“If you can’t go around it, over it, or through it, you had better negotiate with it.” ~ Ashleigh Brilliant
“Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which states seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by the cleverness of arts, the objectives which they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war.” ~ Randolph Bourne
“Animosity is not a policy.” ~ Henry Cabot Lodge
“I trust that a graduate student someday will write a doctoral essay on the influence of the Munich analogy on the subsequent history of the twentieth century. Perhaps in the end he will conclude that the multitude of errors committed in the name of ‘Munich’ may exceed the original error of 1938.” ~ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Schlesinger had it right, and so did Henry Cabot Lodge – but Neville Chamberlain did blow it, and it was caught on camera. There’s that iconic picture from September 30, 1938 – Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome near London, having just arrived from Munich, waving a piece of paper that was the Munich Agreement – a diplomatic solution to a geopolitical problem. Hitler had demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, and Chamberlain was able to obtain assurances, put down on papers and signed by the Germans, that Hitler had no designs on the rest of Czechoslovakia at all, just that German-speaking corner of it, and no designs at all on other areas in Eastern Europe that had German minorities, like the part of Prussia which was then part of Poland. There would be no war. Later that day Chamberlain stood outside Number 10 Downing Street and said this – “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
He was wrong, and soon enough he wasn’t the British Prime Minister. Hitler considered that piece of paper a joke, and considered Neville Chamberlain a fool. Hitler had simply bought himself some additional time, for arming-up even further. The Czechs weren’t happy, and soon weren’t Czechs anymore, and on the first day of the next September, Hitler’s surprisingly short blitzkrieg made all of Poland part of Germany, and the war that Chamberlain had negotiated away had begun. The Brits turned to Winston Churchill, having come to the same conclusion about Chamberlain that Hitler had – the man was a fool, and maybe he was. It’s just that the secondary effect of all this sorry business, as a corollary of sorts, was that diplomacy itself was now forever discredited. There’s no point negotiating about much of anything, and making concessions is stupid – and cowardly and immoral and useless. Few consider that this might be a special case – Chamberlain the naïf working from faulty intelligence, and Hitler the ultimate “bad actor” of all time. One can imagine a hard-nosed negotiator who knows what’s really going on, who won’t give away something for nothing, and on the other side, a foe who actually has much to lose, and knows it – but few are willing to imagine that. It’s easier to mutter “Munich” and be done with it, and be off to war.
Chamberlain ruined everything. Yes, Ronald Reagan negotiated major nuclear-arms reductions with the Soviets, with his famous caveat – “Trust but Verify” – it doesn’t have to be all Neville Chamberlain all the time – but many on the right were still hopping mad at him, calling for even more American nuclear weapons, because no one can trust those commies. Everyone else is always as bad an actor as Hitler. Even a conservative icon can be a Neville Chamberlain if he isn’t careful. Ronald Reagan just smiled, and his three-word caveat calmed everyone down, and the world became a bit safer. Animosity really isn’t policy.
Animosity became policy in the Bush-Cheney years, and Schlesinger, had he lived, would have been saddened by how the Munich analogy was used to justify the Iraq War. Colin Powell faced the cowardly and immoral and useless French at the United Nations, who were saying that it might be wise to wait for Hans Blix and his inspectors to finish their hunt for those weapons of mass destruction, and saying that if they found any, which seemed unlikely, all-out war wasn’t the only way to deal with that problem, if it turned out there was one. We would have none of that. Reagan’s dictum was forgotten. The inspectors had to leave – now. We’d soon have our war, and the Bush surrogates hit the talk shows and gave their speeches all over the country, subtly invoking Neville Chamberlain, or naming him explicitly, as an example of the pointlessness of diplomacy in what they called the real world. And the war got underway. Bush shifted most of the responsibilities of the Department of State to the Department of Defense – Donald Rumsfeld called the shots, not Colin Powell or later Condoleezza Rice, and they were real shots, not words. Dick Cheney wandered about growling that we don’t negotiate with rogue regimes, we remove them – and Syria and North Korea were next. He and Rumsfeld often mentioned Neville Chamberlain when they could. That shut people up, but the multitude of errors committed in the name of Munich multiplied. After eight long years we left Iraq with nothing much to show for it, other than the scorn of the rest of the world.
