British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was ecstatic after the Munich Conference of 1938. He bragged that he had coaxed Adolf Hitler into stopping further aggression after the Nazis gobbled up much of Czechoslovakia.
Arriving home, Chamberlain proudly displayed Hitler’s signature on the Munich Agreement, exclaiming to adoring crowds, “I believe it is peace for our time. . . . And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.”
But after listening to Chamberlain’s nice nonsense, Hitler remarked to his generals about a week later, “Our enemies are little worms, I saw them at Munich.” War followed in about a year.
Sometimes deterrence against aggression is lost with just a few unfortunate words or a relatively minor gesture.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a comprehensive address to the National Press Club in early 1950. Either intentionally or by accident, he mentioned that South Korea was beyond the American defense perimeter. Communist North Korea, and later China, agreed. War broke out six months later.
Well before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and sent aid to Communist rebels in Central America, Pres. Jimmy Carter announced that America had lost its “inordinate fear of Communism.”
In 1981, Britain, as a goodwill gesture in the growing Falkland Islands dispute, promised to withdraw a tiny warship from the islands. But to the Argentine dictatorship, that reset-button diplomacy was seen as appeasement. It convinced them that the United Kingdom was no longer the nation of Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill. So Argentina invaded the Falklands.
Why, after a horrendous war with Iran, would Saddam Hussein have risked another one with Kuwait? Perhaps because he believed that the United States would not stop him. That was a logical inference when American ambassador April Glaspie told him, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. . . . The Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”
Saddam invaded a little over a week later.
These examples could be expanded and serve as warnings. In the last 18 months, the Obama administration has made a number of seemingly insignificant remarks and gestures — many well-intended and reasoned — that might be interpreted as a new U.S. indifference to aggression.
Consider the number of apologies Obama has issued to various states that suggest we, not others, are the problem:
‐To Turkey, Obama expressed remorse for slavery and our treatment of Native Americans.
‐To Russia, he emphasized a need for an American diplomatic reset button.
‐To the Japanese, he touched on the brutal way America ended World War II.
‐To the world at large, Obama apologized for Guantanamo Bay, the War on Terror, and some activities of the CIA.
‐To Latin America, he rued our past insensitive diplomacy.
‐To the G-20, he lamented America’s prior rude behavior.
‐To the Muslim world, he confessed to wrong policies and past mistakes.
‐To Europe, he apologized for our occasionally strained relations.
‐To the United Nations, he said he felt bad about America’s unilateral behavior.
In addition, Obama has bowed to Saudi autocrats and Chinese dictators. In morally equivalent fashion, an Obama subordinate brought up to human-rights violator China the Arizona immigration law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that we would be neutral in a new and growing Falklands Island dispute. And America has put Israel on notice that the old close relationship is changing.
Turkey is growing increasingly anti-American. A newly aggressive Russia is beaming that we have caved on a number of contentious issues.
The Japanese are distancing themselves from America. British, French, and German leaders are increasingly wary of the United States. The Mexican president criticized Arizona from the White House lawn.
War is now more, not less, likely in the Middle East. In Latin America, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are as hostile to the U.S. as ever. Brazil is now seeking to assert new authority contrary to U.S. policies.
Even little words and gestures still matter in high-stakes international relations. Bad actors look hard for even the smallest sign that they might get away with aggression without consequences.
A deferential and apologetic President Obama may think he is making those abroad like us — and he may be right in some cases. But if history is any guide, aggressive powers are paying close attention to these seemingly insignificant signs. Soon, they may turn their wild ideas into concrete aggression — once they convince themselves that America neither wants to nor is able to stop them.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.