Diplomacy

Why It’s Okay to Talk about Chamberlain Right Now

There’s been a lot of talk lately proclaiming Barack Obama the second coming of Neville Chamberlain. The analogy may be facile, but it is not far-fetched. The accord just reached in Vienna, at best, only temporarily cools off Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iran deal will be remembered either as a masterful display of diplomacy or as a hopelessly naïve delusion.

Wishful thinking is not a sound basis for foreign policy. When it comes to Iran, the stakes are too high to gamble on good faith. Israel and Saudi Arabia have good reasons to worry. And when before have these two nations had anything in common?

Congress now readies itself for 60 days of peeking underneath the Persian carpet of this Iranian deal, while the President threatens to test his veto powers over congressional action.

Americans should be skeptical. Iran is not just a regional menace. Long-range missiles can erase complacency in an instant. The seeming vast distance on a map between Iran and the United States, in the modern world, can resemble a commuter stop. The days of trench warfare are over because there isn’t enough time to dig any of those trenches. Iran may end up convincing the United States that it needs its very own Iron Dome.

The devil in the details of this deal might very soon expose Iran as the true “Great Satan,” professing its need for nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, all the while chanting “Death to America” on its streets. Chamberlain, perhaps, is the right world leader to recall at this time. “Peace for Our Time” crossed the Atlantic in search of its cousin, “Hope and Change”—both sanguine slogans with the potential to explode like firecrackers in the hands of those who sign feckless treaties.

Yes, this outcome should not have been surprising. An entire presidency was foreshadowed during the earliest days of the Obama administration with an entirely symbolic but wholly revealing gesture. It would be funny if the consequences had not been so great. And it had little to do with an evolved foreign policy and everything to do with office décor.

No sooner had President Obama moved into the Oval Office when the bust of Winston Churchill, which graced the office during the George W. Bush years, was removed and returned to the British Embassy. A minor controversy erupted when the White House, responding to a column by The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, claimed that the bust had been only relocated to the residency and not returned to the British, as Krauthammer had alleged. But that proved to be untrue; the original bust had, indeed, been moved to a building occupied by British diplomats and not American presidents.

Apparently, burning the midnight oil in the Oval Office during the Obama presidency meant never having to glance at a bust of Churchill, a world leader who Obama had little interest in emulating. The President was not likely to ever place his elbows on his desk and wonder: “What would Winston do?”

And the reasons are obvious. Churchill was the quintessential wartime prime minister, a man who promised his citizens, and those sitting in the House of Commons, that the British army “shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Wow! This is muscular foreign policy on steroids, with an added pint of Hicks & Healey. Churchill did not simply offer idle, albeit eloquent trash talk. He carried through on his promise.

Back in 2008, however, when Senator Obama was running for president, he announced that soon after taking office he would be prepared to meet with Iranian leaders, and other enemies of the United States, without preconditions. Making war was not on his campaign platform.

Indeed, as we would come to know, President Obama would eventually deliver a speech in Cairo that sounded a lot like an American apology for years of promiscuous involvement in the Middle East. He would send unrequited annual New Year’s greetings to the Ayatollahs of Iran. He drew red lines in the sand of Syria that were crossed repeatedly as if President Assad was trying to run up the score on Obama’s own Rose Garden.

The American president led from behind in Libya, and purportedly watched Israel’s back with two fingers crossed behind his own. Russia marched back into Ukraine and Crimea as if revisiting the glory days of the Soviet Union. And, of course, America largely withdrew its military forces from Afghanistan and Iraq—without either of the insurgencies in those countries ever surrendering. Two wars that America won ended up resembling the Fall of Saigon.

The very essence of Obama’s foreign policy was the antithesis of everything Churchill represented. No wonder the president wouldn’t have been able to stomach the sight of Churchill’s bust. Obama was notably, if not pathologically, anti-colonial, appeasement-friendly, condemning of American exceptionalism, and endorsing of conciliation at almost any price—as we now see, even at the risk of jeopardizing the security of America’s allies.

Churchill and Obama really don’t belong in the same room—even if one of them was made from clay, while the other had feet of clay.

The Iran deal was negotiated with all the cunning practiced in the faculty lounge. In such rarefied places, one always maintains faith that dialogue can lead to human betterment, and one’s adversary is, at heart, a rational person. The Arab and Persian street, where a suk mentality is always top of mind, knows that in such encounters, the Ivy League is out of its league.

Not all adversaries negotiate in good faith. For some, accords and treaties are invitations to delay and falsify. Settlements are seen as signs of defeat. Agreements are always booby-trapped with loopholes.

In the changeover from Chamberlain to Churchill, the British paid a heavy price in lessons learned. Banishing Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office was not just redecoration; it revealed, perhaps inadvertently, how President Obama wished to sculpt his own legacy.

Unfortunately, the list of breached accords is long, and the shadow cast by Chamberlain’s umbrella is even longer. This signature statement of Obama’s presidency had better work. Otherwise his foreign policy will be remembered as a bust.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law, where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.

[Photo: Wikimedia]