That should have ended the argument about whether Neville Chamberlain had been a special case, and Hitler too – they must have been – but it didn’t. Diplomacy is still considered stupid and cowardly, at least by many, and now someone else is waving a piece of paper:
Iran and six major powers agreed early Sunday on a historic deal that freezes key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.
The agreement, sealed at a 3 a.m. signing ceremony in Geneva’s Palace of Nations, requires Iran to halt or scale back parts of its nuclear infrastructure, the first such pause in more than a decade.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hailed the deal, which was reached after four days of hard bargaining, including an eleventh-hour intervention by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and foreign ministers from Europe, Russia and China.
“It is important that we all of us see the opportunity to end an unnecessary crisis and open new horizons based on respect, based on the rights of the Iranian people and removing any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” Zarif told reporters in English. “This is a process of attempting to restore confidence.”
This is just a first step – some sort of a more comprehensive agreement is supposed to come in six months, but stops and even reverses progress at all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and it halts the installation of any new centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and it caps the amount and type of enriched uranium Iran is allowed to produce, and includes full inspections and monitoring – a Trust but Verify thing. Iran also agreed to halt work on a heavy-water reactor that could be used to provide Iran with a source of plutonium – the really bad stuff.
This seems like a win-win breakthrough:
The concessions not only halt Iran’s nuclear advances but also make it virtually impossible for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon without being detected, the officials said. In return, Iran will receive modest relief of trade sanctions and access to some of its frozen currency accounts overseas, concessions said to be valued at less than $7 billion over the six-month term of the deal. The sanctions would be reinstated if Iran violates the agreement’s terms.
This is cool. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the deal recognizes Tehran’s “right” to maintain an enrichment program, and John Kerry, our secretary of state, said there’s no such right, but that’s a quibble. They’ll work it out, and Obama did his Neville Chamberlain thing:
In an address from the White House after the deal was announced, President Obama praised the negotiators’ work. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon,” he said. “While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.”
He didn’t say that he believed it is peace for our time, but he came close, and now the fun begins, with Slate’s Fred Kaplan all smiles:
The Iranian nuclear deal struck Saturday night is a triumph. It contains nothing that any American, Israeli, or Arab skeptic could reasonably protest. Had George W. Bush negotiated this deal, Republicans would be hailing his diplomatic prowess, and rightly so.
Juan Cole, the famous Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, is on the same page:
The only question here is whether the agreement is in American interests. It is. Ever more severe sanctions increasingly risked war with a country three times as big geographically and 2.5 times as populous as Iraq (the American occupation of which did not go well). That danger is now receding, which can only be a good thing. And if negotiations and UN inspections can indeed succeed in allowing Iran a civilian enrichment program while forestalling a weapons program, it is a breakthrough for the whole world and an important chapter in the ongoing attempts to limit proliferation.
Did someone mention Munich? At Commentary, Jonathan Tobin comes close:
It must be conceded that the chances that this agreement will make it less likely that Iran will eventually reach its nuclear goal are not zero. It may be that Iran has truly abandoned its goal of a weapon, that it will negotiate in good faith and won’t cheat, and that there are no secret nuclear facilities in the country even though just about everyone in the intelligence world assumes there are. If so the world is safer, and many years from now, the president will go down in history as a great peacemaker worthy of a Nobel Prize. But since that scenario rests on a series of assumptions that range from highly unlikely to completely far-fetched, the only possible reaction to the deal from sober observers must be dismay. In exchange for measures that only slightly delay Iran’s nuclear progress that don’t come even close to putting them into compliance with United Nations resolutions on the nuclear question, the administration has begun the process of lifting sanctions on Iran. Even more seriously, it has, in effect, normalized a rogue regime that is still sponsoring international terrorism, waging war in Syria, and spewing international sanctions, while effectively taking any threat of the use force against Tehran off the table.
Mitchell Plitnick wonders about that view:
There is only one reason to oppose this deal and that is that, whether with weapons of war or sanctions that will lead to a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe in Iran, an all-out attack on Iran with the hope of regime change is what this is really about. The conclusion is inescapable – if you oppose this deal, you are looking for a lot more than the neutralization of Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon.
