National Security

It's Time to Abandon 'Munich'

After 75 years, foreign policy's uber-analogy needs to go.

The September 30, 1938, Munich pact, hailed then as a victory for peace, quickly became the opposite as it allowed Hitler to take over most of Eastern Europe without bloodshed. Ever since, "Munich" has been a catchphrase for appeasement and losing the best moment to stop a dictator.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in a September 2, 2013, phone call with congressional Democrats, called the need to strike at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons a "Munich moment," arguing that Americans cannot be "silent spectators at the slaughter." President Barack Obama, while avoiding explicit use of the phrase, has made clear that Assad must not be permitted to take advantage of the West's unwillingness to use force as Hitler took advantage of the similar reluctance in 1938. And, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear recently, U.S. inaction on Syrian chemical weapons would have international reverberations -- the South Koreans are worried that it could embolden North Korea to use its chemical and biological weapons.

"Munich" has been used as an analogy to cover so many situations -- from the Cuban missile crisis to the Vietnam War to the Gulf War -- that it ought to be retired. Historical politico-military tropes don't have to last forever; in the modern world, we no longer have use for likening new situations to crossing the Rubicon, meeting one's Waterloo, or surviving a winter at Valley Forge. Hindsight about Munich may say that France and Great Britain should not have negotiated with Hitler but instead gone to war and stopped him then and there, once and for all, but hindsight has a way of omitting important details -- those which reveal that Munich was more complicated than a black-and-white choice between fighting and giving in.

At Munich, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, and Edouard Daladier signed a short memorandum in which Great Britain, France, and Italy agreed not to make war against Nazi Germany and allow Hitler to take over the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia populated mostly by German-speakers who had supposedly expressed interest in joining the Third Reich) in exchange for Hitler's pledge not to invade any other European territories. Chamberlain and Daladier signed because France and Great Britain, still recovering from the ravages of the Great War, had little appetite or capacity for battle. At the time of the Anschluss, six months earlier, when Hitler had taken over Austria, Daladier had properly identified the Nazis's next target. But in September, when he wanted to honor France's treaty obligations to protect Czechoslovakia and declare war on Germany, he was stymied by his cabinet and the French military apparatus. And he knew he could not go to war without the British.

Moreover, a peace pact was exactly what the French and British populaces wanted. Enormous, exultant crowds, jubilant that Great Britain would not have to go to war, greeted the 70-year-old prime minister and believed him when Chamberlain told them the Munich agreement meant "peace in our time." Daladier flew in to Paris expecting to be lynched, and was lionized. Aghast, he characterized the ebullient crowds to an aide as "les cons," the fools. President Franklin Roosevelt sent congratulations; his telegram was so effusive in its praise that Ambassador Joseph Kennedy chose to read it to the British and would not turn over the text, believing that the president might later regret his words. Shortly thereafter, the ambassador gave up on the British and advised Roosevelt to make an accommodation with Hitler.

Within weeks of the pact's signature, Hitler broke his word, taking over the Sudetenland and pounding at the gates of the remaining, non-German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two months, the Nazis carried out the "Kristallnacht" pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria. There was no mistaking that sign, so the United States and other countries withdrew their ambassadors to Berlin. The following August, Hitler made a secret alliance with the Soviet Union to split Poland between them, and on September 1, 1939 invaded Poland. Two days later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany and so began World War II.

As a term of opprobrium, "Munich" was ubiquitous during World War II and in the early decades of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on "Appeasement at Munich" and turned it into his first book, Why England Slept, published in 1940, in which he advanced the thesis that the British Isles had been so unprepared for war in 1938 that Chamberlain had had little choice but to give in to Hitler. He argued that if Great Britain and France had gone to war in 1938, they might well have lost.

