Sen. Tom Cotton recently told Jeffrey Goldberg that it is unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare his appeasement of Hitler to Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran. Chamberlain, Tom reminded us, had been told that the British military was unprepared to fight Germany. Thus, he was in a position of weakness. President Obama, by contrast, is in a position of military strength.
The Senator is right insofar as the issue is negotiating posture, which is what he and Goldberg were discussing. But we shouldn’t forget that a major reason why Britain found itself so unprepared to deal was because Chamberlain had allowed its military strength to diminish dramatically.
Herein lies another similarity between Obama and Chamberlain. Obama doesn’t want to spend the money required to maintain full U.S. military preparedness, and the U.S. military is less prepared now than when Obama took office.
There’s yet another similarity — one that hadn’t occurred to me until I recently studied the Chamberlain years. I had always considered Chamberlain a thoroughgoing mediocrity — “not a bad Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a bad year,” as Lloyd George described him.
In fact, though, Neville Chamberlain was a brilliant machine politician. In contrast to his predecessor, the relatively easygoing Stanley Baldwin, Chamberlain leveraged his position to dominate British politics in almost dictatorial fashion.
Most of the English press was in his pocket. Not only would leading publications generally refuse to print opinion pieces critical of the government, it tended not to report developments adverse to it.
In the House of Commons, Chamberlain, through his enforcer David Margesson, imposed iron discipline on Tory members. The few who spoke out against appeasement were punished, often ruthlessly, as Lynne Olson showed in her book Troublesome Young Men.
Thanks in large part to these efforts, Chamberlain was able to remain Prime Minister even after the failure of appeasement became clear, as Hitler’s forces stormed through Europe while England continued to dither. Indeed, Chamberlain, on the strength of Tory backing, continued to hold a position in Churchill’s government. And he was able to undermine the “troublesome young Tories” by persuading Churchill that they were plotting to install Lloyd George as Prime Minister, according to Olson.
Only Chamberlain’s intestinal cancer (which killed him within a few months of being diagnosed) ended his government career.
We see with Chamberlain the same curious dynamic present in the Obama presidency. At home, a tough-as-nails administration/political machine that takes no prisoners and rarely compromises; abroad, a feckless operation with a pattern of caving to belligerent adversaries.
How should we explain this disconnect? Is it simply the familiar phenomenon of a bully backing down when confronted by a true tough guy? Or is some esoteric personality disorder at work?
I don’t know. But it seems likely that, as militarily unprepared as England was, if Chamberlain had behaved towards Hitler the way he did towards Harold McMillan, Europe would have been spared plenty of bloodshed. And if Obama behaved towards Ayatollah Khamenei and Vladimir Putin the way he behaves towards John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Iran and Russia wouldn’t be stealing America’s pants to the detriment of world and national security.
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