The prose isn’t elegant, but the point is clear – some don’t care all that much about the neutralization of Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon – they want all those guys gone, which is another matter entirely, and Christopher Dickey adds this:
There may yet be a war intended to bomb Iran back to the pre-nuclear age, and maybe even to try to change the regime. But it’s ever less likely that the United States will fight it. As the polls show, Americans don’t see why they should, and if this negotiating process moves forward, there’s no reason they ought to.
If you want a war to wipe out those people, and replace them with those of whom we approve, dream on. We’ve had enough of that crap, and the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman considers what went into this deal:
What’s arguably a bigger deal, and what’s been overshadowed in all the coverage of the haggling over this interim pact, is just how momentous these last several months have been for U.S.-Iranian relations. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office this summer, the two countries have engaged in the highest-level talks since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, first through a meeting between Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry, and then through a phone call between Rouhani and President Obama (the two had previously exchanged letters). Zarif has also pioneered a new approach to speaking directly to the American people, turning to social-media outlets like Twitter and YouTube to defend, in English, Iran’s positions at the Geneva negotiations.
The way the news cycle works these days we take it for granted that Kerry is now in Geneva celebrating a diplomatic breakthrough with Zarif. But the frenzied diplomacy this fall has truly been exceptional.
The momentum is with the deal, not with those who want to wipe out Iran, or at least its government, and Time’s Michael Crowley takes the long view:
It’s worth thinking about the long path Obama has trod to get here. When he ran for president in 2008, Obama’s rivals warned he couldn’t be trusted to deal with a nuclearizing Iran. Hillary Clinton would brand him “irresponsible and naïve” for saying he’d meet with Iran’s leader. John McCain later called that a sign of his “inexperience and reckless judgment.”
Six years later, Obama’s Iran policy has the potential to reshape the Middle East and define his legacy. If it proves a success, historians might compare it to Richard Nixon’s breakthrough with China.
Or they might compare him to Neville Chamberlain, and this is causing no end of trouble with our ally, Israel, as Sheera Frenkel reports here:
“There is no doubt that Netanyahu is a big loser in the Iran deal,” said Gil Hoffman, political editor at the Jerusalem Post. “His whole political career is built on two things: number one is that he persuaded Israelis that only he could protect them from Iran, and number two is his image as someone who could speak to the world in his perfect English in a persuasive way better than any other Israelis. And here he failed.”
At the international edition of Time, Karl Vick is hearing this:
In political circles, the primary reaction to the pact in Israel was alarm, both for the technical realities of the pact, and the political realities that Israel – which did so much to make the Iranian nuclear program a matter of global concern – no longer feels it is driving. “I’m worried twice over,” said Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party emerged as a centrist power in the January elections. “Once from the agreement and its implications and I am also worried because we’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.”
Poor babies, they been marginalized, because something useful got done without them, and on cue, our nasty pure neoconservative and Fox News pundit, John Bolton urges Israel to strike Iran unilaterally like right now:
Undoubtedly, an Israeli strike during the interim deal would be greeted with outrage from all the expected circles. But that same outrage, or more, would also come further down the road. In short, measured against the expected reaction even in friendly capitals, there is never a “good” time for an Israeli strike, only bad and worse times. Accordingly, the Geneva deal does not change Israel’s strategic calculus even slightly, unless the Netanyahu government itself falls prey to the psychological warfare successfully waged so far by the ayatollahs. That we will know only as the days unfold.
And Britain should have attacked Germany in the summer of 1935 or something, but in The Nation, Bob Dreyfuss doesn’t see this happening:
Israel’s reaction is, predictably, apoplectic. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economic minister, said, “If five years from now a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning.” But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have trouble playing that card for long, since Israel is drastically isolated from the rest of the world and risks an open break with Washington. Already, some Israel leaders, such as President Shimon Peres and the newly installed leader of the Israeli Labor Party, have issued mild to moderate statements that undermine Netanyahu’s bluster. And, ironically, though, the harsh reaction from Israel will help Rouhani and Zarif sell the deal in Iran, since they can point to Israel’s criticism of the deal as a sign that it was, indeed, a victory for Iran’s “nuclear rights.”
