The problem with appeasement


It has become the all-too-common political slur de jour: any indication that one is willing to sit down and talk with an adversary is painted with the slanderous epithet used to describe British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acquiescing to the diabolical ambitions of Adolph Hitler – appeasement. Technically, “offering concessions in order to secure peace” is the definition but modern abuse of the term to slander another seems to involve even recognizing the humanity of the other.

Opinion: The problem with appeasement

When efforts at diplomacy are categorically dismissed as being “weak” or “un-Presidential” or might be construed as too “effeminate,” then the only weapons political leaders are left with are the deadly, military ones. Bombast and bluster become backed by bomb blasts and cluster bombs. Today’s political climate doesn’t even allow for the Manifest Destiny swagger of Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Somehow, even speaking softly to one’s adversary is suspect today. Don’t speak to your adversary – only speak at him.

Barack Obama is denounced by President Bush in a speech to the Israeli Parliament as an appeaser for offering to sit down and talk with President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Even Hillary Clinton has to rush out and threaten to “obliterate” Iran rather than to appear weak or effeminate on the campaign trail. Most Americans have finally come to reject Bush’s “shoot first” policy that has resulted in a quagmire in Iraq. But now the demonization that once belonged to Saddam Hussein has now been transferred to the elected Iranian leader and the mainstream (read “corporate”) media and the American public uncritically follow suit. One wonders what the “media” in Iran reports about us.

Although the verbal demonization of the enemy (or “axis of evil,” “rogue state,” or other connotation of sub-humanity applied) is directed primarily at one as the epitome of evil, the militarized response is seldom as restricted. But what’s a little “collateral damage”?

In his powerfully disturbing new book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters (Orbis, 2008), Catholic theologian and peace activist Jim Douglass argues that President Kennedy was targeted for assassination by the military-industrial-intelligence complex because he was willing to explore dialog with Khrushchev and Castro rather than risking the extinction of humankind by unleashing our nuclear arsenal. Although we now have clear evidence that Castro had interest in negotiation (Douglass’ book is carefully footnoted), the killing of the President in 1963 has given us 45 years of on-going failed policy with Cuba. What might have happened if dialog was pursued instead of military and economic threat?

This isn’t a uniquely American problem. Douglass also records the assessment of Khrushchev’s son of his father’s need to keep the secret correspondence between the U.S. President and the Soviet Premier from the prying eyes of the Politburo. Khrushchev ran into the same problem as Kennedy – elements within his own government who thought they had more to lose with peace than war. The chief question arises: who profits from increasing world tensions rather than trying to sit down and resolve differences?

President Eisenhower warned three days before he left office about the undue influence in the corridors of power of “the military industrial complex”. While prescient in recognizing its power, he was less knowledgeable of the growing subversive power of the CIA as well as the rise of corporate media and the distortions of the 24-hour news cycle where certain sound bites are drum-beaten over and over into our collective consciousness without any real contextual analysis or historical context.

Psychologists tell us that we’re often unaware of our “shadow” self, the dark side that our adversary sees to which we are often blind. We need the adversary to mirror back to us the image we project. During the Cold War, Americans were quite aware of the (negative) role the Soviets or “red” China played. Now, as we better re-learn our own national history, we can see more clearly some of the brutal, oppressive governments we supported or created to combat the others’ “evil.”

The problem with appeasement is that concessions are needed on both sides of a conflict for there to be peace. When only one side or perspective dominates, the result may appear “peaceful” but it is the enforced “peace” of the Pax Romana or Pax Americana rather than a negotiated settlement. The model which is more helpful in this regard is that of conflict or dispute resolution that is growing as a substitute for older models in the criminal justice field. It is possible that the proper terms should be arbitration instead of appeasement, mediation rather than “missile diplomacy”, dispute resolution rather than “defense” [sic] appropriations, negotiation rather than the nuclear option.

Arbitration, mediation, or conflict resolution takes the first step in recognizing that there is a problem. The “problem” doesn’t have to be between “equals” (one side is often perceived as more powerful than the other) but for there to be a genuine solution, there must be “buy in” from both sides. Politicians who like to slander their opponents with epithets like appeasement aren’t often looking for solutions that result in peace but rather stirring the pot and keeping the conflict going. That is why it is so important to look beyond the conflict to see Who Profits?

The present political system in the U.S. is broken. Scoring points against the opposition has become more important than solving seemingly intractable problems. As long as “We, the people” allow or encourage these dysfunctional partisan attacks to dominate, we will continue the downward spiral of a superpower/empire in decline. While the decline of our “super” status will likely be a good thing for the rest of the world, there is still much good that can be shared with our fellow world citizens if we are willing to also learn and receive from others as equals rather than ones to dominate.

Someone needs to be talking to Iran rather than just threatening. There are genuine differences that must be addressed and hopefully resolved. Like alcoholics on the road to recovery, we need to take the first step and admit we have a problem. The problem with appeasement is the one-sided concession the public has given the politicians who would rather inflame and aggravate than do the hard work of genuine peacemaking. President Carter sitting down with Hamas is a much more helpful model than scapegoating Ahmadinejad.

If we want real peace, all those with a vested interest in the outcome must be invited to the table. The model of restorative justice suggests that all those who are impacted by harms done (or threatened) must be part of the decision-making. All those who might be impacted by potential agreements need to be included. The path to peace means a lot of difficult work. Maybe the real “appeaser” is the politician who panders to the public with sound bites but isn’t willing to invest the time and resources for genuine dialog which could lead to a peaceful resolution.

Steve Clemens lives in Minneapolis and is a member of the Community of St. Martin. He also serves on the Board of Pax Christi, Twin Cities Area, a Catholic peace group and is a member of AlliantACTION.