Blair must turn a deaf ear to the siren calls of appeasers

By John Keegan

Hans Blix’s interim report must have brought great comfort to the Prime Minister. Tony Blair is commonly said to have no sense of history. That may be so. But were there not echoes from the past in his words to the Commons a fortnight ago about the perils of not confronting Saddam? “The threat is real,” he said, “and, if we do not deal with it, the consequence of our weakness will haunt future generations.”

He spoke apparently spontaneously and with evident passion. For a moment he sounded almost Churchillian. The sentiment was certainly Churchillian in its exasperation with those who seem ready to find any excuse for not facing the danger of a rogue state acquiring weapons of mass destruction and may continue to do so despite Mr Blix’s damning interim report on Saddam Hussein.

The opponents of war are unlikely to deflect Mr Blair in his current mood. His response may have lacked the awful majesty of Churchill’s speech to the House on the abandonment of Czechoslovakia on October 5, 1938. “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup,” Churchill said then. “Which will be proffered to us year by year . . . unless we arise again and take our stand.” The idea, nevertheless, is the same. Churchill was denouncing appeasement. So, without using the word, was Mr Blair.

Appeasement is certainly in the air and has taken possession of a large number of British opinion makers – perhaps a third of the Labour Party, all the Anglican bishops and even some generals and diplomats. Their disaffection has a strong influence on public opinion.

There are differences, however, between the new appeasement and the old. It is not simply that appeasement was then official policy, and that those who denounced it were out of power. More important, the appeasement of the inter-war years was certainly understandable and even justifiable.

The fear of a new European war, likely to be brought on by standing up to Hitler, affected almost every family in the land. Britain had suffered 750,000 battle deaths in the First World War. Only 15 of England’s 10,000 villages had not lost a son, husband or father. It was wholly explicable that families would support almost any diplomatic concession that staved off war.

There lies another difference. The dictators, Hitler foremost, were immensely powerful. Their armed forces were huge. Moreover, they made their demands clear and were cunning at representing them as trifling surrenders. The dictators made it easy for their potential victims to buy time or respite of a threat. A little slice of someone else’s territory, a relaxation of disarmament laws. What, the appeasers asked, was really being given away?

The new appeasers seem to recognise that the arguments of the 1930s will not wash today. First, the democracies have all the power, enjoying both nuclear and conventional supremacy. Second, the dictators, in this case Saddam, are men of straw. Saddam is certainly a master of diplomatic trickery, but a huff and a puff will blow his house down.

The new appeasers cannot therefore terrify the public with warnings of a battlefield holocaust. Nor can they advocate direct appeasement of the troublemakers, who clearly do not merit it. Appeasement therefore takes a new form.

The objection to war now stated is not the danger it threatens to one’s own side, but, paradoxically, that it threatens against the other. It has become commonplace for the appeasers to speak of “millions of deaths” among the opponents’ civilian population and to warn of widespread ecological and economic disaster. War itself, not the suffering to Britain that it might bring, is now the enemy. So the blacker the horrors painted, the better the new appeasement’s cause is served.

Most of this horror is spurious. Western armed forces are now so efficient and their weapons so precise that, as was demonstrated in Kosovo, even an intense bombing campaign kills very few civilians and does the minimum of damage to the opponents’ infrastructure.

The appeasers, with half their minds, know this to be the case. That produces a dilemma. If a war to deprive an opponent of his weapons of mass destruction will not harm our own side, will do little harm to the other’s population and is unlikely to cause material disaster, what is the point of appeasement?

Here the new appeasement takes on its second form. It does not seek, as in the 1930s, to appease dictators. The object now is to appease other objectors to war – half-hearted allies such as Germany, the “Arab street”, liberal opinion at home and, above all, the legalists in the UN and other international organisations.

The new appeasers’ cry today is for a “second” (but implicitly a third and fourth) Security Council resolution authorising military action against Saddam and, without that, no intervention. The appeasers believe that they have found, in the UN Charter, means to prevent the democracies resorting to force in almost all circumstances.

Article 2 (4) of the Charter outlaws war unless authorised by the Security Council, or in self-defence. That seems to win the appeasers’ case. Except that Article 51 makes states the judges of what constitutes self-defence. President George W. Bush – and Mr Blair – take the view that Saddam’s secret development of weapons of mass destruction breaches the right of their countries, but also of all other law-abiding states, to defend themselves. They think a war against Saddam is justified under the Charter.

How can the new appeasers argue otherwise? They would say that nothing has been proved against Saddam. They would dispute that they are appeasing him. They represent Saddam as a weak little man, wicked perhaps, but not worth any violation of their interpretation of international law to bring down.

The history of appeasement does not change. Hitler was once a weak little man – and it was the concessions of the appeasers of his day that allowed him to grow strong. Once Saddam has his nuclear weapons, he will beat the drum of war. It will be a war that the new appeasers, like the old appeasers who rallied to Churchill after Hitler’s first blitzkrieg, will bitterly regret that they did not fight when they had the chance to win.

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