Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From Munich to Damascus

Appeasement of dictators to avoid war at all costs has a long history of failure

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At the conclusion of the Munich Conference in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met privately with Adolf Hitler to ensure that the German leader would respect the terms of the negotiated settlement over German claims in the Czechoslovakia territory of Sudetenland; that Hitler would not attack Czechoslovakia; and that he was in accord with Chamberlain that Germany and England would "never go to war again."

To all of this, Hitler replied "Ja, ja!" before signing an agreement to this effect.

Chamberlain sincerely believed that he had quashed the Nazi leader's desire for further expansion. Upon returning to London, he proudly waved the piece of paper Hitler had signed and declared in words which were to forever haunt him, "I believe it is peace for our time."

As it turned out, it was no such thing. Following the meeting with Chamberlain, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop questioned Hitler about what he had just consented to. Overhearing this conversation was von Ribbentrop's private secretary, Reinhard Spitzy. To von Ribbentrop's criticism, Spitzy heard Hitler remark, "Oh, don't take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever." In short, Hitler had no intention of honouring the Munich Agreement and within a year, the Second World War had begun following the German invasion of Poland.

Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister in 1940 making way for Winston Churchill. Chamberlain, 71, had a long and distinguished career as a parliamentarian, but 72 years later his name is derisively synonymous with his futile efforts to appease Hitler. Though his intention to stop another devastating war was honourable, we now understand that his noble cause was lost before he employed his strategy to win over the Führer. Because, as historian Paul Kennedy puts it, "Hitler was fundamentally unappeasable and determined upon a future territorial order which small-scale adjustments alone could never satisfy."

Western governments have had decades to grasp the lessons of Munich, so why, then, do they keep on repeating the same imprudent mistake? When will the world learn that negotiation, diplomacy and appeasement of dictators will only result in disappointment and failure? And that as much as military intervention is deplored, it is often the only way to depose of a ruthless despot and halt the killing of innocent civilians.

The most recent death toll in Syria stands at nearly 15,000 in a conflict that has been waged for more than a year. Many of the dead are innocent men, women and children, who have been slaughtered on the orders of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. Western leaders, including Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have condemned the killing, demanded Assad resign as Syria's president, and supported United Nation's efforts to bring humanitarian aid to beleaguered Syrians. Still, the carnage continues with little hope that it will be halted any time soon. Assad's security forces have support from Iran as well as Russia and China, which have used their veto power on the UN Security Council to block the imposition of severe sanctions or any collective military action.

Like Chamberlain, UN officials foolishly believe that Assad can be reasoned with. These are the same officials who also have faith that negotiation with Iran over its development of nuclear power is likely to succeed.

They thought that a modest peace-keeping force could halt the genocide in Darfur, maintained that logic could have won over the late Iraq dictator, Saddam Hussein, and insisted that an equitable solution could have been arrived at with the murderous Hutu leaders of Rwanda during the genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in six weeks.

The United Nations was established after the Second World War to replace the League of Nations, which had absolutely no capability of curtailing the land conquests of Hitler, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and the military leaders of Japan. In 1945, it was believed that the power wielded by the UN and its members would preserve peace in the world and prevent any further genocide, like the Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazis on the Jews of Europe, from ever happening again.

Two related issues, which were also present in 1938 at the Munich Conference, have impeded the UN's effectiveness and have often made the organization frequently seem more like its hopeless predecessor. The UN does not have its own army (though it has utilized NATO forces in Kosovo and elsewhere) and is a creation of its member states, countries that do everything possible to preserve their own sovereignty and power. For the most part, the dominant thinking at the UN has been that a country's internal affairs are its own business, even if this has involved a bloody civil war and the killing of thousands of innocent people.

In the aftermath of the Rwanda Genocide and the war in the Balkans, the UN at long last established the responsibility to protect policy to halt mass atrocities. According to R2P, the international community has an obligation to intervene if a state "fails to protect its own citizens." Economic sanctions can be imposed and if necessary the use of military force, but only as a "last resort."

For the past year, as the death toll in Syria has mounted, western leaders and UN officials have maintained that a R2P military intervention is too risky and that the odds of success are low. Maybe so, but Russia and China's intransigence and blind support of Assad are likely the real reason nothing more serious than modest sanctions and a lot of talk has thus far occurred.

The second factor is the same sensible one that governed Neville Chamberlain's actions: averting war at all costs. Clearly, military intervention should be "considered the last resort," as the R2P document stipulates. Yet far too often, this decision is based on political expediency, rather than a broader humanitarian consideration.

This was certainly the case in former U.S. president Bill Clinton's indefensible refusal to send a small contingent of troops to Rwanda in 1994. By all accounts, an American force of a few thousand men could have easily stopped the genocide by machete wielding Hutu extremists and aided the UN peace-keeping efforts of the embattled Canadian general Roméo Dallaire. Instead, Clinton, still reeling from a U.S. military fiasco in Somalia, permitted his bureaucrats to debate whether or not a true genocide was taking place -- and then classically regretted his decision after the fact.

Six months before the Munich Conference, when Hitler annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Chamberlain confided to his sister, Hilda, that, "it is perfectly evident now that force is the only argument Germany understands and that 'collective security' cannot offer any prospect of preventing such events until it can show a visible force of overwhelming strength backed by the determination to use it.

That was the strategy he should have more rigorously followed, but his belief in the rationality and decency of human beings got the better of him.

It is a misguided judgment we still cling to -- and at our own peril.

Now &Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J6

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