Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.
—-Winston Churchill eulogizing Neville Chamberlain, 1940
Later this month historian Niall Ferguson will roll out volume one of his authorized Henry Kissinger biography. Earlier this summer Ferguson took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to reflect on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) midwifed for Barack Obama by John Kerry at the historic Palais Coburg in Vienna. Comparisons to the 1930s, he wrote, are “overused.”
Who can deny that analogies to a deal sealed in 1938 have been a glut on the market for heaven knows how long? For example, two years ago Kerry himself said it was time to get involved violently if necessary to stop Bashar Assad from massacring his people and called it “our Munich moment.” Few took the secretary of state seriously. The analogy was tired and Assad wasn’t Hitler.
And yet, and yet. “History,” quipped Mark Twain, “never repeats itself but often it rhymes.”
Having questioned the analogy, Ferguson likened what Chamberlain hoped and did to what Obama is doing and hoping. It’s not so much that the JCPOA is riddled with holes as that Chamberlain depended on Hitler mending his ways and Obama is depending on the Islamic Republic to mend its, and sooner rather than later, to vanish.
Ferguson predicted that just as Churchill saw and warned that what Chamberlain had done with Hitler made war under less favorable conditions inevitable, what Obama is doing will be remembered for making certain the Islamic Republic gets the Bomb.
The rabbis are of the opinion that the age of prophesy ended when Titus demolished Herod’s temple. Since then nobody should be trusted to combine a vision of the near, medium or distant future with a summons to repent. The unique exception may have been that old alcoholic imperialist, Churchill, in the fall of 1938. Minus the Scotch, the moralizing and the call to rediscover virtue, will Harvard professor Ferguson be another?
Whatever happens, future historians are sure to quarrel over when the JCPOA die was cast. They’ll agree it was long before Congress either voted on it or was prevented from voting on it by a filibuster, but how long before?
Some will go back to early 2009, when right after his inauguration Obama sent the grand ayatollah a message. Others will zoom in on later that year when, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected president of the Islamic Republic, after the young Iranians unhappy about the fake election had been shot down in the streets of Tehran and Obama had chided that “violence directed at peaceful protesters [is] not how governments should interact with their people,” the prime minister of Israel didn’t override his generals and spymasters and have Nantanz, Fordow, Parchin and Arak bombed.
What if Netanyahu had done it? The counterfactual game is an alluring one. Back in the 20th century Ferguson edited a book of what he dubbed essays in “virtual” history and contributed a chapter on what might have been if England had stayed out of the Great War. Others considered the ramifications of the Wehrmacht defeating the Red Army and of JFK not being assassinated. No end to the hypotheticals we can frame. What if the Republicans had insisted the JCPOA be presented to the Senate as a treaty needing two-thirds consent? Or if Mohammad Javad Zarif had come downstairs at the Palais Coburg to find Kerry replaced by Kissinger?
What’s done is done — or better, what hasn’t been done stays undone. So far Netanyahu seems likely to be remembered as a tragic case, his nation’s democratically elected, reelected and reelected again leader, an eloquent man of insufficient action. That’s what an unnamed Jeffrey Goldberg source in the White House was thinking when he called “Bibi” a “chickens**t.” And why not? Years earlier Netanyahu had, in the White House, on camera and under a flock of microphones, lectured the president of the U.S.A. on the ABCs of the Middle East as if he was an Occidental sophomore. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
Yet historians will agree that Obama’s motives in the JPCOA business weren’t personal. Chamberlain had a vision, an impersonal vision, a hope, a blueprint for a peaceful Europe where a peaceful Germany would help keep the peace and help contain the Soviet Union. Likewise, it seems Obama has a vision of a reset Middle East where the ancient civilization of Persia would help fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Instead of Munich 1938, his working precedent is Beijing 1972. He made this explicit during an Oval Office interview with Tom Friedman. Yes, he admitted that on paper the JCPOA leaves Iran free to manufacture nuclear weapons in ten or fifteen years. But that’s a long time, long enough for a young, clean-shaven, iPhone-packing generation to have filed the ayatollahs and their worldview in the dumpster of history.
Maybe, and maybe not. Those of us old enough can remember Richard Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to Mao. Soon afterwards Isaac Stern hit Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai with his violin and Jewish charm, enthralling SRO audiences of the young, middle-aged and old starved for Mozart and Beethoven. And today? Is the Communist party gone, and do you have a liberal, tolerant, non-truculent, status-quo People’s Republic of China?
Last month, as if in Stern’s footsteps, Daniel Barenboim was about to take the musicians of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden to Tehran to perform the overture of Der Fliegende Hollander. Until, that is, the Islamic Republic’s culture ministry spokesperson nixed the plan. Hossein Noushabadi explained that nobody holding Zionist-regime citizenship, regardless of how sympathetic to the Palestinians, can be welcomed. Then what about James Levine? Or if no Jews, maybe Zubin Mehta?
But among the downsides of old age is pessimism. The post-prophetic future will always be unknowable and there’s no guarantee Obama’s intentions, expectations and sincere hopes won’t bear fruit. Although the Islamic Republic isn’t exactly Nazi Germany, the worldview of Islamism, regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite, has at its core, as Nazism had, the hatred and fear of Jews and liberated women. Can there be de-Nazification without a shot fired and without an occupation? Will the soft power of Hollywood and Apple do what it hasn’t been able to do in China?
Maybe, maybe not. The history of the Munich analogy echoes the fable of the boy crying wolf. Over and over, the young shepherd raises the alarm until — and here’s the point, typically forgotten — the wolf comes, nobody believes him and he and the sheep are done for.
And the Aesopian moral? “This shows how liars are rewarded: even if they tell the truth, no one believes them.” Not to imply that all those who’ve mobilized the analogy from Suez in 1956 to Vietnam in the ‘60s to Syria did so knowing it was baseless. To fear God means giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, even them, even presidents.
Let’s stipulate that Barack Obama’s intentions and hopes vis-à-vis Iran and the Bomb have been and are well-meaning and completely sincere. True, it’s rumored that hell is paved with good intentions. Nevertheless, let’s take an oath that in half a generation when an unreformed Islamic Republic tests its Bomb, and this president is a healthy elder statesman, those of us still alive will be as kind as Churchill was to the dead man who’d negotiated peace for our time.