Neville Chamberlain Not a Good Reason to Invade Iran

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 6:43 PM EST

Max Boot has a piece in the LA Times today arguing that we should take a much tougher stand against Iran than we have so far:

In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.

....Western policymakers have implicitly made the same assumption today that their predecessors made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s: that an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future. That was the right decision to make with Stalin's Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler's Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.

I was glad that I ended up reading the whole piece, because when Boot mentioned Stalin's takeover of Eastern Europe I thought maybe he'd lost his mind. But no: in the very last paragraph, he admits that not starting up a new war with the Soviet Union after Hitler's fall was the right thing to do. It was a terrible thing to do, but still the right thing.

But without that, Boot is left with only two examples: Neville Chamberlain, poster boy of the hawkish right for over 70 years now, and Bill Clinton. And Clinton isn't even a very good example: al-Qaeda didn't truly start to seem dangerous until 1998, and Clinton actually kept a fair amount of attention focused on them. It wasn't enough — primarily because the CIA and the Pentagon, like the American right, refused to take non-state terrorism seriously at the time — but it wasn't an example of appeasement. So at best, let's call it one and a half examples.

But here's what's interesting: when hawkish right-wing types make this argument, they always haul out poor old Neville Chamberlain. Boot throws in Bill Clinton, probably more for partisan reasons than because he truly believes Clinton was soft on al-Qaeda. But that's not exactly a complete history of softness toward potential enemies. When China turned communist in 1949, we let it happen. That was a good decision. When Vietnam did the same we eventually sent half a million troops over, and that turned out to be a bad decision. France took an aggressive stand in Algeria, and the Soviet Union did likewise in Afghanistan, and those were also pretty bad decisions in retrospect.

Sometimes aggressive action is a good idea. Sometimes containment is a good idea. Sometimes international pressure is a good idea. And sometimes just sitting back and letting events unfold for a while is a good idea. If you want to make the case for flattening Iran, you need to actually make the case for why it's worth it. We've gotten — or should have gotten — way past the point where you can just yell "Neville Chamberlain!" and expect anyone to take you seriously.