Wednesday, April 18, 2012

North Korea, Iran, and the Lessons of History

by Bruce Thornton

Comparing our foreign policy to the feckless behavior of England and France in the Thirties is often dismissed as an overused and simplistic historical analogy. But when one watches our government pursue appeasing policies toward North Korea and Iran that over and over repeat the very same errors and delusions of that awful decade, then as Juvenal said about writing satire, it’s hard not to make those comparisons.

One lesson from the Thirties is that appeasing an aggressor encourages not just that one, but also another. The key act of appeasement of that decade’s many took place in March 1936, when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with 22,000 unseasoned troops and 14,000 policemen, violating both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Facing them were nearly 100 French and Belgian divisions. Of course they did nothing, even though, as Hitler later confessed, “If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.” With that daring move, Hitler had taken a huge step toward protecting Germany from Allied counterattacks when he invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland, and acquiring Germany’s traditional launching pad for his invasion of France and air attacks on England.

But what emboldened Hitler to gamble on French passivity? A few months earlier, in October 1935 Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia in violation of the League of Nations. Like today’s U.N., the League blustered, threatened, and imposed useless sanctions, but in the end did nothing, even though the British Mediterranean fleet could have closed down the Suez Canal and stopped Italy cold. Historian T.P. Cornwall-Evans drew the obvious conclusion of this failure: Hitler “scorns the attitude of England, whose fine phrases contributed nothing to [Ethiopia]. If England hesitated to tackle the Italians . . . how much more would the English hesitate to grapple with the Germans.” Winston Churchill agreed: “Mussolini, like Hitler, regarded Britannia as a frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster, and was anyhow incapable of making war.” Thus appeasement begat appeasement until the horrific denouement came in 1939.

Now consider our decades-long appeasement of North Korea and the way it has emboldened the Iranians to follow the Kim family playbook for acquiring nuclear weapons. Just last week, newly minted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un defied U.N. resolutions and American threats by launching a missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to the West Coast. Satellite intelligence shows that the North is also preparing for more nuclear tests, indicating they have no intention of stopping their development of more nuclear weapons. This provocation came a few weeks after Obama struck a deal offering 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for promises to freeze the weapons program. This pattern of offering carrots to North Korea, only to get smacked with sticks in return, has been going on for decades now, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. That is how the North got the bomb in the first place, engaging in “negotiations” and dangling promises of cooperation in exchange for aid and time.

A day after the failed North Korean missile launch, Iran sat down in Istanbul with Western representatives to discuss yet again the Iranian nuclear program. This confab is merely the latest in a series of “conferences,” tendered bribes, and solicitous “outreaches” that have done nothing to stop the mullahs from progressing ever closer to nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, the American and European representatives have frankly admitted that the current discussion is aimed at having another discussion later. Worse yet, our side apparently has set its demands pretty low, as the Wall Street Journal reports: “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said this week that Iran wouldn’t abandon or freeze its uranium-enrichment program, a key demand of the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council. But the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, suggested Iran might be willing to cap its production of uranium enriched to 20% purity, near weapons-grade, in exchange for economic assistance from the West.” The 20% cap is an Obama administration demand, and by accepting this concession Iran could spin out negotiations even further, or agree to a deal that allows the West to save face with an “agreement” while buying the Iranians more time. But as John Bolton tirelessly keeps reminding us, leaving Iran in control of the knowledge and facilities needed to create nuclear weapons, while letting them continue to enrich uranium even to 20%, merely postpones the ultimate reckoning. As with North Korea, such a deal, even it Iran conceded to inspections, would gain the regime economic relief from the sanctions and provide it more time to secretly work on enrichment.

Both North Korea and Iran have been taught by the West that our threats, exception-riddled sanctions, and U.N bluster are all pretexts for an unwillingness to use force, which both regimes interpret as weakness. Iran has held our citizens hostage, and received ransom to let them go; sheltered, trained, and supported terrorists who have murdered our troops and citizens for over 30 years; and continually worked against our interests and security and those of our allies, all without any significant punishment. Instead, Iran has been solicited with diplomatic “outreach,” material bribes, and invitations to join the “international community” it patently despises. As for North Korea, as Tufts professor Sung-Yoo Lee writes, “Except for the invasion of the South in 1950, North Korea has never suffered a lasting or devastating penalty for its many attacks and provocations. On the contrary, it has often been rewarded for false pledges” with “food, fuel and cash from North Korea’s risk-averse adversaries.” To both regimes, the West has become an object of contempt, “a frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster” and is “incapable of making war.”

For all the differences between now and the Thirties, then, the lesson remains the same, because human nature is the same, the simple fact forgotten by those who disdain historical analogies. But whatever the differences, they don’t change human nature. As Thucydides wrote about the devastating revolutions of the Peloponnesian War, “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.” In other words, the differences of “particular cases” ultimately don’t negate the reality of an unchanging human nature and its predictable behavior: Appease a bully and he’ll go on bullying; pay ransom to kidnappers and you’ll get more kidnapping; show weakness and you’ll invite aggression; make empty threats and you’ll earn contempt. It takes arrogant modern Westerners to think that their utopian fantasies of a world in which talk can trump force exempt them from those eternal truths evident on every page of history.

Bruce Thornton


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