Israel is kind of stuck here, and at War in Context, Paul Woodward suggests Israel would have objected to any deal of any kind:
At a time when the diplomatic momentum was clearly not moving in Netanyahu’s favor, one might ask: why did he not back down from his maximalist demand on zero enrichment and find a way of offering qualified support for this emerging nuclear accord? Why hold on to a set of conditions that Iran would find impossible to accept?
The reason is that Netanyahu’s goal has never been for the nuclear issue to be resolved. Its political value resides wholly in this remaining an unresolved issue and in Israel’s ability to cast Iran as a perpetual threat. For Netanyahu, any deal is a bad deal because absent an Iranian threat, Israel will find itself under increasing pressure to address the Palestinian issue.
Yeah, well, there is that too – no more distractions from that issue. On the other hand, John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, tweeted that the Obama administration just came up with the big deal with Iran to distract everyone from the Obamacare mess – so no one should be fooled into thinking this means anything at all. All politicians are strange.
But this is a big deal, and Andrew Sullivan suggests how big it is:
If I had one single reason for supporting Obama in the last election, it was that he and he alone had the strategy and perseverance to end the Cold War with Iran. He hasn’t done that yet – but he has, with remarkable global unity, started down a diplomatic path that could liberate the forces for moderation and democracy in that country, and unwind a dangerous ratchet toward war. That was always his larger promise from the get-go: not just to end the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; not just to end the torture regime that made a war criminal of the president and ruined both our moral authority and the integrity of our intelligence-gathering; but to begin to defuse the deeper forces of polarization and conflict that seemed only likely to intensify after 9/11. I have always seen Obama as the antidote to Bush. This weekend, he fully inhabited the role.
Once again, animosity is not a policy, especially since Sullivan sees the Iranian people as not bad folks at all:
We saw them in June 2009 dare to believe that their long nightmare of isolation, extremism and theocratic rule might end one day. And there are times when commentary on all of this too easily misses their central place in this diplomacy. We are doing this not just because it is in the interests of the United States for there to be peace and non-proliferation in the Middle East; but because it as an act of basic respect toward the people of Iran. They were the ones who risked their lives and fortunes to fight against theocracy in 2009 and they are the ones who recently elected the most moderate leaders allowed. And we owe it to them to reciprocate their courage and perseverance. To be sure, Rouhani is not all of the regime, but he is very much a part of it, and has the sole democratic legitimacy. Not to engage this newly elected leader’s diplomatic outreach would be to turn our back on fledgling democracy in the Middle East – and kindling those democratic forces was and is the best response to the polarization unleashed in the crime of September 11, 2001.
Now consider this: in the past few months, Obama has both begun to remove the threat of WMDs in Syria through diplomacy and found a way to ensure that Iran’s irrevocable nuclear know-how will be verifiably channeled into peaceful, civilian use. These two acts of diplomacy compound one another to make the world a much more peaceful place.
Sullivan admits there are big risks here, but then he invokes the Big Guy and his British Buddy:
But there was also a risk in reaching out to Gorbachev in the 1980s, and yet two Cold Warriors, Reagan and Thatcher, chose to do business with him. And they were right to. As with the Soviets and the arms race, there comes a point when the pain inflicted on the other party by sanctions is so great you have maximal external leverage for reform. Too much and the sanctions would be counter-productive; not enough and we would only have military power as a lever. It takes judgment to know if the time is ripe to take yes for an answer. But, in my view, Reagan was as right to embrace Gorbachev as Obama is to reward Rouhani.
That, unfortunately, leaves the current crew behind:
Reagan’s pragmatism and genuine horror of nuclear weapons have not been replicated in today’s Republican right. But those qualities defined him and his legacy just as much as his ideological fervor did. Obama is today acting on exactly those principles – as well as those of President George H W Bush, and Dwight Eisenhower. He is, in other words, the corrective to the second Bush and the neoconservative propensity for both utopianism and war (always a deadly combination). He is, yes, fulfilling his initial promise – to bring about the change we can still believe in and to rekindle the hope that region so desperately needs.
That may be reading too much into an interim agreement, when the real agreement will be reached in six months, if we get that far – or it may be appropriate. Or it could be that this how everyone but the Czechs felt on September 30, 1938 – just substitute the Israelis for the Czechs this time around. Or maybe Schlesinger is right. Far too many errors have been committed in the name of “Munich” in the last seventy-five years. Maybe that was a special case.