The Psychology of Appeasement

Friday, July 30, 2004
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As U.S. foreign policy has grown more assertive in the wake of the September 11 attacks, critics both at home and abroad have become ever more voluble in their objections. The more the United States defends itself, the more policy opponents argue against defense. Their alternatives boil down to variations on appeasement.


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On the one hand, critics claimed that bold American action was foolhardy and fraught with danger. They expected the war in Afghanistan to become the “new Vietnam” (that metaphor has now been transferred to Iraq because Afghanistan—to the chagrin of some—did not turn into a debacle). For many members of the press, Afghanistan was a war that could not be won, and, by attacking the Taliban, Washington would only unleash the “Arab street” across the region, leading to the toppling of all the moderate regimes. Such predictions were as common as they were false. Nothing of the sort transpired.

On the other hand, the same critics of American foreign policy insist that the Bush administration exaggerated the foreign threat, be it from rogue states (such as Iraq under Saddam) or from non-state actors (such as Al Qaeda). Particularly in the European press, Saddam attracted countless apologists and was presented as a rational, if harsh, ruler. To the extent that he had undeniably threatened his neighbors—Iraq had after all invaded Kuwait not that long ago—such transgressions were blamed by a twisted logic on the United States and its diplomacy. Similarly, the New York Times chose to feature an op-ed by Stephen C. Pelletieri doubting, despite extensive evidence, Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds: a claim that has the same moral standing as the callous denials of the existence of Nazi death camps or Soviet gulags. Such a trivialization of the crimes of the Ba’athist regime was a crucial component of oppositional thinking, both in the United States and in Europe.

It is of course deeply inconsistent to dismiss the perceived threats as mere illusions and then, nearly simultaneously, to warn that any effort to address such threats would unleash enormous violence. The critics want to have it both ways, minimizing terrorist threats that really exist and maximizing the likely dangers of any activist foreign policy. What unites these seemingly disparate positions, however, is that they both provide a useful rationale for doing absolutely nothing: the smaller the threat, the less need to act; the greater the projected risk, the higher the threshold for action.

The critics’ alternative to a forceful defense necessarily involves coming to some accommodation with the rogue state or the terrorists, despite their proven propensity for violence and deceit. Indeed, many political leaders and large parts of the international public have demonstrated a clear preference for appeasement over any confrontation. The Spanish vote in the wake of the March 11 Madrid bombing—marked by greater anger at the Aznar government and the United States than at the terrorist murderers—is a case in point. Despite the brutality of the attack and the deaths of so many innocent victims, the public response supported acceding to the terrorist demands. Such strategies of appeasement and accommodation represent an Achilles’ heel in the war on terror; it is therefore worthwhile to consider why they exercise such attraction.

In her classic study The Origins of Totalitarianism, the political theorist Hannah Arendt explored a basic component in the psychology of appeasement. Why was it, she wondered, that much of the outside world was long reluctant to believe in the enormity of the crimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia? Why were there so many fellow travelers and apologists eager to misrepresent totalitarian terror in order to assuage world opinion? Her answer involves the recognition that the everyday life of democracies lacks the extraordinary violence of totalitarian settings. Because democratic political life assumes that individuals are treated with a modicum of respect within the context of the rule of law, it becomes difficult to imagine that regimes of terror prevail elsewhere. As she wrote, “The normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes.”

Accustomed to such democratic normalcy, the public tends not only to dismiss accounts of extraordinary atrocities but to believe that the totalitarian leaders act in good faith. With such innocence, Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler at Munich in the hope that surrendering Czech democracy to Nazi Germany would appease the dictator. At Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill made similar concessions to Stalin. In both cases the hope for peace blinded democratic politicians to the violent character of their opponents. The more recent calls to negotiate with the Taliban or with Saddam Hussein were cut from the same cloth of well-meaning naiveté.

A similar logic of appeasement characterizes the liberal estimation of terrorists who, viewed through rose-colored glasses, are imagined to be rational political actors with legitimate grievances: if one would only negotiate and make concessions, then the problem would disappear. Particularly in Europe, the argument is made that Islamic radicalism is simply about Israel, and if only the West would abandon its support for Israeli democracy—just as the West abandoned Czech democracy in 1938—the terrorists would promptly turn into trustworthy partners. Other elements enter into this European stance, especially a rapidly growing anti-Semitism. At its core, however, the psychology of appeasement involves the profound misjudgment that terrorists act in a rational and utilitarian manner to achieve specific and limited policy goals through compromise.

Yet nothing indicates that Al Qaeda or associated terrorist groups are susceptible to rational argument or negotiation. It is characteristic that the September 11 attacks were not linked to any particular set of specific demands, hence the extensive and inconclusive speculation regarding the terrorists’ true goals. Eradication of Israel? Islamic rule in Kashmir? The very ambiguity indicates the absence of a rational political agenda. The only constant is a rhetoric of martyrdom: “You love life, but we love death,” as the terrorists claiming responsibility for the Madrid bombing put it with horrifying clarity. Similarly, after the lynching of four American contractors in Fallujah, a militant declared, “We are not afraid of death. We are going to heaven” (presumably for mutilating corpses). This fanaticism is not interested in the normal give-and-take of politics. Still, the proponents of appeasement regularly proceed from a blind preference for negotiation and compromise. Arendt’s phrasing is again quite apt: because it is used to a well-mannered normalcy, democratic public opinion “indulges in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity.”

Appeasement is the political strategy of pursuing compromise with an uncompromising opponent. It involves a denial of the opponent’s fanatic character and is, therefore, precisely as Arendt put it, a matter of shirking reality. The only real alternative, however, entails subduing the opponent. Such a course of action presupposes the will to use force and to face the attendant costs. Appeasement is a way to avoid recognizing these costs, but only in the short term, until that time in the future when the costs of defeat become unmistakable.

For European political leaders, a politics of appeasement exercises other, more specific attractions. Because the Bush administration has staked out an aggressive posture against terrorism, European politicians face a constant temptation to adopt a contrarian position simply in order to be seen as opposed to Washington. In certain contexts in Europe, a politician’s opposition to the United States (on whatever issue) generates electoral support. This political anti-Americanism is, however, less the result of particular U.S. policies than it is of the need for a unified Europe to find some way to define itself to its own post-national public. The strategy of “running against Washington” does not only work in U.S. domestic politics. In the current international context, advocating appeasement is a particularly prominent way to promote oneself as hostile to America.

In addition, European politicians and opinion makers are increasingly concerned about their own domestic Islamic publics, mainly immigrant workers and their offspring from North Africa and Turkey. Because of a lack of any successful integration policies, these populations typically live in impoverished isolation, such as in the large public housing slums that surround Paris. These are breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism and provide key links in the international terror networks. The battle over headscarves in France is a belated and clumsy effort to address this problem. European politicians are more predisposed to appeasement on the international level because of the threat they face on the home front, as became clear with the Madrid bombing.

European appeasement therefore derives from a set of particular circumstances: anti-Semitism, producing a willingness to undercut Israel; anti-Americanism, leading to a readiness to snub any U.S. policy; and a deep-seated fear of a domestic Islamic fifth column. Beyond these factors, however, the basic psychology of appeasement is at work: the foolish illusion that the terrorist opponents play using fair rules and rational goals. “The path which leads to appeasement is long and bristles with obstacles,” spoke Chamberlain in 1938. It also leads to failure, then and now.