'Munich’ is everywhere, yet explains nothing

By Cornelius Adebahr - 12 September 2013

Cornelius Adebahr sounds a note of caution for those hoping to use history as analogy in the case of Syria.

Let’s start with the banalities: Syria is not Iraq, Obama is not Bush, and an orange is not an apple. Yet there is one common thread if not in the reality but in the rhetorics – and, thus, ultimately the perception – of how the conflicts over the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s purported use of chemical weapons are framed: It’s the Munich analogy, i.e. the idea that some villain out there is like Adolf Hitler in 1938 who needs to be hit really hard so as to avoid the humiliation suffered by then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. According to this view, the latter’s despicable attempt to 'appease’ the aggressor only emboldened the German Fuhrer to start World War II less than a year later.

That is why, starting in the summer of 2002, Washington’s hawks banged the drums of war by widely using the 'lessons of Munich’. Richard Perle, then-head of the Pentagon’s defence policy board and a close confidant to Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, made his case for an attack on Iraq in an op-ed for the British Telegraph: "A pre-emptive strike against Hitler at the time of Munich would have meant an immediate war as opposed to the one that came later. Later was much worse.“ Conservative commentaries chimed in, arguing that "A familiar word is creeping back into the arguments over whether America […] should make a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. The word is 'appeasement,’ as in 'Munich.’ We could call it 'appeasement,’ as in 'Baghdad.’“ Even President George W. Bush himself did not shy away from such blunt comparisons in his speech in Prague in November 2002 to celebrate NATO’s Eastern Enlargement. He addressed Czechs and Slovaks directly and their „harsh experience of 1938 that when great democracies fail to confront danger, greater dangers follow“, before putting 'Munich’ in line with other place name metaphors such as Stalingrad and Yalta.

Now it was the supposedly 'dovish' U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, who invoked yet another 'Munich moment’. Admittedly, he avoided the simplest of arguments by trying to find actual similarities between the Syrian and the then-German leader. So in earlier remarks, Kerry literally put Assad in line with Hitler and, guess who, Hussein, when he said that these were the only three tyrants to have used chemical weapons since their global ban through the Geneva Protocol of 1925. While some hacks were quick to point out the flaws of this comparison – there were at least three more cases of such use by less known dictators, whereas Hitler employed gas not on the battlefield but in concentration camps – others jumped on the "A“ word. One journalist argued that "Obama’s 'war weariness’ smacks of the 1930s", in an article published very ingeniously on the 74th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

Still, Syria is not Iraq, especially when it comes to WMD. Then, it was all about the new doctrine of pre-emption, striking a ruthless dictator – and former ally – that was said to possess weapons of mass destruction. Now, it is about a ruthless dictator – and former 'reformer’ – who is accused of actually having used chemical weapons. Yet both then and now, the principle should be to first establish the facts, choose the right response from a set of options, and find an international coalition in support of such action. This rule has nothing to do with whatever could be learned from Munich, and all with what common sense tells us.

The problem with bringing in 'Munich’ now, is one of argumentative capitulation. When you have to resort to the most banal of analogies to justify an attack in response to a very real act of horror, it means that you are short on good arguments. Or as a corrolary of Godwin’s Law of online discussions, in war debates, the probability of hawks invoking Hitler approaches 1. The difference to the online world is that, while reference to Hitler there is seen as the end of the discussion, the rules in politics are not so strict. To the contrary, and as seen with the Iraq war, those who make such arguments can actually follow suit and dispose their latter day 'Hitler’ – regardless of the consequences of misusing an historical analogy.

Finally, one caveat is in order: Not every time 'Munich’ is used, the case itself is discredited. The 1938 analogy was an argument widely used in the mid-90s over the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and culminated in the self-confession of then-Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, that her "mindset is Munich“ when it came to Kosovo a few years later.

Indeed, if one were to regard both those cases of the use of force as fairly legitimate and, ultimately, successful, one could even draw some useful lessons from them for the current crisis in Syria. This is what two of those involved, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger for Bosnia and General Wesley Clark for Kosovo, have done quite succinctly. Which means that, rather than using 'Munich’ as the hammer to fix all problems (militarily), it is worth considering where an historical analogy is at all instructive or not. We would certainly see fewer uses of 'Munich' then, but maybe one’s which really help explain the conflict in question. 

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