But suppose, against all evidence, Stephens is not a purportedly serious columnist, rewarded for his “insight” with a Pulitzer. Let’s pretend, instead, that “Bret Stephens” is an act, a Stephen Colbert-like performance art masterwork. Read in this light, Stephens’ column is a brilliant satire of not only the lazy use of Munich analogies, but of the lazy neoconservative streak that dominates mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking in its entirety. I come not to bury Colbert-Stephens, but to praise him.
This device certainly makes sense of some of the columnist’s greatest hits. Stephens’ “Colin Powell is an anti-Semite” piece becomes a clever skewering of hyperbolic attacks on Chuck Hagel. His “withdrawing from Afghanistan will end America’s time as a superpower” column retrospectively damns the Bush administration’s “stay the course” stubbornness on Iraq.
Reading “Worse Than Munich” as parody also explains the insane mismatch between the piece’s title and its content. Though Stephens claims to be saying this deal is, in fact, more harmful than Munich, he doesn’t point to anything in the Iran deal worse than delivering Czech Jews to Hitler’s tender mercies.
In fact, Stephens refrains from talking about the specifics of the Iran deal at all. You can read the entire column without learning, for instance, that the deal only lasts for six months, or that Iran will have to move further away from a bomb in exchange for fairly minor sanctions relief. The classic critique of historical analogies is that they blind you to the realities of a current situation by redirecting attention to the past; by ignoring any details of the Iran deal whatsoever in favor of a lengthy discussion of the merits of Munich, Stephens brilliantly demonstrates the corrosive effects of the Munich analogy on foreign policy thought. Mark Kirk, call your office.
Stephens’ assault on analogical thinking extends well beyond the Munich example. He simultaneously praises Nixon for “forcing” North Vietnam to sign the Paris Peace Accords and damns Paris as a “betrayal” of South Vietnam, exposing the way pundits use history as an ideological crutch rather than actual guide to thinking critically about policy.
And then there’s the insistence on thinking of foreign policy in emotive terms rather than, well, anything that actually determines what happens in the world. “The U.S. showed military resolve” in Vietnam, so it’s better than the Iran deal for … some reason. “Each deal increased the contempt of the dictatorships for the democracies,” so Iran will annex Iraq the way Germany absorbed Czechoslovakia, or something. You sort of get the sense that the persona Stephens is adopting thinks “the humiliating exit from the embassy rooftop” in Saigon was the worst consequence of the Vietnam war.
These claims don’t add up a coherent argument about how foreign policy works; neither World War II nor the fall of South Vietnam were caused by “contempt” bred by Western foreign policy concessions. It’s more enlightening to read this as a subtle sally in the ongoing Republican civil war over foreign policy. The Romney campaign, nearly universally derided for its foreign policy vapidity, grounded its entire critique of the Obama Administration in these nonsense bromides about projecting strength and resolve. By taking this vacuousness to its logical extreme, Stephens shows Republicans that they need to develop an entirely new line of argument on foreign policy if they wish to regain their historical advantage on foreign policy.
Indeed, Stephens’ column — while universally derided by literalist lefties — was met with mounds of unironic praise from significant conservative foreign policy thinkers. Colbert-Stephens couldn’t have planned a more perfect demonstration of his core thesis, Republican foreign policy thinking is broken, if he existed.
But I should temper my praise for Stephens’ masterwork: Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro did it first. Bravo, Ben.