turn and cut deals with our enemies. At least they’ll have a quiet life, for a while.


** The pronunciation is “Chocky ar lah,” more or less. When Gerry Adams and his boys went respectable and started showing up in expensive business suits, Irish-republican wags grumbled that the slogan had been changed to “Chocky Armani.”


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