As Paul Waldman noted earlier this week, the excrutiatingly slow but still continuing progress towards an international nuclear deal with Iran is once again raising the hoariest of historical analogies among critics of the negotiations: Munich!
The idea here, of course, is to suggest that the Iranians, like the Nazis, are incapable of good-faith diplomacy and are irreversibly, rapaciously dedicated to a path of aggression and mass murder. Thus negotiations with them inherently involve “appeasement,” for which the credible threat or reality of brute military force is the only effective and ethical alternative.
What interests me about this sort of high-school interpretation of Munich is that it usually omits that agreement’s actual catastrophic effect. It wasn’t the “emboldening” of Hitler, who viewed the agreement as a permission slip he did not need for disfiguring a post-World War I map of Europe no one really believed in. No, the real disaster at Munich was its impact on the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Stalin and his advisers became convinced England and France were more interested in maintaining Nazi Germany as a powerful weapon against the Red Menace than in restraining Hitler via an alliance with the USSR. It took nearly another year for the consequences to play out (after the western powers lost multiple opportunities for a real military alliance with Russia, which Poland was allowed to veto by refusing to let Soviet troops cross their borders in the event of a German attack), but the most surprising international event of the twentieth century, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, was really born at Munich.
So in the current scenario’s alleged similarity to the events of 1938, who plays the Soviet Union?
Some Iran-obsessives point to Saudi Arabia and Turkey and predict anything that allows Tehran to maintain a nuclear program will convince these countries to launch a regional nuclear arms race. That’s worth worrying about, though (a) if the Israeli nuclear weapons monopoly hasn’t been enough to get Muslim countries off the nuclear fence for all these years, it’s a bit implausible to think a theoretical Iranian nuclear capability will have that effect, and (b) the same factor is likely operating as a restraint on Tehran itself. More to the point, there’s no particularly obvious way in which an agreement will earn Iran new allies or neutralize old enemies in the way that Munich “flipped” Hitler’s bitter Soviet enemy.
Now Munich is just too tempting an analogy for its deployers to let it go; it is the eternal example of an occasion where it seems weak-willed democracies talked when they should have been shooting against an adversary that, to use the cliche, “understood nothing but force.” That the Iranian regime is, for all its undoubted vices and delusions, nothing like Nazi Germany in its governing structure or its military and economic strength vis-a-vis its negotiating partners, is only part of the problem with the Munich model. Beyond that, it is just a different world.