Appeasement's Taint Is All in Hindsight

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In an era when much of the 20th century’s lexicon of geopolitical stock phrases — Iron Curtain, “collaborator,” “enemy within” — has lost the power to stir passions, the last 10 days have proven once again that cries of “appeasement” still resonate.

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals,” President Bush said before the Israeli Parliament. “We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement.”

The White House claimed publicly that the reference was to those — including Jimmy Carter — who had met with Hamas, but an administration official acknowledged to reporters that the remarks were meant as a swipe at the probable Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, who has proposed meeting autocratic world leaders “without preconditions.”

John McCain seconded both the president’s use of the word appeasement and Mr. Bush’s warning about displaying weakness to enemies. “Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain,” Mr. McCain said, referring to the British prime minister who met with Hitler in Munich and ceded Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to the Nazis. Mr. Obama responded in short order, arguing that it was in fact Mr. Bush’s policies, supported by Mr. McCain, that had made the United States weaker and its adversaries (in particular Iran) stronger.

Lost in what was widely seen as the opening salvo of the fall campaign was an understanding of what appeasement actually meant 70 years ago.

To appease, according to one concise dictionary definition, is “to yield or concede to belligerent demands, sometimes at the expense of justice or other principles.” Recent debates on the subject generally consist of one side claiming that an appeased enemy is an empowered enemy, as proved to be the case with Hitler. Winston Churchill’s famous remark that England had been “offered a choice between war and shame” and by choosing shame would get war, too, is only the most eloquent expression of what has become a maxim of international diplomacy.

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