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Where’s Neville Chamberlain when you really need him?

By Norman Poltenson


Is it 2014 or 1938? I ask because current events are eerily reminiscent of my birth year.

In March 1938, Adolph Hitler gobbled up Austria in a so-called plebiscite. This absorption of an independent country into the homeland came on the heels of the German army marching into the Rhineland two years earlier ostensibly to protect the German-speaking population. As soon as Herr Hitler completed the Austrian maneuver, he complained that the government of Czechoslovakia was suppressing the German population living in the Sudetenland. Just before a planned German invasion of Czech territory scheduled for Oct. 1, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain, flew to Germany to conciliate The Fuhrer. He returned to London with a three-paragraph agreement that guaranteed “peace for our time.”

Hitler’s actions were pursued in the context of war-weary democracies, desperate to avoid another war, choosing to appease ruthless dictators. Mussolini had invaded and subdued Ethiopia, Japan had conquered the Korean peninsula and invaded China, and the Russian Empire was eager to extend westward into the Baltic States and Finland. The League of Nations responded by holding meetings that castigated aggression.

To quote that great philosopher Yogi Berra, today seems like déjà vu all over again. The six decades of relative international stability guaranteed by U.S. involvement in global affairs and backed by a strong military capability have seriously eroded in just the past half decade. President Obama has withdrawn our country from its leadership role to play an ill-defined supporting role, which has exposed the instability of many countries and attracted aggressors eager to expand their purported interests.

President Obama started by “resetting” our relations with Russia, assuming that country would be an ally in promoting American interests. To show his good will, he canceled a missile-defense system promised to the Poles and Czechs and ignored Russia’s human-rights violations. In Libya, the U.S. “led from behind” and continues to claim success in “taking out” Muammar Khadafi, even as the country slides toward dissolution. Sanctions against Iran were proving effective, so the sitting administration eased them for “Persian bazaar” promises to halt the development of nuclear material for military purposes. Assad in Syria, the man our president said had to go, crossed an Obama red line on weapons of mass destruction with impunity.

The ongoing Syrian war is also destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan with results that are potentially disastrous for the region. In Egypt, Obama’s backing of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and his subsequent dithering after a military coup have given the Russians their opening to exert influence again, something not seen since President Sadat threw the Russians out in the 1970s. In Afghanistan, which our leader called the “good war,” he approved a surge while simultaneously announcing a withdrawal date. His words-without-consequences has terrified our allies and emboldened our enemies.

Now President Obama faces his Neville Chamberlain moment. Vladimir Putin marched into Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was president, and carved out two provinces. The West’s response was indignant protests. Putin’s most recent adventure was to claim Crimea from the Ukraine based on his right to protect Russian-speaking people everywhere. On March 19, the Russian president also pointed out his concern for the Russian minorities in eastern Ukraine and in Estonia, a member of NATO. The west responded with protests, slapped a travel ban on a score of Russian citizens, and placed sanctions on a Russian bank. In response to the Ukraine’s urgent request for arms, President Obama sent food stuffs.

In some ways, Chamberlain and Obama are cut from the same cloth, preferring to focus on their countries’ respective domestic policies. In the 1930s, Chamberlain was a reformer who created the unemployment-assistance board, promoted paid holidays, pushed slum clearance, and cut the military budget. His political portfolios included the Ministry of Health, and he served as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. President Obama’s résumé includes a stint as a community organizer and elected positions in the Illinois state legislature and in the U.S. Senate. Both men dealt with foreign issues as a distraction, preferring conciliation to armed conflict.

The major difference between the two seems to be the ability at some point to recognize reality. The U.S. President tells us that Putin is committing strategic suicide. In an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, he intoned: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness … The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.”

Victor Davis Hanson calls that Obama’s “Chihuahua theory of foreign policy,” where the miniature dog takes on a pit bull because the aggressor knows he himself is weak. Psychologists label this behavior as clinical delusion. Our president is dogmatic in his beliefs, blind to any evidence to the contrary, and unable to adjust his views to reality.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, was concerned about Germany’s aggressive threats as early as 1935 when, as Exchequer, he supported rearming the military, especially the air force. Even after returning from Germany in 1938, he did not close his eyes to the madness of “Krystallnacht” which occurred only five weeks after his return. Nor did he ignore Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia, Moravia, and Prague in March 1939 when Germany swallowed the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain immediately doubled the size of the British army, created a Ministry of Supply to expedite equipment to the military, instituted peacetime conscription, and called on his French allies to rearm. In short, by finally recognizing the insatiable appetite of German aggression, he sent a strong signal that Great Britain was prepared to use military force to halt aggression.

If he so chooses, President Obama could also send a number of strong signals to the Russians. He can make the commitment to become Europe’s gas and oil supplier, even if it will be years before we can replace Russia as the prime supplier. The U.S. can deploy more military assets than a half dozen F-16s to Poland, including part of our naval fleet and the 350 A-10 “Warthog” airplanes our Air Force is retiring. He can close the Russian mission to NATO, conduct NATO military exercises, redeploy the missile-defense system we promised the Poles and Czechs, and supplement the food-stuffs to the Ukraine with the arms and munitions they requested. And if you really want to get serious, don’t just restore the recent U.S. military budget cuts but add funding to the defense budget.

My generation knows first-hand that illegitimate aggressions that go unchallenged guarantee even more dangerous conflicts in the future. Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland in 1936 without any ammunition. The cost of stopping aggression then would have been miniscule compared to the 50 million who died in World War II. That’s the lesson we need to remember, even when we tire of conflict. While confidence in America’s leadership is collapsing, our president continues to live in a world of pixie dust in which “… nations in the 21st century no longer behave in a 19th-century fashion.” Except, Mr. President, they do.

Neville Chamberlain learned from his mistakes, finally recognizing reality. President Obama shows no signs of such recognition, preferring to live in a world of make-believe. He is neither a hawk nor a dove; he is an ostrich.

Where’s Neville Chamberlain when you really need him?

Norman Poltenson is a regional staff writer with The Business Journal News Network. Contact him at

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