Obama, McCain, and Munich

George W. Bush made headlines when he celebrated Israel's 60th anniversary by warning the Knesset, Israel's parliament, against the "false comfort of appeasement." The two words that sounded most loudly were the ones that Bush did not actually say: "Obama" and "Munich."

The Washington Post's Dan Balz summed up the general consensus: "More than anything said so far by John McCain, Bush's comments ... signaled what the principle Republican attack line will be in the campaign against Obama." The White House officially denied the charge even as it privately confirmed the strategy. And when reporters asked McCain to respond, he replied "Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right."

The Obama campaign must have been delighted. The last thing McCain needs now is to have the least popular president in living memory become his campaign spokesman. But the charge of "appeaser" won't go away. So let's look at some facts, starting with the other name that Bush put front and center without actually saying it: Munich.

The Nazis Are Coming

In case anyone missed the connection, McCain made it clear when he told reporters that there have been appeasers in the past "and one of them is Neville Chamberlain.'' In 1938, British Prime Minister Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich and agreed to let Germany annex the Sudetenland, the predominantly German part of Czechoslovakia, to gain what he called "peace for our time." Chamberlain has been scorned ever since as the greatest of all appeasers. Or at least that's the conventional wisdom.

In fact, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt heard the news of the Munich pact, he sent Chamberlain a telegram with just two words on it: "Good man." Roosevelt told his ambassador to Italy, "I am not a bit upset over the final result." His most trusted foreign policy adviser, Sumner Welles, predicted that the Munich accord might lead to a new world order based on justice and law. Half a year later, FDR still hoped to negotiate with Hitler by appealing to reason: "This situation must end in catastrophe," the president wrote in a personal letter to the Fuhrer, "unless a more rational way of guiding events is found."

The idea that Munich represented not merely a mistake but a moral catastrophe did not emerge until later, when it turned out the Nazis were intent on war no matter what concessions they received. Once he was in the war, FDR started negotiating with another leader viewed by many Americans as evil incarnate: Josef Stalin. FDR may have shared their view. He justified his alliance with Stalin as "holding hands with the devil." But if that's what it took to promote American interests, Roosevelt did not hesitate to do it.

Negotiating with the evil enemy became bipartisan policy under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike's popularity rating soared when he met with Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin in Geneva in 1955. That set off an almost continuous round of disarmament talks, which continued when the Democrat John F. Kennedy became president. Kennedy also made sure that summitry with Soviet leaders became a bipartisan institution. Richard Nixon won wide praise for extending it to China, though he was criticized from the right for edging too close to appeasement. A few years later, most of those same right-wingers were praising their leader, Ronald Reagan, for his own summitry with the Soviets.

Even During War

The bipartisan policy of negotiating with enemies has extended to active wartime situations too. Harry Truman negotiated endlessly with the other side during the Korean War. His popularity sank not because he negotiated but because the talks brought no end to the war. In the Vietnam War era, Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger for talks with the North Vietnamese.

This is merely the record of public negotiations with enemies. There is also a rich record of secret back-channel talks. JFK defused the 1962 Cuban missile crisis not by "standing tough" and risking war but by secretly agreeing to take U.S. missiles out of Turkey if the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba.

Then there's the case of Iran. When McCain responded to Bush's recent inflammatory speech, he said: "It's not an accident that our hostages came home from Iran when President Reagan was president of the United States. He didn't sit down in a negotiation with the religious extremists in Iran, he made it very clear that those hostages were coming home.''

McCain is off the mark. There were behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to the hostages' release at the very moment Reagan took the oath of office, and some charge the Reagan campaign was directing them. The new administration certainly did plenty of negotiating with the Iranians (with Israel in the middle), selling them missiles to raise money for illegal support of the contras in Nicaragua.

Bush's memory of history is obviously fuzzy, too. After breaking off the negotiations Clinton had begun with North Korea and making that nation a charter member of the "axis of evil," Bush himself resumed talking with Pyongyang because it was obviously in the best interests of the United States.

At least since FDR, then, presidents have regularly negotiated with leaders of nations they publicly decried as evil. So there is no historical basis for the charge that Obama is an "appeaser," simply because he says it makes sense to talk with the leaders of Iran, Syria, or other nations that are supposedly our enemy.

History of Misrepresentation

Since these facts are so well-known, the corporate media and everyone else should have joined Senator Joe Biden in treating the Bush-McCain charge of "appeaser" as nonsense.

But the charge may well have legs because it fits a long-standing pattern. Presidents and other U.S. leaders who negotiated with supposed enemies have regularly (no matter how unfairly) been accused of appeasement. Democrats spent years fending off charges that Roosevelt had appeased Stalin at their Yalta summit (where Churchill did agree to give Stalin control of much of Eastern Europe, perhaps with FDR's knowledge). In 1957, Eisenhower told his national security advisor that he was worried the Democrats would turn the tables and attack his disarmament negotiation plans as "our Munich."

By then, though, the meaning of "appeasement" and "Munich" had changed. And that change holds the key to the importance of the "appeasement" charge in this year's election.

"Appeasement" began as an accurate charge of miscalculation. In1938, the British wrongly thought that a grant of the Sudetenland would stop German aggression. So the opposite of "appeasement" was intelligence: an accurate calculation of enemy intentions and a well-crafted rational pursuit of one's own national interest.

But Eisenhower meant something quite different when he told aides: "If you are imposing a moral program in this world, you have to stand behind it with strength ... It would be unthinkable to be guilty of a Munich. It is likely that you do come to a place uncomfortably close to war, but you cannot retreat and retreat." Ike said he was willing to risk nuclear war to stop the Chinese from shelling two tiny islands in the Straits of Formosa because "should the Reds eventually control Formosa, that would be a real Munich," and "there was hardly a word which the people of this country feared more than the term 'Munich.'"

