Appeasement in Our Time

Is Barack Obama another Neville Chamberlain? I’ve been reluctant to make the comparison, but as talks with Iran have unfolded, it’s become impossible not to think of the 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France agreed that strategically and economically vital Czech territory be ceded to Germany, leading soon after to German conquest of Czechoslovakia and World War II. America’s looming deal with Iran rivals Munich in its unnecessary and catastrophic recklessness. It is an inexplicable unforced error that will have disastrous consequences unless Congress, or Israel, does something to stop it.

An acceptable diplomatic solution to the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program might have been available, but only had the United States maintained tough sanctions and a credible threat of military force. President Obama instead utterly undermined U.S. leverage and has offered so many irresponsible concessions that any deal struck under this president would be a dangerous deal.

First, the administration, through the Joint Plan of Action interim deal, conceded that Iran can maintain its nuclear program, contravening decades of U.S. policy and multiple legally binding U.N. Security Council resolutions. We won’t be able to stop the proliferation cascade that will ensue in a region already rife with violence and instability.

Second, the administration moved its stated red line from denying Iran nuclear weapons capacity to ensuring its nuclear breakout time is at least a year. But there’s really no way to guarantee that. The multitude of steps across multiple institutions that would have to be taken to detect, verify, and try to resolve diplomatically any Iranian attempt to sneak out or break out means a year would pass before a military strike could even be considered. In any case, prompt and thorough verification would be virtually unachievable because the deal won’t require full Iranian transparency on its past research into nuclear weapons technology.

Third, with the latest U.S. offer reportedly allowing 6,500 operating centrifuges, Iran would have to verifiably export or eliminate almost all its enriched uranium stockpiles to push the breakout time to more than 12 months-something it won’t do. It would also have to verifiably dismantle the rest of its 19,000 centrifuges-something it won’t be required to do.

Fourth, the deal will include a sunset clause whereby Iran eventually would become a normalized nuclear power operating as large an enrichment program as it likes. So in perhaps a decade, based on recent reports, Iran could be treated like Japan.

Finally, the deal ignores Iran’s ballistic missile program-the largest in the Middle East-despite ongoing advances that could allow it to develop the capability to target the United States around the same time the agreement would expire.

One could go on, but it’s clear that Obama is not trying to prevent a nuclear Iran and merely hoping to manage its approach to that point. This is an error of potentially catastrophic significance, representing in several ways a more unnecessary and unjustified betrayal than Munich.

Chamberlain believed he alone could secure peace with Hitler and integrate Germany into the community of nations. He chose not to work with the Soviet Union or the United States, which would have given him more leverage against Berlin. In cutting out potential partners and capitulating completely to Hitler, he upended a growing anti-German coalition and solidified the Führer’s domestic position. Notably, though, Britain didn’t have deep-seated strategic ties with or treaty obligations to the Czechs or neighboring countries.

The United States, however, does have enduring strategic relationships with the countries whose existence is threatened by a nuclear Iran. We have supported Israel since its founding. For decades, U.S. policymakers have spoken of the country as our closest ally in the region, with whom we have close cultural, diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence ties. We also have supported the Sunni Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, through military sales, basing agreements, intelligence cooperation, and the (Jimmy) Carter Doctrine’s explicit promise to defend the region from outside aggression. The primary threat to both our Arab and Israeli allies for decades has been the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Obama administration is willing to ignore these close ties and betray our allies-completely unnecessarily. In 1938, Britain’s global position was in decline while Germany was rearming. In contrast, the United States today remains the world’s sole superpower, capable of inflicting tremendous damage on Iran-a third-rate power suffering from sanctions-that would set back its nuclear program for years. Yet Obama has chosen to put himself into as weak a position as Chamberlain found himself in.

As damaging as Munich was to Britain’s global position, a bad deal with Iran could do worse damage to American global leadership. Given our historical interests in the region and 20-year bipartisan commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran, American credibility would be severely undermined. Any offer of a “nuclear umbrella” to protect our Arab allies will ring hollow if America isn’t prepared to fight a limited conventional war to prevent a nuclear Iran now, when the costs and risks are lower. America’s Arab allies would pursue their own nuclear deterrents, and/or feel compelled to cut deals with Iran, Russia, or China. Credibility is the currency of a deterrent posture, and few countries in Asia or Europe would believe in American commitments once the United States abandoned its core, longstanding, prominent interests in the Middle East. Israel could choose not to become another Czechoslovakia and preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. All this makes the prospect of wars in the Middle East-including nuclear conflicts-much more likely. Congress should vote to reject the deal if it’s made, and presidential candidates should declare they will not be bound by any such deal if they are elected.

Chamberlain told the British public that in Munich he had achieved “peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” Churchill argued in response, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” The same can be said of President Obama as he approaches his Munich.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on March 9, 2015.