Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Catch of the Day

To Scott Lemieux, who has gathered up some of the worst Munich analogies being bandied about with regard to Syria:
Here’s the thing: for this to be a “Munich moment,” Assad would have to, you know, have both the desire and capacity to conquer most of the region. Since in fact it’s far from obvious that Assad will even be able to maintain power in his own country — let alone have the ability to overrun the Middle East — Assad isn’t a new Hitler and whatever he does Obama won’t be Chamberlain. And in this particular case the analogy goes beyond stupidity to being self-refuting — if Assad poses a threat comparable to Hitler in 1938, why only “limited” “surgical” airstrikes? Really, let’s leave these dumb analogies to fourth-tier winger bloggers, please.
What I'm wondering is whether we just have to wait for the last of the baby boomers to die out for it to finally stop being 1939 always, always, always, when it comes to foreign policy.

It's easy to see why Munich won out as a central metaphor. After all, Munich (and appeasement in general) not only was a legitimate policy disaster by almost all standards, but it's also an unusually dramatic one. And the in the postwar period, Truman's Cold War policy seemed to affirm the lessons of Munich. Stalin was blocked, not appeased, and that appeared to work perfectly. So anyone thinking about or (especially) teaching about foreign policy in the 1950s would be very tempted to make Munich a key story.

The next step, I'd guess, would be Cuba. The Missile Crisis was not, as it happened, a good fit for Munich lessons, given that Kennedy actually cut a deal. But there were lots of good reasons not to emphasize that at the time, and especially after Kennedy was dead. The classic Missile Crisis mythology isn't exactly an anti-Munich (that is, a positive story re-enforcing the Munich paradigm), but it's pretty close; it's assumed that confrontation was the correct move for JFK, with the crisis then being solved only in the context of that confrontation, with Kennedy correctly choosing to allow the Soviets to retreat with dignity instead of, as his advisers urged, moving quickly to war. The lesson of the classic Missile Crisis isn't to avoid confrontation; it's that confrontation works, but must (in the nuclear age) be managed very carefully.

All of which means that Munich remained the reigning story about foreign policy well into the 1960s. Which, given the way education works, meant that it was going to be a major story for everyone educated in the 1950s and 1960s, but also most likely those educated in the 1970s and even 1980s. It takes a while for these things to change. Eventually, Vietnam and then other stories would become equally important, but the Munich-talkers were still around. It can't help that Vietnam remained polarized forever, while WWII wasn't. It's easier to have a Big Foreign Policy Example from something that everyone agrees about than from something that risks starting fights if you try to characterize it.

So we're stuck, still, with Munich, although surely it's not nearly as powerful as it once was. But there is hope for the future. We may not be stuck with it for too much longer. Hey, at least Picard didn't teach the story of Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich in "Darmok."

And: nice catch!


  1. Appeasement was not a "policy disaster." It's generally forgotten that England used the time during which appeasement was the stated policy of the government to dramatically increase defense spending and develop and build the weapons which (very narrowly) allowed it to defeat the Luftwaffe and stave off invasion. Going to war at the time of Munich would not have saved the Czechs. Going to war over Poland didn't, after all, save the Poles, as necessary as it was.

    1. Actually that seems a pretty big counter-factual.

      First, Czechoslovakia had genuinely formidable defenses. Could they have won a defensive war without help? Clearly not. But it seems likely that what help they did require could have been made available.

      It wouldn't have been a quick or easy German victory.

      Second, Germany actually made greater use of the time between Munich and September 1939. Not least because they ended up with both the Czech armament industry and the Czech tanks (not a bad comp for the Panzer III of the day, and would stay in service as a chassis for other vehicles until the end of the war. An important part of the invasions of Poland, France and even Russia)

      At the time of Munich, the Germans had few tanks other than the Panzer II -- little better than an armored car. After Munich they had time to build more Panzer IIIs and as mention they had a whack of T-38s (and the ability to make more)

      And far more important, the German generals would certainly have attempted (probably successfully) a coup against Hitler if faced with war in Czechoslovakia. How things would have played out after that is unknowable of course, but the German generals did not think they could win if the Czechs had external support and weren't interested in it.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. That should of course be 38(t) and not T-38.

    4. Chamberlain presumably made his decisions on the basis of his understanding of Britain's military capabilities at the time and of the British people's taste for war, as well as the possibility that Hitler could actually be appeased. (Remember, Britain was in a demographic trough because so many would-be fathers had been slaughtered exactly a generation earlier. Events like that leave an impact on people's minds. And there were people who argued that Hitler had a point as long as he focused on German-speaking areas, like Austria and the Sudetenland, that had been denied the right to join Germany after World War I, in what had been billed as the era of self-determination.) I don't think Hitler's making better use of the time after the conference really plays into that calculation.

      I agree that the applicability of appeasement depends on the nature of the adversary and also on the nature of the adversary's goals. Some can be appeased; others can't.

  2. I don't think it's the boomers in particular who are pushing Munich; it's just a a pleasing reference for people who always think we should be at war. Remember the guy on MSNBC who got busted saying "Neville Chamberlain was an appeaser" and then turned out to have no idea what Chamberlain actually did?


