As the Security Council prepares to vote the next round of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, I’m thinking of some old debates about how to handle difficult regimes. The thoughts aren’t consoling; too many voices in the debate over Iran hearken back to some of the worst ideas in American and European history.
Of all the mass murderers, genocidaires and enablers of the twentieth century, one group of collaborators does not get its fair share of condemnation and moral loathing. Unfortunately Americans have never really come to terms with the terrible things they did, we have never really named and shamed them, and we have never diagnosed and exposed the bad ideas that led to some of America’s most fateful and costly blunders. Until we do, our society is at risk of repeating these errors.
The people I have in mind are the ‘goo-goo genocidaires,’ the willfully blind reformers, civil society activists, clergy, students and others whose foolishness and ignorance was a necessary condition for tens of millions of deaths in the last hundred years. Unreflective, self-righteous ‘activists’ thought that to espouse peace was the same thing as to create or safeguard it. As a result, tens of millions died. Unless this kind of thinking is exposed and repudiated, it is likely to lead to as many or more deaths in the 21st.
We all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; this turns out to be particularly true when it comes to the road to foreign policy hell. Over the years good people or at least people who wanted to be good or thought they were, motivated by what seemed to them to be the highest of motives, have taken political stands and made policy proposals that helped mass murderers gain power in their own countries and launch themselves on international careers of conquest and mayhem. At other times, fortunately, they’ve failed to change policy; still, they wasted a lot of people’s time and made life significantly more difficult for those whose plans to help the world ultimately worked.
Paving the Road To Hell
The most notorious example is the peace movement of the 1920s and 1930s. This movement enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of college professors, idealistic students, respected journalists, the union movement, and the mainline clergy. If you didn’t join in, you were criticized as a warmonger, a throwback, someone lacking the broad social vision and high sense of ideals that modern times required.
It was an understandable error. A mass civil society movement of earnest reformers, veterans scarred by their experiences in the trench warfare of World War One and determined that their sons should be spared this experience, students wanting a to build a better world, and intellectuals convinced that there had to be a better way did everything in their power to keep the United States and the western democracies out of war. They failed; instead they disarmed the West, left China defenseless against Japan, and prepared the way both for Hitler’s domination of Europe and Stalin’s imposition of the Iron Curtain.
The American peace and disarmament movement almost destroyed human freedom. The peace movement gave intellectual and moral respectability to the cause of isolationism: the belief that the United States could safely ignore the unraveling of the world’s fragile economic and political order as British power waned after World War I. But these idealistic professors, students, preachers and general all-around-good-guys were naive, self-righteous, and smugly sure that arms cause war.
Armed with a set of wrong headed prejudices (they called them ‘convictions’ and ‘ideals) that made it impossible for them to recognize deadly dangers staring them right in the face, they minimized the difference between imperfect friends (like then-imperialist Britain and France) and flamingly wicked mass murdering thugs (like Stalin, Hitler and the militaristic governments of Japan). Worse, they used all their considerable intelligence, power and media access to prevent Franklin Roosevelt from taking effective action to support the western democracies and China until it was far too late to prevent World War Two, and almost too late to win it. Even then, because the pathetically and self-righteously foolish and irresponsible ‘peace activists’ of the 1930s let the Axis get so far, we could only beat Hitler with Stalin’s help; the oppression of central Europe and the Cold War were the fault of the clergy, professors and civil society activists of the 1930s as well.
When ‘Understanding’ Becomes Collaboration
Worse, some of the ‘good guys’ sympathized with and made excuses for the bad. Germany was resentful and bitter, they said, because the Treaty of Versailles was unfair. Let Adolf Hitler have his ‘reasonable’ goals of reuniting ethnic Germans under one roof, and Germany would become a peaceful and satisfied country, a bulwark of European order. This sounds crazy now, but it was the conventional wisdom among the intelligentsia and literati (except for the Communists and their closest sympathizers) during the 1930s; this is why voices warning of war like Churchill were so isolated. War was so destructive, argued the false prophets of fake enlightenment, that only a madman would start one. And while Hitler was alarming, the apparatus of the German state was sane. There were moderate Nazis, with limited goals; given western forbearance, wise concessions and enough time, the moderates would edge the Nazi radicals out of power.
