I know I wrote recently that Winston Churchill needs to be given a rest, but given his constant use as the go-to historical figure for crazy warmongers trying to dress up their crazy warmongering as civilization’s last stand against tyranny, I thought this passage from Adam Gopnik’s excellent New Yorker profile of the man was worth noting:
What is Churchill’s true legacy? Surely not that one should stand foursquare on all occasions and at all moments against something called appeasement. “The word ‘appeasement’ is not popular, but appeasement has its place in all policy,” he said in 1950. “Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak, defy the strong.” He argued that “appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.” And he remarked on the painful irony: “When nations or individuals get strong they are often truculent and bullying, but when they are weak they become better-mannered. But this is the reverse of what is healthy and wise.” Churchill’s simplest aphorism, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” was the essence of his position, as it was of any sane statesman raised in nineteenth-century balance-of-power politics. In the long history of the British Empire, there were endless people to make deals with and endless deals to be made, often with yesterday’s terrorist or last week’s enemy.
“Appeasement” as a concept remains unpopular, understandably, but of course its still practiced, and often to good effect, as we saw in Iraq, where yesterday’s terrorist and last week’s enemy turned into the Anbar Awakening.
It should come as no surprise that Churchill the man is more complicated than Churchill the Neocon Dashboard Saint, but it’s good to keep his views here in mind, especially as we consider the costs and consequences of the Iraq debacle, now that the usual suspects are trying to prepare the ground for war with Iran. While Iran’s power in the region has clearly increased, and the U.S.’s diminished, as a result of the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. is still dealing from a position of considerable strength against a weaker power in Iran. Clearly, Iran represents a challenge to the U.S. and its interests, but certainly nothing like the the Nazis did. So it’s important that we not talk ourselves into believing that they do, and thus abandon other, less catastrophic options than military action, which, while they may be condemned as “appeasement,” would have the benefit of not getting tens of thousands of people killed.