By the onset of the Cold War, the prudent reason for not attacking Hitler in September 1938 had been forgotten, and "Munich" became the battle cry of those trying to prevent the communists from taking over the world. President Dwight Eisenhower wrote to Churchill on April 4, 1954, rationalizing why the United States had to help the French at Dien Bien Phu: "We failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time. That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril. May it not be that our nations have learned something from that lesson?" Such thoughts led directly to America's early involvement in Vietnam.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy and his advisors were in basic agreement that this was a "Munich moment" -- that it was the right place and time to stop the Soviets from putting nuclear missiles within easy striking distance of the U.S. mainland. Unlike Chamberlain at Munich, in 1962 Kennedy knew that the United States had the military strength to best the U.S.S.R. in Cuba, if it came to that. However, inside the war room, Kennedy had to finesse the loudest shouter of the Munich analogy, Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, who was insistent that diplomacy was of no use in solving the crisis and that the proper response was to drop nuclear bombs on Cuba.

For LeMay and other Cold War ultra-conservatives, the meaning of Munich was best articulated by Dr. Fritz Kraemer, the monocled civilian Pentagon strategist (and mentor of Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig) for whom Munich was a prime example of "provocative weakness." Reacting too meekly to an aggressor's move, Kraemer taught, only emboldened and enabled further aggression. To Kraemer and LeMay, diplomacy and appeasement were the same thing. To Kennedy, they were not. Kennedy interpreted Munich to be a demonstration of the truth of the memorable phrase, attributed by Kennedy -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Doing something, however, did not have to mean mounting an invasion when negotiation could solve the problem. 

Munich provided the rationale for Lyndon Johnson's decision to pour troops into Vietnam, and for rhetoric stressing that North Vietnam was invading its neighbors. Johnson later wrote, "Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression."

The forebears of the neocons, led by Kraemer, saw provocative weakness and Munich-like appeasement in President Richard Nixon's unilateral withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, starting in the spring of 1969. Opposing Munich-style give-ins became the rallying cry for Richard Perle and other neocons decrying potential nuclear agreements with the Soviets in the 1970s and ‘80s. The ultimate bad example, the neocons charged, was President Ronald Reagan's withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon in 1984, six months after the terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks there. But there were problems with the neocons' uses of the analogy -- they kept stretching the parameters until they were nearly meaningless.

There was one last appropriate invoking of Munich as rationale for action, whispered by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into the ear of President George H. W. Bush in 1991, to convince the former World War II pilot of the need to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The parallels with Munich were so close -- the dictator took over a neighboring country and planned not to stop there but to go on to invade Saudi Arabia -- that the world community agreed and joined with the United States to push the invaders back to Baghdad.

Seventy-five years after Munich, most crises in which the international community sees potential reason to intervene do not involve the integrity of territorial boundaries but rather the broaching of moral and ethical boundaries. Those are difficult to define precisely. In Syria, good and evil do not exist on opposite sides of the insurgency, for both have used barbaric tactics, albeit in different degrees. Moreover, the options in Syria are not simply to fight or to give in: Diplomacy (as with the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Assad to give up his chemical weapons) may well be able to provide a middle ground that is hardly equivalent to appeasement.

Let's retire Munich as a handy one-size-fits-all catchphrase used to galvanize support for any action against any dictator at any time. The world has grown up since 1938 -- it's more complex, more interconnected, and on many issues the good and the evil are not so easily separated. Certainly in the instance of the sarin gas used against Syrian civilians, the world community can find multiple reasons for counteracting and punishing the offender. But it's time to come up with a new analogy on rhetorical wings of which to mount the charge.



A Singh and a Miss

Even a state visit by India's prime minister can't save a relationship with Washington that's dangerously off-base.

Nearly four years ago, Barack Obama hosted the first state dinner of his presidency in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That event, however, was soon overshadowed by the exploits of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two Washington socialites who crashed the dinner, embarrassing the White House and dominating headlines for days.