That was the standard refrain about Germany from 1933 through 1939 and at every crisis or turning point academics and journalists stepped forward to plead for patience and to predict an imminent triumph of the ‘moderate’ Nazis over the ‘radicals’. In the meantime, anti-Nazi rhetoric and boycotts in the West only empowered Hitler and united German opinion behind him. Give him the Saar, Austria, yes and the Sudetenland: sooner or later he would calm down and the world would be at peace. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich proclaiming that simply by giving Hitler the Sudentenland (the then-German speaking part of Czechoslovakia that happened to include the country’s mountainous border areas and natural defenses) he had won “peace in our time”, nobody was happier than the fatheaded peace clergy — unless it was the enlightened class of journalists and professors who set the tone for upper middle class enlightenment at the time.
It was the same thing with Stalin. Half of the peace movement was in love with Communism; the other half thought that poor Stalin had no choice but to be brutal and tough because he was surrounded by hostile states. Recognize Stalin, trade with him, stop calling him nasty names. Treat him with dignity and respect, they said, and everything will work out for the best. There had been plenty of sympathy for Stalin in the West during the thirties — even as he was carrying out mass murder on a scale that poor Pol Pot could only envy, Stalin never lacked for apologists and defenders among the chattering classes in those countries where they were still permitted to chat.
Understand and sympathize with their legitimate aspirations: that, the professors and preachers constantly told everyone else, was the sophisticated, modern and enlightened way to deal with these problems. Before the war it was the poor Germans, so shabbily treated by the Treaty of Versailles that Hitler represented a necessary phase of Germany’s search for self-respect. Before and after World War Two they said it about Stalin: communism was simply payback for the excesses and crimes of capitalist greed. Yes, they sometimes went too far: but surely that was ‘our’ fault for having permitted these terrible conditions to occur in the first place.
They weren’t completely wrong. The social upheavals and injustice of early industrialization did create sympathy for communism and popular anger; German suffering after World War One was a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for the rise of Hitler. But what the earnestly intellectual and empathetic goo-goo genocidaires missed was the character of the political movements that had come to power on the basis of these feelings. Hitler and Stalin weren’t interested in justice; the parties they led were more like barbarian hordes organized for plunder than like groups of good folks who, once their legitimate grievances were addressed, would peaceably disassemble and go home. Addressing German grievances and working class poverty would have been very wise steps before Hitler and Stalin seized power; once they got in, the situation changed.
Fortunately the destructive doves weren’t able to fool FDR about the Nazis. “You can’t turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it,” he once said — but the pious nincompoops and delusional intellectuals were persuasive enough here and abroad so that France, Britain and the United States were unable to step while Hitler was still weak and prevent World War Two by enforcing the peace. After the war, the chorus of goo-goo appeasers switched focus to trying to stop Truman and the West from opposing the spread of Stalin-dominated Communism in a war-devastated Europe. Poor, timid Stalin, said liberal Christian writers in magazines like Christian Century and their political leaders like Henry Wallace, has been so intimidated by American aggressiveness that he had no choice but to clamp down in Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan wasn’t just attacked by isolationist nutballs on the right; it was attacked viciously and venomously by the so-called ‘peace’ movement and the Progressive Party.
If the Nazis and the Communists between them didn’t overrun the whole world in the terrible 1940s, it was not because the international peace movement didn’t do everything in its power to leave the democracies trembling and helpless before the totalitarian threat. Had these people wised up and supported moderate programs of rearmament in the early 1930s and insisted that the western democracies take a stand against Hitler early on, there would have been no Nuremberg Laws, no Holocaust, no mass terror bombings of European cities, no Stalinist occupation of central Europe — and no Cold War.
Morally of course this was nowhere near as bad as what the Nazis and Communists did. The peaceniks didn’t will the slaughter of millions of innocent people: out of ignorance and conceit they merely created the conditions which let it happen. But while the peace movement wasn’t as evil as the dictators, the dictators could never have achieved their goals without their sanctimonious and timorous enablers in the western world.
Name and Shame
These days we are pretty good at pillorying the bad guys in America’s history: Tories, slave owners, segregationists, opponents of womens’ right to vote all get nailed in our textbooks. But somehow the creeps and frauds of the peace movement get a free pass. “We are the folk song army,” the satirist Tom Lehrer once wrote, mocking the moral pretensions of ‘peace activists’; “Every one of us cares. We’re all against poverty, war and injustice — unlike the rest of you squares.”
It is just not true, historically speaking, that ‘peace movements’ lead to peace or, for that matter, support policies that will bring peace. More often than not, the opposite is true. Winston Churchill was a grizzled old British imperialist of the worst kind, but if Britain had listened to him instead of to its peace campaigners in the 1930s there most likely would never have been either a World War Two or Cold War. We can be very grateful that Ronald Reagan and the NATO leadership turned a deaf ear to the nuclear freeze movement; had those besotted idealists had their way the Soviet Union and the Cold War might be still with us today — along with nuclear arsenals much larger and much more dangerous than anything the US and Russia now have.
