Commentary Magazine


The Chamberlain Defense

Samantha Power, former foreign policy advisor to the Barack Obama campaign, has penned a strange defense of Barack Obama’s willingness to negotiate with America’s enemies. In this week’s Time magazine, Power argues that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s diplomatic engagement with Adolf Hitler in 1938 should not sully diplomacy’s good name. She writes:

. . . instead of caricaturing diplomacy by invoking the Munich Agreement as code for spinelessness, it is worth studying Chamberlain’s failed effort in the Munich talks for lessons in how not to negotiate. He was unprepared, unsophisticated and ultimately unsuccessful in preventing World War II. Having never before boarded an international flight, he flew three times to Germany in 1938, appearing to play supplicant to a violent dictator.

International flights do make up the bulk of Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience, so in that respect he is more sophisticated and better prepared to meet with madman dictators than was Chamberlain. But–to go by Power’s own list of Chamberlain’s missteps–in that respect only. Barack Obama, having vowed to talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without pre-conditions, has opened himself up to the very same category of disadvantages incurred by the man whose name is synonymous with appeasement. Consider what Power cites as the Prime Minister’s lack of preparation for negotiating with Hitler.

Chamberlain sidelined professional diplomats and neglected even to bring his own interpreter, relying instead on Hitler’s.

But surely the most Barack Obama could do to avoid this amateurish pitfall would be to politely request that his own translator accompany him to Tehran. The presence of one’s own hireling, after all, constitutes a condition. And Obama has dispensed with those, remember? Power then remarks on the cognitive barrier that was Chamberlain’s grandiosity.

Chamberlain’s desire to be the man to save Europe blinded him to the impossibility of brokering "peace in our time" with a man of Hitler’s savage aims.

As the most important man in the free world at that time, the charge of saving Europe did fall squarely on Chamberlain’s shoulders. As a junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama can make no such claim to history’s stewardship. Or rather, he shouldn’t. If outsized ambition blinded Chamberlain to Hitler’s evil, what chance of seeing the trees for the forest can we give the man who defines his own humble role thusly:

I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people… I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal… This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation…

Actually, this was only the moment Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee. And by statesman standards it makes Chamberlain’s little dream for Europe look like modesty itself. Imagine the conference room attention span of a guy with the power of Poseidon. (By the way, Iowa never got the memo.)

Power writes, "Chamberlain also violated Part I of President Kennedy’s golden rule: ‘We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.’ It’s true that Obama, who is "absolutely certain" of his ability to heal the planet, doesn’t have much need of fear. But is this is a good thing? Fearlessness is a useful synonym for youth. Fear requires one to recognize threats. If Chamberlain negotiated out of fear, that means he recognized, at least, that his nation was in danger. Obama is willing to negotiate with a nuke-seeking Holocaust denier because not to do so "reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time." Well, yes but . . .we do, and Obama’s inability to acknowledge this speaks to an insecurity about country every bit as potent as fear, except without fear’s chief benefit: the survival instinct.

Although George W. Bush has been accused of comparing Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain, he did no such thing. It is Samantha Power who’s first officially drawn the public’s attention to any similarities between the two. With the genie out of the bottle, it’s worth taking a closer look. Which man said this?

It has always seemed to me that, in dealing with foreign countries, we do not give ourselves a chance of success unless we try to understand their mentality, which is not always the same as our own, and it really is astonishing to contemplate how the identically same facts are regarded from two different angles.

And which man said this?

One story is based on fear. It says there are all these terrible people out there out to get us . . . and we have to batten down the hatches and stop change coming. There’s another story to tell that says we have very real threats but the only way to solve them is . . . reaching out to people, encouraging greater understanding.

You may have a hunch as to who said what. And you may be right. But before you click here and here–how sure are you? And would you like to be a little surer?

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