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February 02, 2006

A Munich Moment?

Starting a war is a terrible thing. To be a President, or a King, or an Emir, and decide to send scores of thousands of young people to their possible deaths must be a terrible burden. President Bush has already faced this choice twice; once in Afghanistan, and once in Iraq. Is it any wonder that he is looking older and grayer on the small screen than he did even a couple of years ago?

But history is not always kind to the peacemakers. In 1936, when Hitler's Germany "re-militarized" the Rhine (which had been designated as a demilitarized zone under the Treaty of Versaille), France and England did nothing, even though they had armies more than powerful enough to quickly force Germany to adhere to its treaty comittments. In 1938, when Hitler decided to "liberate" the German minority living in the western part of Czechoslovakia, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously achieved "peace for our time" by negotiating an exchange of Czech territory for an end to German territorial ambitions. Of course, we all know how that "peace process" ended.

But was Chamberlain wrong to try to avoid war, even if it meant clutching at straws? After all, it had been only twenty years earlier when an entire generation of European young men were destroyed, seemingly for no reason other than the bungling of a group of old white men wearing striped pants and top hats. To hope, perhaps against reason, for something, anything, to prevent a cataclysm is surely part of human nature.

After all, starting a war is easy and certain: you order your troops to attack, and the deed is done. But even though a potential enemy may be acting in a provocative manner, who can be certain what the future will bring? For example, what if Hitler had been assassinated after that meeting in Munich. Would Göring or Hess have invaded Poland and touched off the conflagration that destroyed Europe and killed, perhaps, 50 million people? Maybe, but maybe not.

Our generation of world leaders is facing a similar dilemma with Iran and it's apparent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Once again, there are no easy solutions, and the issue is weighing the least dangerous course.

Diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Iran to force compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treary are a long-shot, at best. Even if they can be agreed (and China's support in the UNSC is far from certain), the world's appetite for oil will limit their effectiveness. Military action -- primarily bombing likely nuclear sites -- would likely succeed in delaying Iran's weapons program, but would almost certainly also produce significant civilian casualties. Worse, an external attack on Iran would likely strengthen the Mullah's hold on political power and unite the populace against the military threat from the US.

On the other hand, punting and hoping for the best is also risky. Iran has been one of the world's foremost supporters of international terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Queda (a significant number of AQ members are believed to have been granted sanctuary in Iran after the fall of the Taliban and are known to be living freely in that country). Iran's fundamentalist President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is on record calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

In the past, Western leaders have tended to downplay the stated aims of potential adversaries, perhaps seeing these public declarations as more domestic politics than sincere belief. Hitler's 1924 autobiography cum political treatise, Mein Kampf, which called for the creation of a racially pure Aryian state that would rule Europe, was ignored by Western diplomats in trying to predict Germany's true goals. Similarly, there is a tendency to believe that extremist statements calling for the destruction of Israel, whether coming from Hamas or from Iran, are mere hyperbole. Surely they can't be serious... After all, Israel is a nuclear power, and cannot be expected to endure its own destruction without striking back. But do people carrying out what they see as the will of god think in these terms? Is deterrence a valid concept in facing regimes willing to employ suicide bombers and embrace martyrdom?

Niall Ferguson thinks not. I fear he may be right. Joe Katzman is also pessimistic.

February 2, 2006 at 09:47 PM | Permalink


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Let's put the question of whether the US should start a war with Iran in the context of the past five years to see how we got here. Beginning in 2000 - 2001 there was an abrupt and comprehensive change in US foreign policy orientation. A number of international treaties were abrogated, and US leadership and commitment to the major international deliberative bodies (United Nations, World Court, NATO) was severely curtailed. The doctrines of containment and deterrence were replaced with the doctrine of "pre-emptive war", and for the first time in US history, we invaded and occupied another sovereign nation with no provocation. During this period three previous administrations' posture regarding the US as "honest broker" in the Israeli/Palestinian struggle was forsaken for a clear alliance with the Israeli Likud party. The tactics employed by this administration - aggressive interrogation & torture, "extraordinary rendition", offshore extra-judicial prison camps, military assassinations in countries with whom we are supposedly allied, denial of due process and Geneva conventions - taken together have gravely undercut the traditional role of the US in supporting human rights abroad, and aleinated our traditional allies. Fifty years of postwar diplomacy lies in tatters on the floor.

Whether it's true or not, from the outside looking in it is hard to escape the conclusion that this administration is engaged in an undeclared war on fundamentalist Islam. So it is no surprise that Iran is doing everything possible to protect itself. And through its actions over the past five years, this administration has now painted itself into a corner. A corner reflected in the way this blog frames the issue. Is the issue really whether to invade and/or bomb-the-hell-out-of Iran versus "punting and hoping for the best"? Is it really just either/or? Given the context of the past five years (and an additional three for this administration) maybe it has to be just that simple. But in a larger sense the failure of imagination that this represents is a historic tragedy. Some say that deterrence is not valid in facing regimes who embrace suicide bombers and martyrdom, but is conventional warfare any more valid? Has it worked in Iraq? I think not.

America's short run as the world's sole super power may be just about over. We spill our own blood in a brutal crusade supposedly to promote democracy and elections, and then the chosen leaders turn on us. Nearly four years into the Iraq occupation (longer than WW1, WW2, and Korea) there is no sign of progress and no end in sight. Our armed forces and our Treasury are being bled. And what do we have to show for it? An incipient civil war whose dominant constituent is Iran's theocratic kid brother. This administration's PNAC zeal and its ignorence of regional cultural and geopolitical dynamics blinded it to how this war would strengthen Iran's position in the region. That huge unintended consequence helped paint the administration into the corner it (and we) are in.

And now we want to discuss "getting tough" with Iran? With what army? Not a volunteer army. With what allies? With what money? More loans from Asian central banks? Our diplomatic options have atrophied from disuse. How can we pressure Iran's duly elected president Ahmadinejad to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when we coddle his neighbor Pakistan's dictator General Musharreff with his nukes? What leverage do we have to encourage Iran to join an international community of nations when we are busy trashing those same alliances?

Real progress will only be possible when the administration's entire approach to international relations is renounced and abandoned. Or when it leaves office.

For the benefit of all parties, may cooler heads prevail.

Posted by: Lance deBoyle | Feb 3, 2006 10:21:35 PM

yeah totally man..your're soo right! keep up the good work

Posted by: ashley maynard | Feb 7, 2006 9:36:22 AM

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