The mental path to appeasement

Posted: Jun 14, 2006 12:05 AM

The Western response to the threat of Iran gaining nuclear weapons is tracking dangerously toward appeasement and failure. It is not yet inevitable -- President Bush has insisted in two State of the Union addresses and currently that he will not permit it to happen. But most government officials in Europe and here, and of course the dominant media, are already deeply into resignation, rationalization and denial. Indeed, in the last couple of years, the absolute exclusion of a military option has become the only "respectable" posture amongst both European and American officials and senior media personages.

This rationalizing mentality was epitomized by the statement of Gen. Barry McCaffrey on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. The general is a usually levelheaded and deeply experienced senior statesman. He has criticized Bush's policies where he disagrees with them, but he is not anti-Bush. His statement is worth reading carefully.

"Mr. Russert: 'So it's inevitable they get the nuclear bomb, in your opinion?'

"Gen McCaffrey: 'I think so. I think they're going nuclear five, 10 years from now. We'll be confronted. And that's not a good outcome. That argues that perhaps Saudi money and Egyptian technology gets an Arab Sunni bomb to confront the Persian Shia bomb. None of us want to see proliferation in the Gulf. This is a time for serious diplomatic interventions.'"

The last sentence calling for diplomacy is such a feeble, mantra-like invocation of a hopeless solution when preceded by his confident statements that he thinks they want the bomb and will get it. Virtually no one believes Iran only wants peaceful nuclear generation. Neither do serious people believe that enactable economic and diplomatic sanctions will deflect the Iranians from their objective.

Thus, the offer on the table -- to give them peaceful nuclear technology or threaten them with non-military sanction -- suffers from providing a "carrot that is not tempting and a stick that is not threatening." (Ian Kershaw's "Making Friends with Hitler.")

This evolving mental path to appeasement mirrors in uncanny detail a similar path taken by the British government to Hitler in the 1930s.

Contrary to popular history, the British government was under little illusion concerning Hitler's nature and objectives in the early 1930s. Those illusions only emerged as mental rationalizations later in the 1930s.

In April 1933, just three months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the British government presciently assessed the man and his plans. The outgoing British ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, who had been closely observing Hitler for years, reported back to London in a special dispatch to the prime minister on April 26, 1933. He warned his government to take "Mein Kampf" seriously.

Rumbold assessed that Hitler would resort to periodic peaceful claims "to induce a sense of security abroad," and Hitler planned to expand into Russia and "would not abandon the cardinal points of his program," [but would seek to] lull adversaries into such a state of coma that they will allow themselves to be engaged one by one." Rumbold was sure that "a deliberate policy is now being pursued, whose aim was to prepare Germany militarily before her adversaries could interfere." He also warned that Hitler personally believed in his violent anti-Semitism and that it was central to his government policy.

Back in London, Maj. Gen. A.C. Temperley briefed the prime minister on the Rumbold dispatch that if Britain did not stop Hitler right away, the alternative was "to allow things to drift for another five years, by which time . . . war seems inevitable." In the event, general war in Europe came in six years, not five.

But because the British people, still under the sway of their memory of WWI, were against military action, and because the politicians wanted to spend precious tax revenues on domestic programs, they walked away from their own good judgment.

The unpleasantness of dealing with Hitler and the public's abhorrence of another war led the new British ambassador to Germany, Sir Eric Phipps, responding to the Rumbold dispatch, to argue in that fateful month of April 1933 that: "We cannot regard him solely as the author of "Mein Kampf," for in such a case we should logically be bound to adopt the policy of preventive war." So, he argued, "The best hope is to bind him, that is, by a [disarmament] agreement bearing his signature freely and proudly given. ... By some odd kink in his mental makeup he might even feel compelled to honor it."

Here we have the 1930s version of Gen. McCaffrey's statement. Ambassador Phipps first states the obvious: To wit, if Hitler is as the government believes him to be, logic requires a preventive war. But they don't want to do that, so he hopes Hitler isn't as they know him to be, and they seek a diplomatic agreement, which even Phipps recognized was unlikely to be honored.

Just so, Gen. McCaffrey, representing the overwhelming view of government officials and major media in the West, first states the obvious: Iran will get the bomb. Then he ends with: So let's just do diplomacy.

In fact, Western leaders are resigned to Iran getting the bomb. The diplomacy is understood to be as pointless as getting Hitler to honor a disarmament treaty. But "leaders" have to be seen to be doing something -- even if they know it is futile.

This defeatist attitude exists largely because with the Iraq war as bad precedent -- just as WWI was a bad precedent for another war in 1933 -- military action has been placed, as an emotional response to unpleasantness, out of the question by a weary Western elite.

That is where we are today: about four-fifths down the mental path to appeasement. As unpleasant as dealing with Iran today is, it will be incomparably nastier in a few years when they have the bomb operational. Where are the cold-eyed realists when we need them?