The dread 'appeasement'
Trying not to repeat last generation of mistakes may set stage for next
Kosovo has added some words to the lexicon of conflict - "ethnic cleansing," "international military presence," "permissive environment." But no expressions are more laden with struggles of the past and hazards for future policy than "appeasement" and "quagmire."Skip to next paragraph
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Charge "appeasement" and you mark yourself as descended from the generation of hawks raised on memories of "Munich" (which has come to be almost an expletive).
In Munich in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed a pact with Hitler. The man with the umbrella that became his trademark was willing to feed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in hope it would satisfy his appetite and give us "peace in our time." What he delivered, of course, was total war in his time.
So, if today you favor an agreement with indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, you may be told that this is "appeasement" and will only pave the way for a "Greater Serbia" and a wider Balkan war.
The shorthand debating answer to "appeasement" is "quagmire." Thus, determined to have "no more Munichs," a series of American presidents equated Vietnam with Czechoslovakia and poured American lives and fortunes into stopping the Communists before the Asian dominoes fell.
America sank deeper and deeper into the Vietnam morass, which gave us the epithet, "No more quagmires." You will notice that policymakers who experienced Nazi expansionism in Europe - Zbigniew Brezinski, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger - generally are more willing to use force than those whose deepest memories are Vietnam.
Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells in his memoirs of an argument with then-Ambassador Albright in a 1993 meeting on Bosnia in which she said, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
Powell writes, "I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."
"Appeasement" and "quagmire" may make punchy soundbites. They don't help as a guide to meeting new regional challenges that resemble neither Nazi nor communist forms of expansionism.
If memories of Munich helped influence NATO's decision to go to war against Yugoslavia, then memories of Vietnam may have influenced the decision to keep the war high up in the air, above the quagmire, as long as possible.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott may find it amusing to borrow a slogan from the peaceniks of the '60s, "Why not give peace a chance?" The trouble is that policymaking by historical analogy, trying not to repeat the last generation of mistakes, may only set the stage for the next generation of mistakes.