Robert D. Kaplan: Foreign Policy ... Munich Versus Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy.]

For decades now, two analogies have battled for supremacy in American foreign policy circles: those of Munich and Vietnam. At the moment, Vietnam has the upper-hand. But don’t count Munich out.

The appeasement of Nazi Germany at the Munich Conference in 1938—when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, after a meeting with Adolf Hitler, declared, he had brought “peace for our time”—has haunted western policymakers and intellectuals ever since. The fear of not stopping a tyrant in his tracks—before it is too late—has been particularly acute in America, weighed down as it is by the responsibilities of a great power. Because such a fear may demand preemptive military action, the Munich analogy flourishes after a lengthy and prosperous peace, when the burdens of war are far enough removed to appear abstract.

The fear of another Munich was an underlying element in the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991. If we didn’t stop Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, he’d next invade Saudi Arabia, thereby controlling the world’s oil supply and taking human rights in the Middle East to an unutterable level of darkness. “Munich” was heard often in reaction to the failure to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Munich was the driving force behind military operations in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, which were clearly wars of choice: as the threat to our national interest in both cases was indirect.

The Balkans constituted the high water mark for invoking “Munich:” the upshot of ethnic cleansing occurring on the same continent where Hitler had perpetrated his genocide of the Jews. Those opposed to our Balkan interventions raised the Vietnam analogy, but because a quagmire never resulted, it was in the Balkans a decade ago where the ghost of Vietnam was once-and-for-all exorcised—or so it was thought.

Indeed, the 1990s were a time of unchallenged American power following the easy victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War. Thus, many argued it was incumbent upon us to do good works. Humanist philosophy, exemplified by the writings of Isaiah Berlin, captured the intellectual spirit of the decade. For Munich is about activism: about confronting perceived evil in advance of its worst deeds. It is the supreme argument of idealists intent on re-labeling realists as cynics. The Munich analogy, while justified in particular instances, requires the luxury of a strong domestic position, both economic and military.

Munich was at work in approaching the dilemma of Saddam Hussein after 9/11. Though we had just suffered an attack on our soil comparable to Pearl Harbor, the country’s experience with ground war had been, for a quarter-century, nil or at least not unpleasant: in Kosovo and the Iraqi no-fly-zones, the Air Force and Navy had been busy; much less so the Army and Marines. Moreover, Saddam was not just another dictator, but a tyrant comparable to Hitler or Stalin, whom it was thought harbored weapons of mass destruction. In light of 9/11—in light of Munich—history would never forgive us if we didn’t take action....

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