Within hours of the Obama administration’s interim nuclear deal with Iran, Bill Kristol was already invoking Munich. Benjamin Netanyahu’s minions have been doing so for months.
Ostensibly, that’s because the agreement doesn’t doesn’t dismantle Iran’s nuclear program but stalls it in return for partial sanctions relief. That’s true. But Kristol and Netanyahu have no remotely plausible alternative for fully dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, either. In place of the interim agreement, they want more sanctions, which Iran’s reformist government has said would doom any agreement. Or they want war, which former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who oversaw Israel’s Iran file from 2002 to 2010, has said would rally Iranians behind their regime, splinter the international coalition against Tehran, and thus ultimately increase Iran’s chances of getting a bomb.
If Netanyahu and company have no better strategy for preventing an Iranian nuke, why call Obama’s deal a Munich-style surrender? Because that’s their name for any diplomatic agreement that requires Western compromise. For Netanyahu and his American allies, it’s always 1938, because if it’s not 1938 and your opponents aren’t Neville Chamberlain, then you’re not Winston Churchill. And if you’re not Churchill, you’ve got no compelling rationale for wielding power.
Over the past quarter-century, there’s hardly an American or Israeli leader the Kristol-Netanyahu crowd hasn’t compared to Chamberlain. In 1985, Newt Gingrich called Reagan’s first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” When Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, hawks took out newspaper ads declaring that “Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.”
Then, when Israel moved to thaw its own cold war with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yitzhak Rabin assumed the Chamberlain role. “Earlier in this century, Neville Chamberlain thought he could buy ‘peace in our time’ by handing over the mountain defenses of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, who promised to accept a deal of ‘land for peace,” wrote Netanyahu in The New York Times in 1993. “The Rabin government is now betting the security of Israel on Yasser Arafat’s promises.”
Then it was Bill Clinton. “The word that best describes Clinton administration [foreign] policy is appeasement,” explained Robert Kagan and Kristol in 1999. Then, of course, it was the opponents of war with Iraq. “The establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it’s about to lose. Churchill was attacked more viciously in 1938 and 1939 than earlier in the decade,” wrote Kristol in a 2002 editorial, “The Axis of Appeasement.”
Iran’s leaders, to be sure, are a gruesome lot, guilty of terrible crimes against their people and of supporting some of the most odious dictators and terrorists in the Middle East. But the Nazi analogy is laughable. Hitler used Europe’s most advanced economy to build its most advanced military and for a time, conquer almost the entire continent. Iran, a middling economic power at best, couldn’t even defeat Iraq. Even if Tehran acquired a nuclear weapon, which I dearly hope does not happen, Iran would still be surrounded by a host of stronger countries, including Turkey (a NATO member), Pakistan (a Sunni country with a host of nukes), India (a nuclear-armed semi-superpower), and Israel (which reportedly has 200 nuclear weapons and a uniquely close relationship with the United States).
If Iran lacks the industrial and military might for regional dominance, it also lacks the ideological power. For a time in the 1930s, leading Western intellectuals believed fascist regimes could economically outperform democracies. No one believes that about Iran. Indeed, whatever regional prestige Tehran once enjoyed has been destroyed by its support for Bashar al-Assad.
Iran is a corrupt, nasty regime seeking to stay in power, deter attack, and extend its regional influence to the extent possible. It’s not suicidal. That’s Dagan’s view, and it’s the view of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. It was once Israel’s view, too, since Israel sold Iran arms in the 1980s even though Tehran’s regime was more addicted to revolutionary Islamic rhetoric back then than it is now.
Israel did so because, at the time, it was more afraid of Iraq. But then Iraq’s patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed and a decade of Western sanctions hobbled Saddam. As Iranian power filled the void, Israel’s relationship with Tehran shifted from transactional to fearful. And after George W. Bush toppled Saddam, thus further increasing Iranian influence, American hawks jumped on the “Iran as Nazi Germany” analogy, too.
Now both groups are addicted to it. For Bibi, focusing on the Iran threat unites his hawkish base. Focusing on peace with the Palestinians, by contrast, leaves him caught between the world’s demand that Israel withdraw from the West Bank and his base’s insistence that Israel remain there. It was his 1998 Wye River agreement with Arafat, after all, that split Netanyahu’s government and ended his first prime ministership. No wonder that when Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, he reportedly told Obama in their first meeting that they should defer the peace process until they had dealt with Iran.
For Netanyahu’s American allies, Iran fulfills a similar function. For decades now, hawks like Kristol and groups like AIPAC have stoked American Jewish fears of a second Holocaust. But since the mild-mannered Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Arafat and the terrifying second intifada gave way to productive Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank, Jewish hawks have found it harder to slot Palestinians into the Nazi role. Yes, Hamas still understandably frightens many American Jews. But if the Palestinian issue is a political headache for Netanyahu, it has become a headache for groups like AIPAC, too, which are in the awkward position of publicly supporting a Palestinian state and yet also publicly supporting everything the Israeli government does, even when its actions clearly undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state. Iran, by contrast, unifies the American Jewish establishment, which dislikes grappling with the dilemmas of Jewish power and feels most comfortable depicting Jews as permanently menaced by potentially genocidal anti-Semitic threats.
“Netanyahu doesn’t know history,” declared the great Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer earlier this year. Nor does he know much about Iran, a country whose residents he thought were banned from wearing jeans. What he and his American allies do know is how to exploit historical analogies for political and ideological gain. Obama’s interim nuclear deal threatens their ability to do that, which is part of the reason it’s such a welcome thing.