Since the US and five other world powers – Germany, France, Russia, China, and Britain – reached an agreement to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for a major reduction in the scope of its nuclear program, allegations that the moment is like the 1938 Munich agreement reached between the UK and the Third Reich have grown to eye-catching proportions.
The comments of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina yesterday were typical. He called President Barack Obama "the Neville Chamberlain of our time."
Senator Graham's choice of words were far from accidental. Former British Prime Minister Chamberlain's famous declaration upon returning home from signing the 1938 Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler – acceding to Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland in Western Czechoslovakia – that it amounted to "peace for our time" (often misstated as "peace in our time") has become an all purpose-political cudgel to accuse political opponents of disastrous naiveté. After all, a year after Munich, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.
But the comparison being tossed around now is full of false equivalences, a misunderstanding of European history, and a perhaps deliberate distortion of the purpose of the Iran deal. Mr. Graham's full quote yesterday was: "He's the Neville Chamberlain of our time who believes that over the next 15 years, Iran is going to change their behavior, because this deal doesn't require them to do a damn thing in terms of changing their behavior.”
The deal is about changing Iran's behavior specific to its nuclear program. Nothing else. A potential Iranian nuclear weapon has been sold for decades as among the greatest threat to world peace in our time. That was the basis on which an international consensus for sanctions was sold. And that was the basis of the lengthy negotiations that led to this agreement.
While it would be nice if Iran became a democracy, exchanged ambassadors with Israel, and realigned its foreign policy with US interests, demanding that for sanctions relief would not only have been an impossible task – it would also have made a rush to a nuclear bomb a risk worth taking for the Islamic Republic. Why? Because the only way out from under the boot would have been for Iran to abandon all that they hold most dear – to have succumbed to an existential threat to the Islamic Republic, if you will.
What clearly is neither an existential threat to anyone, nor one within a country mile of that posed to Europe by Germany in World War II, is Iran today. Whatever their intentions, they haven't invaded a neighbor or annexed any territory. Their military ability (compared to Hitler's in 1938) is paltry. In 1938, Germany spent 12 times the amount that Iran does (in constant dollars) on its war machine, had probably the most sophisticated and efficient munitions factories in the world, and was inflamed with an ideology of regional conquest.
Iran neither has that ambition nor the ability to pursue regional conquest. Iran's current defense spending is about $15 billion a year. The United States' defense budget is $600 billion. (US and British defense spending were far behind Germany's in 1938.) Nazi Germany was allied with Italy and Japan, formidable military powers in their own right. Modern Iran has ... Syria and Hezbollah.
Other countries far outspend Iran on defense, including Saudi Arabia ($80 billion), the UK ($56 billion), France ($37 billion), and Germany ($42 billion) – all of whom would oppose a regional war of conquest by Iran.
The point should be made. People declaring a "Munich moment" typically consider all diplomacy and compromise as "appeasement." Either that, or they don't grasp the horrific consequences of World War II.
Nevertheless, deployments of the Munich analogy grow. Consider this article in the extremely hawkish Commentary magazine (which called for the 2003 invasion of Iraq with a string of articles comparing Saddam Hussein's Iraq to Hitler's Germany). As bad as Munich? No! Much worse, the author writes.
"What we are living through now is worse than Munich, not only because we are ignoring the lesson learned from that event — at the cost of a six-year world war and millions of deaths — but because even Chamberlain would be shocked at what is transpiring again," asserts the author, Rick Richman.
The Munich/Chamberlain/Hitler/1938 Nazi Germany comparison has been as durable since World War II as it has proven consistently false. Some examples:
- During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Gen. Curtis LeMay of the Joint Chiefs of Staff complained to President Kennedy that his decision not to go to war with Cuba and risk one with the Soviet Union was a catastrophic mistake. "This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don't see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," he said.
- In 1984, US News and World Report called Libya's Muammar Qaddafi "the Hitler of the 1980s."
- In 2002, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and one of the core of neocons who spent years advocating for an invasion of Iraq, wrote on the eve of the war, chastising people who said the invasion would prove a disaster: "A preemptive strike at the time of Munich would have meant an immediate war, as opposed to the one that came later. Later was much worse."
- Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer has made 1930s Nazi Germany "appeasement" comparisons so often there's hardly space for them all. Some instances include nuclear diplomacy with Iran in 2006, Obama's comments on Russia's war in Georgia in 2009, the Bush administration's initial responses to Saddam Hussein's aggression towards Kuwait in 1990 (A "nightmare out of the 1930s," he called Saddam), the Clinton administration's handling of North Korea's nuclear program in 1994 (an article called "Peace in our time"), and, of course, the interim deal with Iran in 2013 that led to the current agreement – "worst deal since Munich" he said then.
- In 1977 Bayard Rustin and Carl Gershman wrote in the neoconservative bastion Commentary that the US failure to respond militarily to Soviet military involvement in Angola was the best example "since Munich [of] the impotence of the democratic world in the face of totalitarian aggression."
- Vice President Spiro Agnew said of presidential candidate George McGovern, who favored a quick end to the Vietnam war, in 1972 that "Even Neville Chamberlain did not carry a beggar's cup to Munich as George McGovern proposes to carry to Hanoi."
- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 brought up Hitler and the 1930s in a dig at critics of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq. "It is apparent that many have still not learned history's lessons," he said. "Can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?"
- A 2008 article on the left-wing website Daily Kos found examples of Chamberlain and Munich comparisons being made by: Eisenhower toward Truman's Korea and China policies in 1952; Ronald Reagan on liberal attitudes toward the Soviet Union in 1964; and Lyndon Johnson in arguing for the need for war in Vietnam in 1965, among many others.
The Munich analogists might be right this time. But that's clearly not the way to bet.