Despite the harsh talk of holding Syrian President Bashar Assad accountable for the deaths of Syrian citizens from his chemical weapons use last month, the Obama administration has capitulated into a stance eerily similar to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s in 1938. Then, the issue was Britain’s forestalling military action in preference to appeasement of Adolf Hitler; today, the issue is postponing indefinitely any American military intervention in Syria to punish Mr. Assad’s massacre of his own people.
The tables were reversed in 1938. It was Hitler who threatened military action to protect German citizens in Czechoslovakia — the so-called Sudetens — just as he had earlier annexed Austria under the guise of protecting 6 million Germans living there. So to prevent Hitler’s strategy, Chamberlain in September 1938 flew to Germany on two occasions. On the second visit, Hitler increased his demands, and both the British and the French prepared for war.
Then, like Russian President Vladimir Putin today, Hitler devised a peace-like ploy. He invited both Chamberlain and the French premier, Edouard Daladier, to a conference in Munich, attended also by Hitler’s Italian ally, Benito Mussolini. At the meeting, attendees agreed that Hitler be permitted to annex only the German-populated area of the Slavic-dominated nation of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain and Daladier returned as heroes to their respective nations, with Chamberlain claiming that he had brought home “peace in our time.”
Six months later, Hitler’s troops took all the Czechoslovakia, not just the German-dominated area, and the Western powers led by Britain had egg on their faces. Not until September 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, was war declared on the Third Reich.
The supreme irony of the Obama administration debacle in Syrian affairs is that the president really had no intent to back up military rhetoric with force. Unlike Hitler’s invasion of European territory that threatened all the Continent’s remaining nations, Mr. Assad’s Syria has largely confined its military action to its own borders as it fought a civil war with rival factions. Neither Europe nor the United States is in harm’s way, and every sensible observer realizes that fact.
For the United States to draw the red line in Syria was a silly endeavor in that American national security was not threatened and public opinion was solidly against it, making the situation ripe for exploitation by Russia as the peacemaker. Mr. Assad now appears certain to remain in power, his chemical weapons will be inventoried and much most likely hidden from inspectors, and the United States is not likely to effect any military action, no matter that the deaths of more than 1,400 innocent Syrians by chemical weapons were the essential reason for the passionately proposed military involvement.
Chamberlain’s appeasement to Hitler was a turning point in British history. Never before in its long history had Britain appeared so diplomatically weak. For example, as World War I broke out, Britain was the only one of the major powers that had no military alliances to honor among the belligerent nations. That it ultimately chose to go to war against Germany was its own decision.
By conceding to Hitler, Chamberlain ensured that Britain was no longer the master of its own fate. When it entered World War II, it recognized that it had to rely on allies — at first, France, then the United States — to defeat the Nazi regime. Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, spent no little effort pleading with America to intervene. Postwar diplomacy would follow this same trend.
Now the United States, for the first time in its history, has chosen weakness over resolve in diplomacy, which could have been avoided had Mr. Obama’s language on Syria — off the cuff and pure bluster, at first — not overreached actual military intentions. Even The New York Times, one of the president’s staunchest supporters, recognizes the nation’s capitulation. According to the newspaper in a Sept. 15 front-page news story — not an analysis or opinion article — the U.S.-Russian deal “formally placed international decision-making about Syria into the purview of Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s staunchest supporters and military suppliers.”
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.