The Real Lesson of the Rhineland

William Kristol, one of the big kahunas of neoconservatism, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post criticizing the Obama administration for “accepting” Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. (Of course, Kristol doesn’t use the word “alleged.”) I don’t have time to respond to all his points, but his opening paragraph gives me an opportunity to repost one of my most popular columns from my early days at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. Here’s the prompt from Kristol:

In March 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland. The French prime minister, Leon Blum, denounced the act as “unacceptable.” But France, Britain and the rest of the world accepted it. Years later, the French political thinker Raymond Aron commented, “To say that something is unacceptable was to say that one accepted it.”

Comparing Iran to Nazi Germany plays fast and loose with history to a dangerous degree, as I explained in May 2008:  

“I destroy my enemies by making them my friends.” Abraham Lincoln

We need to have a talk.

Shhh…not too loud. Apparently, certain talking is verboten for us Americans. This I gather from our Commander-in-Chief during his visit to the Israeli legislature last week.

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals… We have heard this foolish delusion before,” the President lectured. “We have an obligation to call this what it is–the false comfort of appeasement…”

Appeasement, if you’re curious, was once so eloquently analogized by Lyndon Johnson: “If you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he’ll be up on your porch, and the day after that he’ll rape your wife in your own bed.” And with that, he launched the Vietnam War.

Of course, we later withdrew from Vietnam unsuccessfully, but communism never spread like Johnson said it would. So much for the bully theory.

But that’s not enough to dissuade President Bush because he is not referring to Vietnam. Rather, the President’s analogy of choice is the Sudetenland.

When the great powers divvied up Europe after World War I, they made a number of clumsy decisions–among them, the separation of two ethnic German regions from their motherland. The first, Austria, was annexed by Adolf Hitler in March 1938. The second, the Sudetenland, was a part of Czechoslovakia and in danger of the same fate as Austria.

Sure enough, Hitler demanded the region. When France and Czechoslovakia readied their armies in defense, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain called a conference to negotiate.

The resulting Munich Agreement–gifting the Sudetenland to Germany in exchange for peace–lasted a mere six months before Hitler stormed the rest of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. After another six months, Poland met the same demise, triggering World War II.

The “lesson of Munich,” as President Bush sees it, was punctuated by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times: The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war. Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president–but this cold war is with Iran.”

I’m sorry, Mr. President and Mr. Friedman, but neither analogy holds water.

Before Chamberlain’s “appeasement,” Hitler had already annexed Austria. Iran has not invaded any of its neighbors.

When Chamberlain met with Hitler, the German army was strong and growing. Iran has the second-lowest defense spending as a percent of GDP in the Persian Gulf. It spends less than 1% of what America spends on its military. [I didn’t save my original citation, but you can find estimates herehere, and here.]

Even if all that weren’t true, and Iran posed a threat the size of, say, the Soviet Union, as Friedman alleges, why-oh-why must we give them the silent treatment?

Dwight Eisenhower hosted Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, and it was only by talking to Khrushchev that John F. Kennedy averted a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, banishing an entire league of nuclear weapons. And the anti-appeaser himself, George W. Bush, negotiated with Muammar Khadafi to the tune of shutting down Libya’s nuclear program.

But when it comes to Iran, we take this juvenile stance when we should be following the real lessons of Munich.

The Treaty of Versailles so punished the Germans that they turned to Hitler. Why, then, do we insist on subjecting Iran to painful sanctions?

Despite Hitler’s illegal annexations, the Austrians and Sudetenlanders wanted to join Germany, but the Allied Powers butchered the boundaries after World War I. But that wasn’t all they mapped out.

Every “pro-American” autocracy in the Middle East (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and so forth) was created by the British and French empires after World War I. Every “anti-American” regime (Syria, Iran, and formerly Iraq) used to be in the same camp but rebelled against its monarch. It’s little wonder they feel almost a century of resentment built up toward us. Why, then, do we continue to prop up dictators that suppress Arabs across the region?

And if your argument is we should not talk to a country that is supporting Shiite insurgents killing our soldiers in Iraq, then we should cut off all ties with Saudi Arabia, too. After all, their Sunni insurgents are responsible for far more American combat deaths. Not to mention the 15 Saudi Arabians who hijacked our planes on September 11, 2001—which Iran had nothing to do with.

Which is all to say, we should be talking to Iran, but let’s keep that between you and me. We wouldn’t want President Bush to overhear.

The obvious criticism is that Kristol and I are talking about two different years and two different regions. The Rhineland came two years before the Munich Agreement. I will return to that specific incident another day, but for now suffice it to say that diplomacy and history are far more complicated–and less kind to military solutions–than Kristol likes to admit.