Friday, 13 February 2015

That dirty word appeasement

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
–Winston Churchill

The ghost of Neville Chamberlain is haunting the international political scene.  The disastrous policy with which his name will forever be associated – appeasement – is alive and well, and being pursued with a determination of which he would surely have approved.  

The major lesson to be learned from the history of the 1930s is that there is no satiating the appetites of dictators and autocrats. Conciliation is a fruitless exercise when set against overweening political ambition.  Every concession is taken as a sign of weakness, and simply strengthens the will of the despot.  In short, failure to perceive iniquity for what it is, and to take a firm stand against it, leads to disaster.

Few of today’s leading figures were alive when dictators like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rode roughshod over international agreements in pursuit of their grandiose ambitions, and when, fearful of plunging the world into a second global conflict only twenty years after “the war to end wars”, the democracies bent over backwards to avoid frustrating them.

So when in 1935 Mussolini invaded and annexed Ethiopia, the rest of the world condemned him but did nothing.  When Hitler started a massive rearmament program in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and proceeded to invade first the Rhineland and then Austria, a blind eye was turned. When he directed his attention to Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of the UK – then a genuine world power – flew on three occasions to Germany determined at any cost to avoid a military conflict.  At a meeting with Hitler, attended by Mussolini and the French prime minister Edouard Daladier, he agreed to chunks of Czechoslovakia being handed over to Germany in return for Hitler’s promise to renounce all future claims to European territory.  “Peace with honour,” Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed on his return to the UK, waving the worthless document which Hitler had signed. “Peace for our time.”  Six months later German troops invaded and conquered Czechoslovakia.

Last week we found Vladimir Putin being cajoled and reasoned with by the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany.  The subject of their concern was not, as might be expected, his blatant annexation of Crimea – a manifest infringement of the sovereignty of Ukraine which took place in March 2014, and which world opinion seems to have accepted.  Their attention was focused on ending the conflict between Ukrainian forces and those of the so-called “rebels” who are seeking, with Putin’s covert support, to have a large slab of eastern Ukraine absorbed into Russia proper. Whether the ceasefire will stick is anyone’s guess, but Ukraine is likely to have lost absolute sovereignty over the region.

        President Obama has threatened tougher economic sanctions on Russia: “We have to show them that the world is unified and imposing a cost for this aggression,” but the world is far from unified, and Putin received a hero’s welcome when he visited Egypt just a few days ago.  Nor must it be forgotten that Russia is one of the so-called P5+1 group of nations (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) involved in the long-drawn-out negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, negotiations led by America which also carry a strong whiff of appeasement about them. 

Writing in Ha’aretz recently, political scientist Amiel Ungar quoted leading analysts who believe that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy” has been transforming US-Iranian relations.  Ungar traces the origins of this policy to the conclusions of the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. “With an American public disillusioned by the cost of democracy building in Iraq,” wrote Ungar, “Baker and Hamilton offered a balance-of-power approach based on engaging two ‘axis of evil’ members, Syria and Iran, who could be counted on to battle Al-Qaeda for their own sake. Additionally, the group expected Iran ‘to use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation’.”

Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what underlies Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major and as-yet-unrequited concessions on the nuclear issue. During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State (IS) conflict.  In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants. 

“The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”

What has been the result?  As Ungar points out, Iran’s Supreme Leader and the head of the Revolutionary Guards' Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, have both been emboldened.  In its objective to destroy Israel, Iran has re-engaged with Hamas in Gaza, strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon and opened a new front opposite the Golan Heights in Syria. Meanwhile Obama seeks to placate Iran by recognizing its "right to enrichment" and allowing it to retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure.

Obama’s policy of appeasement has certainly not been opposed by Russia, Iran’s main ally on the P5+1, or by China.  On February 2 the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China met and issued a joint communique: "The Ministers … welcomed the extension of negotiations between P5+1 and Iran, and hoped that the two sides intensify diplomatic efforts with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement at an early date."

       When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But was it in fact working to a different and secret agenda?  “The proof of the pudding,” runs the old saying, “is in the eating.” It is plain that Washington has taken no action against Iran’s efforts  to extend its influence across the Middle East.  As the Jerusalem Post recently noted: “From Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, the Iranians have been aggressively asserting themselves, in a clear attempt to build a broad swath of influence throughout the region. US inaction seems to signal a willingness to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other US allies such as the Saudis and Egypt.”

        When Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the US Congress in March, he might well question not only the wisdom of appeasing Iran to the point of allowing it to become a desperately dangerous breakout nuclear power, but also the broader implications of turning a blind eye to its ambition to dominate the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 February 2015:

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