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For those who have studied the history of the 20th Century, 2014 is feeling a lot like 1938, when Neville Chamberlain returned to London from Munich waving a treaty he signed with Hitler ceding Czechoslovakia to Germany, and declared “Peace for Our Time“. That was 13 years after the publication of Hitler’s plan for Europe in Mein Kampf, two weeks before the Kristillnacht rampage against Jewish synagogues and businesses throughout Nazi Germany and Austria, 11 months before Germany’s invasion of Poland which officially began World War II, and 14 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the reluctant United States into the war. Chamberlain hoped that treaties and speeches would stop the Fuhrer’s aggression and the British public believed him, much to the detriment of civilization everywhere.
Vladimir Putin has certainly studied the origins of the war which cost Russia over 25 million dead. The Crimea with its heavy Russian population looks a lot like the Czech Sudetenland with its German population. Putin had already taken the measure of Obama and understood that, like Chamberlain, he had no appetite for confrontation. Germany’s Merkel, Britain’s Cameron, and France’s Hollande offer “economic sanctions” challenges, but none has the military capability or desire to defend the Ukraine – and none is willing to impose severe sanctions which would cause significant pain to themselves. With Russia offering increasing military support to the “rebels” and expanding the territory under dispute, it seems that much of eastern Ukraine will eventually become part of Mother Russia. The risk to Europe and to the world is that Putin will move on to the Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – which were once part of the Soviet Union, contain significant numbers of Russians, and are now part of NATO.
It is unlikely that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, knows the history of Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Nazi Germany. (He probably doesn’t even know that The Sound of Music was about an Austrian naval captain who refused to fight for the Nazis.) What he does know is that when he pushes, he does not meet resistance. The Middle East structure of stable despots has broken down with George W. Bush removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Barack Obama abandoning the fragmented successor government, and a mix of western countries calling for and not supporting a rebellion in Syria. Into the void …
Like the British public in 1938, much of the wishful thinking American public would like to believe that ISIS will eventually implode because the horrific treatment of prisoners and non-compliant civilians will erode public support. There is bad news, Dorothy. World history from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot is replete with brutal dictators who have lasted for generations unless they were confronted by superior force. This is not a Hollywood movie. Hitler died in his bunker, overcome by Eisenhower’s forces and the Red Army only after 85 million souls went before him.
Were George HW Bush president, there would already be a “coalition of the willing”. Virtually every country in the Middle East would like to see ISIS eliminated; the problem is that each has its own agenda – a restive Kurdish minority; the Shia/Sunni divide; protection of a monarchy; tribal competitions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States has been the only cop in the neighborhood and Neville – oops Barack – has promised that our policemen will come home. After years of trumpeting his central international accomplishment being the ending of Bush’s Iraq War, he admits that he has no strategy for dealing with the new reality.
Hillary’s 3 AM moment has arrived, and she was right. The murder of James Foley has caught the attention of the American public, but Obama and his amateur national security team see it as a policing matter where the perpetrator should be brought to justice. The career military and intelligence officials understand that in the short term it is about protecting Americans who wander into a war zone; in the intermediate term it is about hardened terrorists returning to the United States with visions of 9/11 or Boston Marathon attacks; in the long run it is about a real country with real borders – a North Korea with legions of suicidal jihadis, an avowed intent to destroy the West, and, eventually, the weapons to do so.
Putin knows that he has a couple of years of Obama’s promised “flexibility” to accomplish his objectives and will act rationally. ISIS not so much. The time to stop Hitler was in 1933.
This week’s video is President Obama’s 2012 promise of greater “flexibility” for Russia after the 2012 election.