Republican presidential candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) have taken to accusing President Obama of conducting a foreign policy of appeasement. This is not a new tactic for the neocon-dominated Grand Old Party. In a speech to the Israeli Knesset in 2008, President George W. Bush attacked advocates of a more restrained approach to global affairs in the same fashion.
Actually, appeasement historically had a fairly good track record of achieving positive results until the British-French miscalculation of trying to mollify Adolf Hitler at Munich. Among the examples of success was London’s shrewd decision in the 1890s to give way and accept the United States as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, thereby paving the way for more than a century of Ango-American cooperation. But the Munich fiasco seemingly forever discredited appeasement in all situations. Instead, the term has become a vacuous slur that hawks use to intimidate anyone who opposes promiscuous war-making.
The appeasement allegations directed against Obama, though, border on bizarre. And the president fired back at his opponents, suggesting that they ask Osama Bin Laden and the twenty-two other high-level al-Qaeda operatives who have been killed since Obama took office whether he is an appeaser. Fox News host Sean Hannity immediately sneered that Obama merely cited “his one foreign policy success.” By success, Hannity implicitly meant an uncompromising, hard-line policy.
But even by that dubious standard, the Republican appeasement charge is misguided. The current bastardized definition of appeasement implies a weak-kneed willingness to make far-reaching, unwise concessions to aggressors. That certainly does not describe the current occupant of the Oval Office. After all, Obama sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan, has led efforts to impose harsher economic sanctions on Iran, adopted a hostile stance regarding China’s ambitious territorial claims in the South China Sea and served as the godfather of NATO’s military campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi . That’s not exactly a record reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain.
So what is the president’s conduct that warrants allegations of appeasement? For the current crop of GOP presidential wannabes, merely exhibiting a willingness to conduct negotiations with adversaries is considered evidence of craven appeasement on the part of an American policy maker. And because Obama has attempted to open or advance dialogues with such adversaries, Republican activists excoriate him.
But that is a very disturbing standard. If the GOP candidates believe that it is improper even to talk to hostile foreign regimes, diplomacy largely ceases to exist as a meaningful foreign-policy tool. It is no challenge at all to negotiate with friendly, democratic governments. But we don’t have the luxury of dealing only with the New Zealands, Chiles and Estonias of the world. The real challenge for diplomacy is negotiating with, and getting desirable results from, prickly or odious regimes. Making demands for a laundry list of concessions from such adversaries, backed up by either unenforceable or ill-advised threats, is not a practical—much less a sensible—foreign policy. Yet that is where Romney, Gingrich and most of the party’s other presidential candidates apparently would take the United States if any of them entered the White House.
The American people deserve better than a rigid, mindlessly aggressive approach to international affairs. The Republican Party once had a powerful element of foreign-policy realism. It is sad to find that strain largely absent in the current campaign.