Déjà-vu all over again? Peter Collier on Paul Berman, Ian Buruma & Timothy Garton Ash: the metabolism of appeasement.

At the end of his long and characteristically brilliant meditation on the importance of intellectual backbone in discussing the future of Islam in the West, Peter Collier has some wise words about the metabolism of appeasement:


Two decades ago, when a similar writ threatened Salman Rushdie, these same intellectuals instinctively and unambiguously rallied to his cause. What accounts for their failure of nerve? Two things, according to Berman: the rise of Islamism in the years since the Rushdie fatwa, and the spread of terrorism. But there is plainly a third reason: the neocons and their war.

Neither Buruma nor Garton Ash have programmatically replied to Berman’s New Republic piece [on Tariq Ramadan]. But Buruma did use the occasion of his review of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV (which he ravages, needless to say) in the New York Review of Books to take a carom shot at Berman, describing him as “a tub thumper for Bush’s war.” Worse yet, he is one of those “neo leftists” who secretly share the judgments of people like Podhoretz and by so doing, promote neoconservatisim by other means, thereby “betraying the liberal principles they claim to be defending.”

For Buruma, the war in Iraq is the solvent that dissolves all fine distinctions. “I see no difference between the neo cons and the neo left,” he writes. And while he’s at it, he has one more go at [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali: “The problem with neo cons and neo leftists is that any disagreement with their idol is taken to be a hostile attack . . .” In other words, the problem with the Somali dissident all along was not so much what she had said or done, but rather the uses of what she had said or done—namely, granting aid and comfort to conservatives and to their malign project in Iraq and the Middle East generally.

While bashing Podhoretz and nicking Berman, Buruma says once again that we don’t face a juggernaut of “Islamo Fascism” but something like a loose conspiracy of jihadist affinity groups. Thus, “To assume that we are reliving 1938 and to put our trust in military invasion as the best way to defend ourselves is a dangerous form of hysteria.”

Buruma may be right, yet it is fitting that 1938 and Munich and appeasement should appear again at the end of this debate since they have been present, in the background, since the beginning. In Pascal Bruckner’s original criticism of Buruma and Garton Ash, the one thing he said that truly jangled a nerve was that in their willingness to placate Europe’s Muslim minority, as in their scourging of Hirsi Ali, the duo had failed to exhibit much in the way of courage. The word “courage,” like the term “Islamofascism,” set Buruma off. He shot back at Bruckner (and Berman, too, was struck by this), asking where have we heard such talk before: “The need to defend Europe against alien threats; the fatigued, self-doubting, weak-kneed intellectuals . . .”

The allusion, of course, was to the intellectuals who became excited by the rise of fascism in the 1930s and made themselves its fellow travelers and outriders. But it was possible to hear in Buruma’s words a parallel echo from that time—this one coming from a different part of the intellectual class that reacted to the threat of their lifetime by blinking: how, as part of their failure of nerve, they derided the indiscreet candor of those who raised warning flags; and how the peace they thought they had secured in their own time turned out to be anything but.


The “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s certainly provided an object lesson in the dangers of appeasement. It is worth noting, then, that appeasement can be a usefyl tool of diplomacy. As Donald Kagan noted in his book On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, “Appeasement is a perfectly respectable and often useful instrument of policy. It can be effective when applied from a position of strength, when it is a freely taken action meant to allay a grievance and create good will. It is an unsatisfactory and dangerous device when it is resorted to out of fear and necessity, for then it does not reduce resentment but shows weakness and induces contempt.”

Unfortunately, as the 1930s wore on the policy of appeasement was applied from a position of cravenness, not strength. And here the British, epitomized in the person of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, must bear the lion’s share of the blame. Not that Chamberlain was an evil man. There is good reason to think that he was motivated by the highest ideals. And it is worth remembering, too, that the hero of the moment, Winston Churchill, had once expressed admiration for Mussolini and even–albeit very briefly–Hitler. He had also presided over extensive military cuts in the 1920s. But Churchill had two things Chamberlain lacked: wit and gumption. He had the wit to understand the nature of the Nazi threat when it showed itself and the gumption to oppose it tooth and claw. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chamberlain was overflowing with good intentions. Perhaps his chief defect was the incapacity to recognize evil as such. He was a reasonable man, a humane man; he expected other men to be reasonable and humane as well. Chamberlain, Kagan writes, “regarded Hitler and Mussolini as rational men like himself with limited goals who could be dealt with by flexibility and reasoned discussion, and he was eager to get on with it. He did not permit himself to consider the possibility that their demands might be unacceptable or even unlimited.” But of course it was precisely Hitler’s strategy–not to say his character–to demand more and more and more. As he put it to one of his ministers in 1938, “we must always demand so much that we cannot be satisfied.”


The uncanny echo you hear is the reprise of the 1930s ricocheting off the smug columns of The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and other organs of establishment opinion. The question remains whether we have sufficient Churchillian foresight to supply this revival with a happier storyline.


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