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July 20, 2005

The Crock of Appeasement

by Juan Cole

The warmongers, imperialists, and just plain greedy who wish to use up U.S. troops to gain their ill-gotten goods love to use the word "appeasement." Anyone who stands against their expansionist ambitions will be tagged with this term. In the lexicology of the Rabid Right, it evokes British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempt to negotiate with German Chancellor Adolph Hitler. It is certainly the case that Hitler was a genocidal maniac and not the sort of man with whom one could usefully negotiate. But not all negotiation is equally fruitless. Before that incident, by the way, "appeasement" had a positive connotation, of "seeking peace."

The right-wing use of the term appeasement, however, turns it on its head. Taken seriously, the doctrine of "no appeasement" on the right would mean we are stuck in perpetual war, always doomed to be on the offensive, always dedicated to gobbling up more of other people's territory and wealth even at the expense of living in constant dread of being blown up and being forced to give up the civil liberties which had made American civilization great.

It would never be possible to negotiate a truce with any enemy. That would be appeasement. It would never be possible to compromise. That would be appeasement. It would never be prudent to withdraw troops from a failed war. That would be appeasement. In other words, the right-wing doctrine of "no appeasement, ever" actually turns you into Hitler rather than into Churchill.

But we are anyway not stuck perpetually in the late 1930s, and it is not the only exemplary period in history to which we can resort for our metaphors and our courses of action.

The Iraq crisis, for instance, is clearly an odd sort of neocolonialism, which can only ultimately be resolved by decolonization. Decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s was also denounced as "appeasement," but it was the only right course.

The similarities between British decolonization in Kenya and the Bush administration "war on terror" were pointed out in The Nation last winter.

Britain gave up India (and Pakistan) in 1947. Was that "appeasement?" You may be assured that the British Right saw it that way.

Without this sort of realism, Britain would have tried to keep India and there would have been a bloodbath. Likewise, any attempt by Britain to hold on to Kenya past the early 1960s would have led to even more violence than the Mau Mau and British reprisals (20,000 imprisoned, many tortured) had. And with decolonization, the Mau Mau and violence subsided. Problems do have solutions, and war is not always the best solution. Sometimes the withdrawal of the imperial power itself solves the problem.

You will note that you never hear that Britain "appeased" the Stern Gang, Irgun, Haganah, and other Zionist forces that sometimes engaged in terrorism in Palestine, when it departed that territory in 1948.

France "appeased" Lebanon and Syria by granting them independence in 1943. It "appeased" Morocco by giving it up in 1956. It "appeased" Algeria in 1962. Britain likewise "appeased" all of its former colonies. The political Right in each of these imperial countries fought decolonization tooth and nail (I do not admire Albert Camus as much as many Americans of my generation, because of his reactionary stance on Algeria).

Or let us take Cory Aquino's people power movement that challenged U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. The first instinct of Reagan and the right-wingers around him was to help Marcos crush Cory and her movement. Anything else would have been "appeasement." But Senator Dick Lugar went to the Philippines, looked around, and wisely decided that the only feasible course of action for the U.S. was to acquiesce in people power. Lugar managed to persuade Reagan, thus averting disaster. Were Lugar and Reagan guilty of "appeasement"?

All counterinsurgency struggles have to be waged at both the military and the political levels. The political side of the struggle requires that we attempt to understand what is driving the insurgents, that we negotiate with them and attempt to bring them into the system. That is not appeasement. It is counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency by simple brute military force has never worked, except where its wielder has been willing to commit genocide or something close to it.

Is negotiating with the leadership of the Ba'ath guerrilla movement in Iraq appeasement? I favor it if it would save the lives of U.S. troops. Would declaring an amnesty for Ba'ath Party members who cannot be proved to have committed a crime be appeasement? I favor it. Would internationalizing Iraq and drawing down U.S. troops be appeasement? I favor it.

Right-wingers who want to play Churchill and denounce "appeasement" should please go off to Iraq and put their own lives on the line instead of playing politics with the lives of our brave troops from the safety of Washington, D.C. What we want for those troops, as soon as humanly feasible, is to come out of Iraq and stay out.

And no, it is not so they can then be sent to die in the sands of Iran.

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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