Sadly, this wasn't so surprising: something always seems to be stealing the U.S.-India relationship's thunder. On Friday, Obama once again hosted Singh at the White House, at a time when many Indians believe their country still sits on the backburner of U.S. priorities in South Asia. Several high-level visits from U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden in July, have done little to change that perception. Secretary of State John Kerry's lackluster June trip to India, for example, prompted retired Indian ambassador K. C. Singh to warn that the current government in Washington "may have little appetite for accommodating Indian concerns." Nor did the meeting today, during which the two sides talked about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the U.S.-India relationship, assuage concerns: Obama opened his public remarks on the subject by asking for Singh's "indulgence" and launching into a speech on Syria.

This is a far cry from the George W. Bush administration, when prominent pro-India voices like then Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns worked fervently to deepen ties with New Delhi -- an effort that culminated in a landmark civil nuclear accord in 2008. Yet since Obama took office in 2009, and despite a roughly five-fold increase in bilateral trade over the last decade, many in the administration regard India as a complacent nation trying to punch above its weight. For its part, India resents Washington's relationship with Islamabad, fractured as it may be, and U.S. attempts to broker talks with the Afghan Taliban. The occasional gaffe hasn't helped matters either. New Delhi was infuriated by the video of a 2011 Chuck Hagel speech that surfaced this February. In the speech, given before he accepted the position of defense secretary, Hagel claimed India "financed problems" for Pakistan in Afghanistan.

So will U.S.-India relations remain second tier, like the opening cover band that never becomes a headliner? Not necessarily. Shifting strategic sands are positioning the relationship for an upgrade, and possibly even a spot on center stage. The United States is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan. The drawdown likely means Washington will spend less energy on Pakistan and redirect attention to India -- while addressing India's fears about the implications of the U.S. military withdrawal. The United States has also revised its "rebalance to Asia" strategy in ways that happen to be beneficial to India, including more maritime cooperation with Southeast Asia -- a potential hedge against China. And while Washington continues to refer to India as a "key partner" in the rebalance, it no longer suggests an alliance -- which New Delhi, with its strong legacy of nonalignment, would vigorously oppose.

These factors may be driving a series of conciliatory moves by both countries. India, after prodding from Washington, has reduced its energy dependence on Iran: once that country's second largest oil importer, it is now sixth. Washington responded in June by exempting New Delhi from Iran-related sanctions. In mid-September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter intimated that Washington is interested in liberalizing its arms export rules for India. According to Carter, such measures would give India "the same status as our very closest allies." Also in mid-September, Indian media reported that New Delhi will relax some of the liability laws that have made U.S. companies hesitant to invest in India's nuclear sector.

Admittedly, improving the relationship will not be easy, as business ties between the two countries may suffer in the months ahead. Major Indian IT firms in the United States are angry about the changes to the U.S. H1-B visa program that make it more difficult for them to recruit Indian workers. Meanwhile, the U.S. private sector, one of the most vocal and important advocates of a stronger U.S.-India relationship, has of late taken a more critical line. Mark Elliot, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Intellectual Property Center said India's counterproductive trade policies "are leaving us scratching our heads;" Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, a D.C.-based advocacy group, said India's policies are "a critical problem for business." Worryingly, the continued slowdown of India's economy -- its GDP grew at an anemic 3.2 percent in 2012, and the precipitous fall of the rupee in August sparked talk of an economic crisis -- has caused India to retreat further inside its protectionist shell.   

Even if ties do improve under Singh, they could worsen if he leaves office in 2014. One of the top candidates for next Prime Minister of India is Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Because of his role in 2002 riots that left roughly 1,200 Muslims dead, the United States has denied him a visa. While that would probably change if he's elected prime minister, Modi, who his critics call an unpredictable Hindu nationalist, is unlikely to pursue a cozy relationship with the United States. Now is the time for Obama and Singh to institute policies, or at least build goodwill, that shores up the relationship. Otherwise gatecrashers -- whether in the form of Kabul, Modi, Indian trade policies, or the Salahis -- will keep spoiling the party.

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