The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Appeasement Anecdotes

May 16, 2008

Conservatives have a fundamental misunderstanding of appeasement. While it should refer to specific concessional policies offered to aggressors in order to avoid war, conservatives use the phrase haphazardly as a political bludgeon against domestic foes who favor negotiation and arms control instruments over more hawkish policies. The inevitable comparison is to Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler.

Everyone knows how that turned out.

In 1988, even conservative icon Ronald Reagan was attacked by right wing critics for his successful negotiation of an Intermediate Nuclear Force agreement with the Soviet Union. Keep in mind that negotiation can lead to the reduction of mutual threats, which is what Reagan tried to do in 1988 and what Barack Obama would presumably attempt vis-a-vis Iran. Presumably, it is why the Bush administration negotiated with North Korea.

In any event, Hedrik Smith wrote an interesting piece about Reagan’s critics for the NY Times Magazine, January 17, 1988:

The table talk, recalled one participant, was full of frustration, and focused on the question of “what to do about summit fever, what to do about Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev – the idea being that Reagan was appeasing liberals in Congress, appeasing the Communists, caving in on taxes, putting moderates like Frank Carlucci at Defense, and cutting deals with the evil empire.”

I wonder which action they opposed more strongly — appeasing liberals or appeasing Soviets? Smith has more:

A sharp split developed over strategy. Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, and Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail specialist, wanted the conservative movement to break openly with Reagan….Phillips charged that Reagan was “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

….Phillips’s knock-out punch will be a full-page ad scheduled to run this month in such conservative-minded newspapers as The Washington Times and New Hampshire’s Manchester Union-Leader. Under the headline, “Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938,” photos of Reagan and Gorbachev are paired with photos of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler, followed by the appeal: “Help Us Defeat the Reagan-Gorbachev INF Treaty.”

The conservatives mentioned in the article ended up setting up an “Anti-Appeasement Alliance” to fight Reagan and the INF Treaty.

More recently, readers may recall that members of the right in 2002 and early 2003 frequently labeled opponents of the proposed Iraq war as appeasers. William Kristol penned “The Axis of Appeasement” in The Weekly Standard, August 26, 2002:

President Bush’s policy is regime change in Iraq. President Bush believes that regime change is most unlikely without military action. He considers the risks of inaction greater than the risks of preemption. No doubt he and his administration could have been doing a better job of making that case in a sustained and detailed way. But that is not why an axis of appeasement–stretching from Riyadh to Brussels to Foggy Bottom, from Howell Raines to Chuck Hagel to Brent Scowcroft–has now mobilized in a desperate effort to deflect the president from implementing his policy.

Since these conservatives are so fond of recalling history, I wonder why they are never held to account for their own stupidity:

Reading the Scowcroft/New York Times “arguments” against war, one is struck by how laughably weak they are. European international-law wishfulness and full-blown Pat Buchanan isolationism are the two intellectually honest alternatives to the Bush Doctrine. Scowcroft and the Times wish to embrace neither, so they pretend instead to be terribly “concerned” with the administration’s alleged failure to “make the case.” Somehow, Vice President Cheney’s fine speech in San Francisco on August 7, or Condoleezza Rice’s superb August 15 interview with the BBC, to say nothing of Donald Rumsfeld’s impressive press briefings and President Bush’s strong statements–these don’t count.

Delusional, right?

Incidentally, most realist critics of the proposed Iraq war thought that Saddam Hussein could be deterred, which is quite a different policy than appeasement. I recommend readers go back and look at that Brent Scowcroft piece from 2002 and decide for yourselves if he accurately predicted what would happen if the US invaded Iraq. Then, just for laughs, compare that to the Kristol piece.

For more examples from the Iraq debate, see here, here and especially here.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.