Thursday, Sep 26, 2002 10:51 PM UTC

The “A” bomb

Enraged Bush supporters are calling opponents of his Iraq war "appeasers." But even George Will knows that's a disgraceful smear.

In the debate over how to deal with Iraq, historical comparisons abound. Those who question the Bush administration’s threats of a unilateral invasion (like Al Gore on Monday) point to the success of nation-building in Germany and Japan after World War II — but how Afghanistan withered without international support after the Soviets withdrew. Supporters of Bush’s approach point in response to the increased dangers posed by dictators, such as Hitler, allowed to go unchecked for too long.

But some Bush supporters also have been hurling a loaded term at their critics: appeasement. Although the word can sometimes mean to calm or to bring peace, many war supporters have clearly been using it in a specific, and historical, sense: “to buy off (an aggressor) by concessions usually at the sacrifice of principles” (as defined by Merriam-Webster Online). This, of course, brings up memories of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is generally considered to have made a disastrous decision in allowing Hitler to take possession of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, in the hope that it would somehow appease the Führer. Instead, it was the first in a chain of events that led to World War II.

Given the power of this analogy, it’s easy to see why the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol denounced “an axis of appeasement” that stretches “from Riyadh to Brussels to Foggy Bottom, from Howell Raines to Chuck Hagel to Brent Scowcroft” and syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg called United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan the “appeaser-in-chief.”

But the label doesn’t fit. No one of any consequence wants to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein, or to try and make him happy by offering him anything, much less territory, money or weapons. Opposition to a unilateral invasion simply does not constitute a negative version of appeasement — the burden is on those who would use the term to explain how it applies.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped pundits from repeatedly using the term as an ad hominem attack. An editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called war opponents “Appease-Firsters.” Michael Ledeen commented in National Review Online that “Germany had accepted the leadership of the forces of global appeasement.” The Dallas Morning News headlined an editorial (registration required), “Congress and Iraq: This is no time for appeasement.” In the New York Daily News, Michael Kramer said of France, Germany, Russia and other nations that support renewed U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq: “It’s appeasement, pure and simple.” William Safire stated in his New York Times column that “[o]ld World-weary apostles of appeasement don’t get it.” And Andrew Sullivan has used the word (or variations, such as “appeasenik”) eight times on his Web site in September alone. Misuse of the word hasn’t been limited to those in the media. At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 10, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said, “[Bush] has got to put specifically the Security Council members — Russia, China and France — their feet to the fire and ask them how they can honestly expect us one year after this terrible tragedy as they continue to appease and continue to allow Saddam Hussein to do clearly what everyone recognizes that he does.”

Remarkably, the clearest view on the subject came from pundit George Will in his syndicated column. Commenting on those who have criticized former President George Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft for questioning the wisdom of an Iraq invasion, Will, a supporter of Bush’s approach, observed quite forcefully why appeasement is an unwarranted term:

“It is semantic vandalism to say that Scowcroft and others who share his apprehensions are ‘appeasers.’ Appeasement is the policy of resolving a conflict by making concessions to the most truculent side. Scowcroft believes, probably mistakenly, that containment and deterrence — which, when applied to the Soviet Union, resulted in regime change — can suffice to make Saddam Hussein’s regime something America can live with. Or at least Scowcroft believes that the risks of reliance on containment and deterrence are less than those of regime change by war and its aftermath. This may be wishful thinking; it is not appeasement.”