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Biden must deter, not appease, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang

Concessions don’t actually conciliate despots.

U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock.
U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

We all disapprove of appeasement, right? The term evokes Munich, where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made concessions to Adolf Hitler in the hope that would sate, rather than whet, his appetite for conquest.

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Winston Churchill famously chastised Chamberlain afterward. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

Also attributed to Churchill is the definition of an appeaser as “one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.” The implication: As a description of policy, appeasement is a misnomer since it suggests not the conciliation of adversaries but rather the futility of attempts to alter their intentions when, at best, only their timetables are subject to change.

To be fair to Chamberlain, he had no good alternatives. Britain had for years allowed its military strength to deteriorate while Germany rearmed. Churchill warned of the danger, and was roundly denounced as a “warmonger.”

By 1938, Chamberlain could not convincingly tell Hitler: “Keep your troops within your borders—or else.” So, he cut a deal under which Hitler agreed to conquer only part of Europe—to “share the neighborhood,” one might say. Hitler, of course, didn’t keep his end of the bargain. Despots seldom settle for win-win solutions.

Appeasement is, or should be, a pertinent and timely issue now because President Joe Biden is deciding how to deal with a number of despots, none of them half-a-loaf kinds of guys, none of them likely to keep promises if they can get away with breaking them.

In particular, Biden appears inclined to replicate the approach of former President Barack Obama, who believed that in exchange for riches and respect, Iran’s rulers would slow (not terminate) their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and “share the neighborhood,” putting aside their ambition to spread Iran’s Islamic Revolution across the Middle East and, in time, beyond.

Unlike Chamberlain, Biden has alternatives to appeasement. The least bad would be a policy of “peace through strength.” Were he to embrace that approach, he would refrain from alleviating economic pressure on Iran’s rulers so long as they are actively engaged in terrorism—including unleashing militias to attack Americans in Iraq as recently last week—hostage-taking, illicit nuclear weapons and missile development, and both threatening and assaulting their neighbors.

A peace-through-strength policy also would mean ending our reliance on China’s rulers for strategic commodities and, as a matter of morality, not buying from them anything produced by workers deprived of basic human rights. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has just released a report on “Targeted Decoupling and the Economic Long War” with Beijing. It should be required reading within the Biden administration.

Most essential: Peace through strength implies no diminishment of the American military power needed to deter despots. Deterrence makes shooting wars less likely. It’s puzzling that so many Western leaders find the logic behind that aphorism difficult to comprehend.

These days, there are those on both the right and the left—I’d call them isolationists, though they prefer to be called “restrainers”—who are determined to “end endless wars.”

It’s a nice bumper sticker. In reality, there’s a distinction between wars and long-duration, low-intensity conflicts in which American forces train, advise and assist foreign partners as part of what should be a broader strategy to defeat or at least contain common enemies.

As I write this, there are about as many American troops in Washington, D.C., as in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Those forward deployments are economy-of-force missions, enabling our partners to bear the brunt of the fighting.

We have many more troops, tens of thousands, in Europe, Japan, South Korea and the Gulf. Their job is to project American power in order to secure America’s national interests in those regions.

“An estimated 33,000 Americans died fighting in Korea and 47,000 in Vietnam,” Harvard Unversity Professor Graham Allison points out in the current issue of Foreign Policy: “But since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the total number of U.S. battle deaths stands at fewer than 7,500.”

Every such death is a tragedy, about that there can be neither dispute nor doubt. But historical perspective is essential in policy-making. In reality, “endless wars” don’t end when we stop fighting. Our withdrawals merely cede swaths of the globe to our enemies in the hope they will leave us alone thereafter. But, as noted above, despots are not easily appeased.

On both the right and left there also are those attempting to debunk the endless-war narrative. “Disengagement from competitions overseas would increase dangers to the United States,” writes Gen. (ret.) H.R. McMaster, who served as former President Donald Trump’s national security advisor. “The paltry savings realized would be dwarfed by the eventual cost of responding to unchecked and undeterred threats.”

Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and Secretary of Defense under Obama, writes: “Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang, in addition to a number of determined terrorist organizations, continue to pursue objectives inimical to American interests. More than ever, Americans must go abroad to remain secure at home. Such a view is neither right nor left policy—it is smart policy informed by a modern history of devastating wars, hard lessons from more recent conflicts and current realities.”

Both quotes are from “Defending Forward: Securing America by Projecting Military Power Abroad,” a recently released Foundation for Defense of Democracies monograph that should be required reading within the Biden administration as well.

Maintaining deterrence is an endless struggle—not quite the same as an endless war. By contrast, appeasement appears to provide a quick and easy way to resolve a conflict. But when dealing with despots, that’s an illusion—one that cannot be endlessly maintained.

Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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