Cliff May

"Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich."

That was Hitler’s appraisal of the leaders of Britain and France he hosted in the Bavarian capital in 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had requested the meeting “to find a peaceful solution” to growing tension over Nazi Germany’s grievances and demands.

The outcome: an attempt to appease Hitler through the betrayal of Czechoslovakia. “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor,” Winston Churchill remarked at the time. “They chose dishonor. They will have war.”

In 1972, Munich again was linked to appeasement: Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli Olympic athletes. The group responsible was guided by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Nevertheless, Arafat received more encouragement than condemnation: He was invited to address the UN where “the question of Palestine” rose to the top of the agenda; it has remained there ever since with no resolution in sight.

Against this backdrop, last weekend I attended the 43rd annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, a gathering of the international political elite: presidents and prime ministers, defense and foreign secretaries, ambassadors, scholars and journalists from more than 40 countries.

The conference was opened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She surveyed a minefield of world crises but proposed little in the way of strategies to resolve them, other than “Peace through Dialogue” – the conference’s slogan prominently displayed in German and English behind her on the stage.

Senator Joseph Lieberman asked Merkel if there was not a “global moral responsibility to stop the genocide” of black Muslims in Sudan. She agreed there was, but added that before action could be contemplated “the African Union has to make clear what it thinks.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin was the next world leader to take the microphone. He launched into a venomous attack on America, charging that because of Washington “nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law,”

The possibility that international law is not meant to conceal despots was not raised with him. However, Rep. Jane Harman did ask Putin to explain why he was selling nuclear technology and sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems to the regime in Tehran. “We don’t want Iran to feel cornered in a hostile region,” the Russian president said dismissively.

Only seven weeks into his new job, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided not to respond to Putin in kind. Instead, he remarked that the former KGB officer’s words “almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost. … One Cold War was quite enough.”

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.