Not so long ago we had a word in our society for tiger-strokers: people who thought that if you soothed the savage passions of irrational dictators by treating them with respect and giving them treats then the dictators would become less dangerous.
We called them ‘appeasers’.
It’s a good word, and we could use it today.
I don’t say that reaching out to our enemies is always wrong. There are times when making a good deal with bad guys is the best you can do. Nixon’s opening to China came when that country was still in the throes of the violent and lawless Cultural Revolution. Opening the hot line to the Soviet Union so that the US president and the Soviet premier had a better chance of stopping an accidental nuclear war was also a good idea.
I think it was a good move on President Obama’s part to see if something couldn’t be done to improve relations with Russia — and with Iran. Now, after almost a year and a half, it’s become clear that Russia has responded, a little, while Iran has responded with new threats, new lies, and new shipments of weapons throughout the Middle East.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the United Nations.
Broadly speaking, those who want to play “Let’s Make A Deal” with nasty foreign dictators aren’t always wrong. Some dictators like Franco just want to be left alone; others have a need to keep pushing. It’s a legitimate argument and subject for discussion about whether the Iranians are jerks like Franco who will settle down to peacefully hang homosexuals and torture dissidents at home if left to themselves or whether they are megalomaniacal nutcases who will interpret our forbearance as weakness — if we let them have Czechoslovakia they will start reaching for Poland.
Will Power Make Them Nice?
Maybe this is a sign of my entire unfitness to write about foreign policy, but it’s not easy for me to see why a nuclear Iran would be less pushy and demanding than what we have now. If the mullocracy is arming terrorists, interfering with neighbors, inflaming the Middle East and making intercontinental nuclear deals with the bad guys when Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, what makes us think that becoming less vulnerable to American countermeasures would make the Iranians settle down into responsible world citizens? If they blow off our threats and respond with contempt to our overtures when they are weak, why would they treat us with more respect as a nuclear power? Won’t getting nuclear weapons over our objections prove internally that the radicals were right while the moderates were vacillating, cowardly and wrong? And if we are unwilling to stand up to them effectively when they don’t have nuclear weapons, who on Planet Earth will think we will rediscover our backbones when they do?
Those who think we can reach a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran that would either stop the nuclear program or enable us to coexist peacefully with a nuclear Iran are, I fear, making the same failure that the 1930s and 1940s peace campaigners made about the Nazi and Soviet regimes. They are confusing the legitimacy of the grievances that helped the Iranian regime seize power with the aims of the regime once in place. This regime is, I fear, a tiger not a kitten. Concessions and consideration don’t make it more moderate; they tell it that you fear it, tell it that its tactics of pressure and threats work, and encourage it to raise its demands.
Now fortunately the Iranian regime doesn’t command a great power the way the Nazis had Germany and Stalin had the Soviet Union. But Iran’s strategic location gives it a power to harm US interests and the international system far in excess of its power potential by more conventional measurements. (If Iran somehow switched places with Australia, we could and would pay a lot less attention to its goals; location, not intrinsic power, is what makes Iran a big deal.) I don’t think we can ignore this regime and unless it substantially scales back its ambitions I don’t see how we can coexist with it peacefully much longer.
Obama confers about Iran with Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy (White House)
President Obama is going to have a tough time with this one. His current policy of seeking sanctions while gathering international support is less a policy than a way of marking time. There is no clear and obvious way forward, and Iran is doing everything it can (with Hamas, with Turkish and Brazilian diplomacy, with anything else it can gin up) to muddy the waters and throw the US off-track. As President Obama and Secretary Clinton try to make the agonizing decisions that almost inevitably lie ahead, I’m afraid the appeasers will be back. We can neither threaten Iran now nor seek regime change, they will say. It’s all our fault anyway because we outraged Iranian nationalism by our thoughtless acts in the past. If we can simply understand Iran’s legitimate concerns and give it what it rightfully wants then it will calm down. After all, it is only aggressive and hostile because the poor dears feel so threatened.
These arguments have led to millions of deaths and launched world wars in the past. Neither President Obama nor anybody else should listen to them this time unless those who make them show that they are aware of the disastrous results of this counsel in the former times and have prepared detailed and convincing arguments about why this time is different — and why this particular tiger is really a kitten who just needs to be loved.