    1. Says at that link he's a very late boomer!

      (The demographers say he's definitely a boomer. My belief is that you can't be a boomer if you were born after JFK. Which I was. But this guy was apparently born before 11/63.

  3. I was born in 1951, so I'm an early boomer, and for me and many of my age cohort Munich was trumped by Vietnam. Appeasement can be a viable strategy when not faced with a powerful dictator committed to a policy of conquest. So appeasement of Hitler in 1938 was a bad idea, and appeasement of Stalin in the late 1940s would likely have not ended well either, but in situations where our adversary is much less powerful than Hitler or Stalin, the Munich analogy is not very helpful.

  4. Two Darmok references in a week?

    I think the better Star Trek analogy would be Sisko and the Dominion. While he and the rest of Star Fleet were fairly confrontational (despite initially taking a defensive posture), I don't believe they justified it by reference to Munich or appeasement. Meanwhile, the joint Obsidian Order/Tal Shiar preemptive strike against the Founders was an unmitigated disaster.

    This is, of course, in no way relevant to Syria, but it's kind of fun to geek out.

  5. Maybe it's me but I don't recall hearing the Munich analogy since Vietnam, and not much then. Kerry in his "Munich moment" phrasing I believe was making the analogy based on chemical weapons use, not on Syria's power in the region.

    As an early boomer I don't think 1939 is a boomer reference point except for catchphrases. We grew up believing the US immediately recognized Hitler as evil and stopped him. By coincidence I'm reading a lot about the period (read a new history "1940" and now reading Robert Sherwood's book on Hopkins and FDR in wartime) and it's striking how much fervent opposition there was to US arming and getting involved to defend England--whereas we boomers got a very different impression of the period from movies, history in school etc. But what's sobering is the predisposition then and since to see everything as the same as the last war.

    1. "Maybe it's me but I don't recall hearing the Munich analogy since Vietnam"

      As an example just off the top of my head, Jimmy Carter came into office talking more or less about internationalizing the civil rights movement and switched very much to the Lessons of Munich after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

  6. Do we use words like appeasement because they're a) fraught and b) satisfy the desire for shorthand methods to assess complex situations?

    I understand that Assad was (allegedly) nearly assassinated recently via a plot originating in the neighborhood he gassed. Not sure if the story is true; its certainly believable, vicious civil war, neighborhood stronghold of his ethnic enemy, etc.

    If the assassination story is true, isn't there something profoundly off about this whole Syria conversation? Not off in terms of attacking Assad, he's our enemy, so attacking him is usually defensible.

    In a neighborhood like the Middle East, where fractious ethnicities have been fighting each other for millenia, with Syria the latest sorry example of same, what sense is there in getting involved in ethnic strife? Doesn't that send the signal to would-be future assassins to go right ahead, cause if they fail, the righteous US brigade will come in and finish their job? Is that the road to stability in the region?

    The above is an incredibly difficult, if germane, way to discuss Syria, it seems to me. Far easier to talk about red lines and appeasement and other stuff that feels good but is completely irrelevant to understanding the difficult matter at hand.

    1. Another question that comes up is that, with increasingly large finds of usable fuel (albeit, richer in natural gas than oil) in the West, one wonders whether we have to start caring about the Middle East less.

      I wonder if a lot of the problems in that region wouldn't be lessened by us just not caring any more. Benign neglect, indeed!

    2. I also have to question why Assad is even our enemy. As best I can tell, it's because Syria is a client state of Iran. And we're enemies with Iran because of blowback from US interventions in that country going back generations. But perhaps the bigger reason is Iran's geopolitical challenge to US hegemony in the Gulf. Well, what does that get us? Not much. Our Gulf "friends" have supported, and continue to support, radical Islamists who we're supposedly at war with.

      And just to complete the circle, our President is now urging us to support the faction in Syria's civil war that's most closely aligned with those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, I'm not saying Assad is a great guy or that we should help him. But he's only our "enemy" in the bizzaro-world that is US foreign policy.

  7. Hey, at least Picard didn't teach the story of Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich in "Darmok."
    But then there's the ancient Vulcan proverb: "Only Nixon could go to China."

  8. I think the reason Munich is a great analogy is because it's been reinforced repeatedly over the years, and in both directions; just in my lifetime, you have the Falklands, Kosovo, GWI and Sierra Leone on the one hand, and Rwanda, Bosnia and the 1991 Iraq uprising on the other. The diplomats always want to appease and warn of vague but frightful consequences, because that makes diplomats seem necessary, and the military always point out that a short, sharp campaign can be easily accomplished and will improve the situation mightily. Of course, I suspect the diplomats don't actually want these problems solved, especially not militarily, as it would expose them as redundant.

    Munich is just a shorthand for all this, and it's the best one because although there are some amoral individuals on the Left who opposed western action in Falklands, Kosovo, etc, it's very hard for them to say we shouldn't have done anything about Hitler. (Although, of course, their forebears were arguing exactly that at the time, thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact).

    Unfortunately, the diplomats have been winning lately, so whenever we get a military campaign we are now forced to stay and engage in "nation-building," which is of course doomed to failure - the State Department successfully turned military success in Iraq and Afghanistan into the kind of quagmire they love.


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