“Appeasement,” Political Timing, and the Iran Deal

For the next several weeks and months, lawmakers and policy experts in the United States will be debating the various merits and disadvantages of the recently-announced deal between the United States, along with several of its negotiating partners, and the Islamic Republic of Iran to have the latter nation take certain steps to curb the development of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The proposed deal has yet to undergo the necessary ratification by the United States Congress, and the New York Times has published a piece that briefly summarizes and explains the key components of the agreement.

It goes without saying that the discussion about the Iran deal by both public figures in America, and the American public in general, has occasionally been influenced by hyperbole that borders on the obscenely outrageous.

On July 14, USA Today published a column whose authors argued that the proposed agreement “has delivered Washington and Tehran from years of teetering on the brink of war” and is “one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of the nuclear age.” Both quotations represent sheer overstatements. The first comment seems to imply that the only alternative to the deal, which resulted from an extensive negotiation process, would be armed conflict between the United States and Iran, and that the deal will somehow ameliorate all tensions between the two nations. With regard to both implications, the geopolitical realities are far more complex.

Meanwhile, the second comment seems to overlook the fact that, even if successful, the deal with Iran will only succeed at containing the purported nuclear ambitions of one nation, while other “diplomatic achievements of the nuclear age,” such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the SALT and START talks and treaties have accomplished far more in the area of nuclear non-proliferation than the Iran talks ever did, or ever will.

However, some of those who oppose the agreement with Iran over its nuclear materials enrichment programs are similarly prone to arguments that rely on exaggerations at best and hyperbole at worst. For instance, writing for Breitbart, Ben Shapiro argued that “the easy comparison is to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich in 1938, when he signed [an agreement allowing] Hitler to consolidate his gains in the Sudetenland on the bare promise of no further aggression in Europe.” Interestingly enough, the word “appeasement,” which often points to the Munich agreements by implication, has been used to describe President Obama’s approach to the situation in Iran for years, with Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin writing an article entitled “Who Will Stand Up to Iran and Against Obama’s Appeasement” in November 2013.

The opponents of the proposed Iran deal, when invoking the Chamberlain-Hitler-Munich precedent, undermine their argument that the agreement between the United States and its negotiating partners and Iran will lead to disaster. Iran’s military capabilities and economic circumstances are nowhere near those of Hitler’s Germany in 1938. Additionally, different forces were at play with Hitler and the Sudetenland Crisis than with Iran and the development of its nuclear program. If anything, President Obama’s handling of Russia’s recent acquisition of Crimea merits comparison to Chamberlain’s Munich appeasement, while attempts to parallel the Iran deal and the Munich agreements are probably misguided and definitely depend on exaggerated sentiments.

Additionally, the use of “appeasement” accusations to describe presidents’ less-than-interventionist responses to foreign policy challenges isn’t exactly original to President Obama. President Ronald Reagan was accused of appeasement during his talks with Soviet premier Gorbachev and the label was also applied when he withdrew American troops from Lebanon. So, perhaps the use of the word “appeasement” is like the proverbial hammer whose wielder sees everything as a nail.

However, in looking for a historical precedent that could help us discuss the Iran deal with more nuance and perspective, post-World War I America might serve as a more apt comparison. While there are certainly points of divergence between American in 1919-1920 and America in 2015, there are also some important areas of similarity that aren’t accounted for when opponents of the Iran deal resort to Munich and “appeasement” to make their case.

One could argue that the political climate in the United States today is similar to that experienced by Americans in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Many Americans were in the midst of economic hardship, not all too dissimilar from the hardships experienced by many today, even as the Great Recession is years past. Additionally, the general public was weary of war, as they are today, and foreign policy isolationism was on the rise.

Also, President Woodrow Wilson had pursued a diplomatic agreement that would have established a “League of Nations,” and he was forced to submit this proposed agreement to the review of a Congress that was controlled by Republican majorities in both houses, with an election year soon approaching. Quite predictably in hindsight, partisan turmoil ensued.

The late Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian prime minister, once said that “the essential ingredients of politics is timing.” I would argue that, its merits aside and accusations of “appeasement” aside, the proposed deal with Iran could become a case study for future generations of policymakers in the consequences of poor political timing. Now, the real question is whether or not the timing of the agreement is so poor that the deal with Iran sinks, or barely survives.

Featured Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Reuters

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