By the 1950s, then, "appeasement" and "Munich" meant far more than mistaking the enemy's intentions. Those words now meant doing anything that might allow the enemy to gain any advantage, or anything that might look like advantage, anywhere in the world. The opposite of "appeasement" became "softness," or the appearance of "softness." Anything less than an absolutely rigid unyielding resistance to every move of the opponent, no matter how rational or understandable that move might be, could now be tarred with the dreaded epithet "appeasement."

This change in the meaning of the word flowed from a change in the concept of the enemy. FDR and Chamberlain saw Nazi Germany as evil because it was competing with, and threatening to harm, U.S. and British interests. When FDR wrote to Hitler urging "a more rational way of guiding events," he said nothing about stopping persecution of Jews and others in Germany. He demanded only that Germany stop arming for war and start "opening up avenues of international trade." The underlying picture was of nations in conflict because each was pursuing its own self-interest, as nations always do.

By Eisenhower's time, the war was ideological. The fascists and communists were rashly lumped together as "totalitarians": people who would settle for nothing less than total control of the entire world. The strong dose of realpolitik in the Soviet leaders' foreign policy was ignored. They were not treated as rational beings like us. The Eisenhower consensus said that the only way to deal with them was to keep them penned up behind a wall of containment, a wall so highly fortified it would be impenetrable and immutable.

New War, New Enemy

The United States' new enemy, "the terrorists," are cast in the same "totalitarian" mold. Bush made that clear when he told the Knesset that the United States and Israel are fighting "a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle ... an ancient battle between good and evil." While we "defend the ideals of justice and dignity with the power of reason and truth, on the other side are those who pursue a narrow vision of cruelty and control."

The fight is thus not about power and resources. It's about fundamental moral values. So "appeasers" are no longer charged with a failure of clear thinking. In a return to the thinking of the 1950s, any hint of "softness" or wavering on the promise of absolute resistance to evil is treated as an out-and-out moral failure.

Even if FDR referred to Stalin (rather jokingly) as "the devil," he treated Stalin as a rational leader pursuing national interests such as defeating the Nazis and ensuring his country's survival.. In Bush's rhetoric, Osama bin Laden is a much more literal devil figure -- an irrational, inexplicable force of pure malice, doing evil for the pure sake of doing evil, doomed to all eternity to keep on attacking the virtuous. That bin Laden might have rational interests, however contrary to U.S. policy, is not considered. Bush applies the same devilish qualities to all leaders of nations he depicts as enemies, and sometimes to those nations as a whole. McCain tends to follow suit.

From that perspective it makes sense to say, as Bush did, mockingly and sneeringly: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." The premise is that diplomacy can have no effect on an enemy driven by absolute evil. But every president since FDR has seen diplomacy have very real effects on the declared enemies of the United States: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and so on.

There is a theological dimension here. If the enemy is not a human being like us but an agent of the devil, or perhaps the devil himself, then all who fight the enemy are by definition on the side of God. A geopolitical contest becomes a religious war: two implacably opposed belief systems in conflict, with not the slightest possibility of compromise or even mutual understanding. The question of misunderstanding doesn't arise. "Appeasement" is simply a matter of sin.

Responding to Appeasement

Obama says he'll debate the Republicans on foreign policy any time. But Obama's way of talking about negotiation with the enemy is vintage 1930s FDR. Like most Democrats, he wants a debate about intelligence, about who can be smarter in pursuing American interests and making life better for the voters. He asks voters to trust that he's smart enough to avoid appeasement of the miscalculation variety.

Bush and McCain, on the other hand, speak Eisenhower's language. They want a debate focused not on intelligence but on moral and spiritual fortitude. They want to frame the issue in theological and patriotic terms: Who can hold the line more firmly against the implacable, eternally aggressive force of evil in the world -- and thus prove himself a true American?

According to Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, "McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy." The national values McCain rests his campaign on are moral fortitude and spiritual strength, an absolute refusal to "appease" or concede even an inch to evil -- the same values that McCain says got him through his years in a North Vietnamese prison. He offers those painful years as the proof that he is the true embodiment of what America stands for: not smart self-interest, but absolutely intransigent resistance to moral evil.

McCain and his strategists know the truth in what Harold Meyerson recently wrote: "Should the election turn on the question of 'What are you going to do for America?' rather than 'Are you a real American?' Republicans are doomed." They hope that the "appeaser" charge will focus the campaign debate around existential questions of American identity. McCain is depending on Eisenhower's equation of "appeasement" with immorality and spiritual weakness, identified as un-American qualities.

If the polls can be believed, McCain's strategy may be working. Far more than half the public still oppose the war and say that want to bring U.S. troops home. Those numbers are holding steady. But there has been a tiny change on the question, "Which candidate do you trust most to handle the Iraq war?". McCain, the "as-long-as-it-takes-to-win" candidate, was running clearly ahead on Iraq. Now he is more-or-less tied with Obama. So there is a small but substantial number of voters -- perhaps enough to swing the election -- who agree with Obama's "end the war" policy but trust McCain more to do the right thing in Iraq.

As Bai said, "McCain's main reason for continuing on in Iraq seems to be that we're already there and must not accept defeat." He asks voters to trust that he's strong enough to resist the immoral temptation of appeasement. He asks voters to make the moral and spiritual choice rather than the intelligent choice. We've been there before -- in 2000 and 2004. If the Obama campaign is going to win, it will have to understand why the "appeasement" charge is so effective and craft a strategy that can deflect it.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: chernus@colorado.edu

(c) 2008 Foreign Policy In Focus

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