As a general rule of thumb, it’s always best to avoid analogies to Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. The trio of the greatest villain in history, the hero who defeated him, and the foolish and weak man who appeased him provides us with one of the most important lessons in history that should never be forgotten. But there are three big problems with the promiscuous use of World War II and/or Holocaust analogies: Not every bad guy is a Hitler; not everyone we perceive as a hero is a Churchill; and not all people who think getting caught up in any particular war is a bad idea is a Chamberlain.
That’s something that those who take part in the debate about how deeply the United States should be involved in the war that resulted from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine should keep in mind. Yet somehow, the temptation to frame that discussion as similar to the choice Britain and the West faced when Nazi Germany threatened Czechoslovakia in 1938 is not something many politicians and commentators can resist.
So, it was probably to be expected that the response of some leading advocates of escalating the U.S. role in the stalemated war that is being fought in Ukraine to those urging caution harkens straight into the Munich 1938 playbook.
When asked to comment on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ claim that the fight for the territorial integrity of Ukraine was not a vital national interest of the United States, the response from both Democrats and some Republicans was loud and angry. Fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed DeSantis’s comment by saying, “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well.”
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In a statement he issued to Fox News’ host Tucker Carlson, DeSantis said the following: “While the U.S. has many vital national interests—securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party—becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
That last phrase about the war being a “territorial dispute” is widely analogized to Chamberlain’s unfortunate characterization of the German desire to conquer the Czechs, in which he said it was “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”
Yet while South Carolina legislator Graham is right to characterize the invasion of Ukraine as aggression, his willingness to treat Russian President Vladimir Putin as if he were another Hitler and the widely expressed belief that Moscow’s goal is the conquest of Europe cannot be considered a serious analysis of the situation. And one year into the war with Ukraine’s independence no longer in doubt—and the continuation of the fighting being at least in part a matter of Kyiv’s desire to win back every inch of territory it held in 2014—DeSantis is also not wrong to declare it a “territorial dispute.”
Still, the Florida governor is being bitterly criticized, especially by those Republicans who, like Graham, are treating the opportunity to confront Putin as if this is another chance to re-fight Cold War proxy battles or the heyday of the post-9/11 belief that the United States had to take the fight to Islamist terrorists and their allies, lest they be encouraged to continue their war on America.
Lessons from Iraq
That history is particularly relevant this month as the country marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The decision to launch that ill-fated war by former President George W. Bush was rooted in a belief that a failure to support democracy in the Middle East would lead to appeasing those waging war against America.
Bush was not alone in that belief. His decision was popular at the time. That pro-war sentiment was based on the acceptance of what was then a consensus among the U.S. and Western intelligence agencies that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had previously launched a war of aggression against Kuwait but had survived in office after America’s “Desert Storm” victory in 1991, was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. As we all now know, though he wished the world to believe it, Saddam had no such weapons.
Contrary to his critics, Bush didn’t lie about that, though he was nonetheless mistaken. As Eli Lake observed in an article on the Iraq war anniversary in Commentary, the war was not a total disaster since the ouster of Saddam and his brutal regime was in many ways a net plus for humanity.
Yet it is equally true that the unintended consequences of that war—in terms of the collapse of Iraqi society and the way that led to the strengthening of the even more dangerous regime in neighboring Iran—must outweigh any satisfaction we might derive from Saddam’s justified fate at the end of a hangman’s rope. Those who still seek, as Lake does, to argue that the war did more good than harm are unpersuasive.
Drawing the proper conclusions from that mistake is especially important for Israel and those who support it. In 2003, Benjamin Netanyahu—then in the middle of a 10-year gap between his first and second terms as prime minister of Israel—was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq while then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to convince Bush that Iran was the primary threat in the Middle East.
Still, the problem with foreign policy is that, as was the case for Bush in 2003, those who must make these decisions may be armed with knowledge of the past but cannot know what the future holds.
Since 1945, Americans have veered back and forth between a willingness to see every potential threat as another Munich-style test of courage and a desire to avoid disastrous foreign entanglements. Fear of the consequences of appeasement lured America into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Post-Vietnam war weariness led to a belief that the Soviet Union should be appeased and a period of weakness that encouraged Russian expansionist adventures in the late 1970s.
After Bush’s quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, a desire to abandon these burdens led to former President Barack Obama’s infamous failure to enforce his “red line” warning about Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the humanitarian catastrophe of the escalating civil war in that country.
Defining national interests
So how can leaders decide whether a projection of strength and a readiness to engage in wars is as necessary as it was when Chamberlain failed to act against Hitler in 1938, or whether it is a function of hubris and a misjudgment of the stakes involved as it was in 60 years ago in Vietnam or 20 years ago in Iraq?
A good place to start would be to ask the question that DeSantis is posing. Is the inclination to back Ukraine for, as President Joe Biden has pledged, “as long as it takes,” really in the national interests of the United States?
Putin is a brutal authoritarian but pretending, as Ukraine war hawks in both parties do, that Russia’s military could conquer NATO countries is risible, especially after its dismal performance in the last 12 months. It is possible, however, for Washington to blunder into a direct confrontation with Moscow that poses World War III-like nuclear Armageddon scenarios that should be avoided at all costs.
A wise leader might understand that treating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as if he were Churchill is a wild exaggeration of his virtues and also requires ignoring his faults. Good policy here may well be a decision to push for a peaceful resolution after 13 months of a conflict that has become a “territorial dispute” neither nation can probably win outright. Encouraging Ukraine to accept a compromise and conclude the fighting would end suffering on both sides. It would also allow the United States to devote its resources to strengthening Taiwan and preparing to contain a far more lethal threat from Communist China, an emerging global superpower.
To those who see every challenge as another Munich, reasonable caution will always look like Chamberlain-esque appeasement. But not every potential war is an existential struggle against a Hitler bent on the destruction of Western civilization, and combat sometimes leads to worse outcomes. In recent memory, we were given an opportunity to learn that lesson in Iraq; as a result, both the United States and Israel are confronted with a far more dangerous foe in Iran. Those who think a sober analysis of American interests is a weakness are drawing facile conclusions from a past they don’t really understand.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.