Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.
So spoke President’s Bush to the Israeli Knesset on the 60th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish state last week. Ostensibly the president’s historical references made perfect sense for a variety of reasons. First, the state of Israel is inextricably a result of the Holocaust — a genocide that was in itself the logical consequence of an ascendant Nazi state, whose industry of death might could been circumvented by concerted action earlier in the late 1930s by the then stronger liberal democracies.
Bush was assuring the Israelis that the United States would not, in contrast to liberal democracies of the past, appease states and organizations intent on killing Jews by the millions.
Second, Bush’s warning came in a climate of fear and weariness in the West, in which calls to meet without preconditions with both Iran and Hamas — the former state whose president has forecast the impending destruction of Israel, the latter terrorist organization whose charter hinges on the end of the Jewish state — have been voiced by several public figures, most prominently in recent days by former President Carter.
Third, the warning about appeasement comes not just after, and in implied defense, of military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the case of the United States, also after the September 11 catastrophe, which itself followed a decade of bipartisan inability to confront and respond to a number of al-Qaeda serial provocations.
The speech caused outrage among Democrats who insisted that it was “appalling” and a “smear” on Barack Obama, who has advocated talks, without preconditions, with Iran, and who had been informally endorsed by a Hamas official, and who had recently fired a Middle Eastern adviser, Robert Malley, for meeting with Hamas leaders. Obama fired off the following reply:
It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence to launch a false political attack…It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel…George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.
Three questions are raised by this controversy. First: What constitutes appeasement in the 21st-century age of globalization? Second: If President Bush had wished to imply a connection with the unnamed Barack Obama, how fair would such a charge have been? Third: Has President Bush himself followed his own advice and shunned the appeasement of “with terrorists and radicals”?
Most define appeasement not by the mere willingness on occasion to negotiate with enemies (i.e., the heads of nation states rather than criminal terrorist cliques). Rather, appeasement is an overriding desire to avoid war or confrontation to such a degree so as to engage in a serial pattern of behavior that results in an accommodation of an enemy’s demands — and ultimately the inadvertent enhancement of its agendas. Key here is the caveat that there must muscular alternatives to appeasement, as was true with a rather weak 1936 Nazi Germany or a non-nuclear theocratic Iran.
Talking with an Iranian theocrat like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad per se might not necessarily constitute appeasement. But continuing such talks without preconditions that made no progress in curbing Iranian nuclear agendas, or support for Hezbollah terrorists and Shiite militias in Iraq would not only be futile, but encourage further Iranian adventurism — by the assurance that negotiations were infinite and there would be few lines in the sand and little chance of military opposition to follow. In our era, the locus classicus of appeasement is the near decade of negotiations, empty threats, and drawnout diplomacy with Slobodan Milosevic, in which with virtual impunity he butchered thousands of Croats, Kosovars, and Bosnians — until a belated bombing war forced him to capitulate.
Bush in his Knesset address may have acknowledged that expansive notion of appeasement when he elaborated on his “negotiate with terrorists and radicals” line, with the proviso of futility — namely that such talking assumed an “ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.” In addition, Bush’s example — that when “Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided” — suggests that his reference to appeasement meant not just one-time talking, but delusional and persistent engagement that is oblivious to facts on the ground.
If the president also meant to include Obama among those who would engage in such appeasement, would there be any evidence for such a view? Obama himself has never been in a position of exercising executive judgments, so we have only his campaign statements from which to surmise. In this regard, we certainly know that Obama is willing to meet any and all our enemies without preconditions. During a televised debate he was asked directly whether he would agree “to meet separately, without precondition . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea,” Obama replied: “I would.”
His website amplifies that answer with the boast that “Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.” The problem here would not be in theory talking with an Iran or Syria — Sec. of Defense Gates on numerous occasions has advocated negotiations with Teheran — but in a priori signaling to tyrants such an eagerness to elevate their grievances to head-of-state diplomacy. Under what conditions, how long, and to what degree Obama would be willing to exercise non-diplomatic options when talks proved futile would adjudicate whether his preference for unconditional talks devolved from diplomacy to appeasement.
If a President Obama were to enter into multiple negotiations with Iran, and if Iran were to continue to subvert the Lebanese government and threaten Israel through its surrogate Hezbollah, and continue to develop a nuclear arsenal while promising the destruction of Israel, at what point would he be willing not merely to cease talking, but to accept that his negotiations had done more harm than good and thus required a radical change of course — and would it be in time?
Given President Bush’s admonitions about appeasement, does the president practice what he preaches?
That depends on a variety of factors such as whether enemies are nuclear or not, whom exactly we define as adversaries — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Sudan, Libya? — and to what degree our existing negotiations are proving not only futile, but emboldening our enemies by the assurance that we will neither cease diplomacy nor threaten the use of force.
Both the president and Obama, in arguing abstractly over appeasement, do not factor in such realist concerns of leverage that govern decisions to negotiate, such as exporting ten million barrels a day of scarce oil (Saudi Arabia), the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable government (Pakistan and North Korea), or the unwillingness of American public opinion to support an armed intervention (Darfur).
In that regard, Barack Obama shows his own inexperience when he evokes past summits that a John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan conducted with the nuclear Soviets — contemporary rivalries in which escalation to nuclear annihilation was a real worry, and at the time Soviet combatants (as is true in Iraq) were not killing our own soldiers.
In short, nothing in the president’s speech was inaccurate, inflammatory, or hypocritical. Whether Barack Obama believes he was a target of the president’s rhetoric, or whether he would engage in appeasement, hinges on whether his overeagerness to talk without preconditions to the world’s thugs and rogues would persist in the face of unpleasant facts — and so make the likelihood of eventual military action more, rather than less, likely.
– Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.