This is not 1938. Bashar al-Assad is not Adolph Hitler. He lacks the ambition and the means. Barack Obama is not Neville Chamberlain. John Kerry is not Lord Halifax. Rand Paul is not Robert A. Taft.
It may be wise to oppose U.S. bombing of Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, or it may not, but raising the World War II metaphors by describing doubters as “appeasers” or “isolationists” only serves to elevate the issues beyond all reason.
Using those particular labels is more than a sticks and stones issue. They belittle the horrors of the past to the point of irrelevance, and exaggerate the horrors of the present to the point of silliness.
“Appeasers” were the timid leaders of Europe in the fourth decade of the last century. They were mostly old men who 20 years before had sent their nation’s sons to the slaughter and gained nothing for it. As witnesses to a holocaust, with death burning in their collective memory, they were so fearful of a new war they only hastened the onset of the deadliest conflict in history by serving up innocent countries to their ravenous enemy.
“Isolationists” were Americans who shared the popular belief that the United States should watch idly while Europeans continue their civil war and destroy western civilization in the process. It’s not our business, they said. We were suckers in 1917, they reasoned. Let us be suckers no more.
So, you are a member of the Congress of the United States and you are inclined to oppose granting the president leave to attack Syria. You fear it will be pointless and ineffective and may lead to consequences that will endanger the United States. That wouldn’t qualify you as an isolationist, someone who believes it wise to ignore distant slaughter.
With U.S. troops fighting and dying as we speak, with our military spread across the globe, it would be nearly impossible to be an isolationist. You might be shortsighted, or cautious, or even a pacifist, but we aren’t close to isolated by 1930s standards, when our military was a few notches above non-existent. We’re very well connected, and entangled in numerous places, and Congress has not tried to stop it. Quite the contrary.
And is this a “Munich moment,” as Secretary of State Kerry contends?
Munich, of course, was the classic pinnacle of appeasement, when Britain and France passed Czechoslovakia to Hitler without seeking more than a thank-you in return. Slaughter ensued. If the United States fails to drop its cruise missiles on Syria, is that a Munich appeasement equivalent? “An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last,” said Winston Churchill. No one fears Assad is a Hitlerian crocodile. In comparison he’s less than a lizard.
Is President Obama the new Neville Chamberlain, the appeaser in chief, as columnists claim? Hardly. Chamberlain was wrong, but he was not indecisive or incompetent. In this circumstance, the same cannot be said for the president.
What’s at stake? In 1938, a war that would kill 60 million people. In Syria, we will “punish” the dictator for the technique he used to dispatch approximately 1 percent of his recent victims. If after being bombed he continues with his old techniques, we apparently will do nothing. His toll is ghastly, but would be barely a day’s work in 1945.
On this the president of the United States has staked our national credibility. Despite outward appearances, that still counts for something. Congress can risk it, and vote no. There will be a price to pay. The president will face a period of impotence. But isolationist appeasement it will not be.
Tracy Warner is editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World.