Syria: What Would Neville Do?

Advocates of American military action in Syria have, with a predictable lack of both creativity and historic relevance, invoked the memory of Neville Chamberlain, who announced the achievement of "peace in our time" after negotiating a deal that gave Hitler a piece of Czechoslovakia the Nazis coveted. Chamberlain is regularly cited by hawks thirsty for action.

But his situation was very different and it is very difficult to see what lessons it suggests that could be helpful today.

The British prime minister struck the deal after suggesting to Hitler that a conversation about options other than German military action could be helpful. Because no one other than Hitler was ready for war, just about everyone (with the exception of the Czechs, who were willing to fight a doomed battle) on the other side wanted to avoid it. Suggestions came from many corners, including the White House, for an international conference on how to meet German demands and avoid armed conflict.

By the time Chamberlain convinced Hitler to convene such a meeting he had already gotten the Czechs to accept a tentative deal -- subsequently disowned by Hitler -- that would cede some of the disputed Sudetenland area to the Germans. So by the time the Munich meeting, which included representatives of England, France, Italy and Germany (but not the Czechs) began, the question was not whether Germany should be given something, but rather how much and how quickly.

Italy's Mussolini presented a proposed plan, which Hitler had drafted and shared with him earlier, that the other two powers basically accepted. At this time, France was allied with Czechoslovakia and required to fight if the Czechs were attacked and England, which had a less direct responsibility via the League of Nations, felt that it would inevitably be pulled into a conflict that France would certainly be losing and that would probably be lost nonetheless because of a British lack of military preparedness.

Faced with the typical politician's challenge of selecting the least worst choice -- better options having disappeared much earlier -- Chamberlain unsurprisingly made the deal that he had initially suggested in broad terms and, as politicians also typically do, tried to put a gloss on it by, saying "I believe it is peace in our time."

Many were relieved and believed it. They were clearly wrong.

What has this story to do with the Syrian situation? Once you get beyond the observation that Obama and Chamberlain were both political leaders, the similarities become obscure. America is clearly the strongest nation in the world. Unpreparedness is not an issue here. Syria is not threatening to annex land from a neighboring nation, an act that would trigger alliances and provoke a wider war. In fact, unlike the Nazis, the Syrian government is not threatening to do anything that we're trying to avoid.

We're talking, instead, about punishment for an act that has already occurred.

The question of whether an American response is an important one that is now being debated. Clearly the enthusiasm of the American people for such actions has declined for reasons that are obvious. It is a difficult, important and complex debate that shouldn't be muddied by asking what Chamberlain would do.