Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Review of "The Specter of Munich" by Jeffrey Record

Jeffrey Record's The Specter of Munich: Reconsidering the Lessons of Appeasing Hitler (2007) is an expansion of his August 2005 paper for the US Army's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), Appeasement Reconsidered: Investigating the Mythology of the 1930s. I reviewed that paper in October 2006. The Specter of Munich contains much the same material in the historical analysis of the appeasement policy of Britain and France. So I'll focus here more on the additional material in the book which applies some observations from his analysis to the current US situation, especially in the Iraq War.

As I described in more detail in the earlier review, Record makes clear that the appeasement policy was a disastrous strategic mistake. But that mistake is popularly understood today as a failure by Neville Chamberlain in a mano a mano testosterone face-off with Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference in 1938. The popular understanding seems to have been shared by many senior policymakers in the decades since the Second World War. But, in fact, the mistakes in the appeasement policy were not primarily personality failings on the part of Chamberlain or of French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier.

For instance, France's foreign policy was based on a series of forward alliances with Czechoslovakia and Russia against Germany; but their military policy was a defensive one not suited to supporting allied nations in the east by attacking Germany if they came under German attack. Britain assumed that airpower would be decisive in the war but also had mistaken assumptions about the effectiveness of air power and also poor intelligence on actual German air power capabilities. Britain's policy was based on a widespread British belief that the Versailles Treaty that had ended the Great War (First World War) was excessively harsh on Germany, while France insisted on enforcement of the Versailles Treaty but doing so with a military strategy not suited to enforcing it. And this is only part of the list.

The main additions in the book compared to the paper have to do with how the lessons of appeasement from the 1930s have been applied to influence policy, and what more constructive lessons might be. For instance, in an expansion on the material at the end of p. 43 in the SSI paper, he writes of Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle, generally referred to as the "leading" neoconservative:

Given the horrors of that war, initiation of a preventive war seems retrospectively imperative, and when neoconservatives such as Richard Perle speak about how Hitler could and should have been stopped before 1939, they mean via forcible regime change of precisely the kind the United States launched against Iraq in 2003. But it is here that the neoconservatives enter the fantasy realm of historical counterfactualism. For Britain and France in the 1930s, a decisive preventive war against Germany was morally unacceptable, politically impossible, and militarily infeasible. Rewriting history is always easier than writing it. If Chamberlain horribly misread Hitler, the neoconservative indictment of Chamberlain conveniently assumes that the option of preventive war against Germany was as available to London and Paris in 1938 as it was to the United States against Iraq in 2003.

The American experience in Iraq testifies to the perils inherent in forcible regime change, especially forcible regime change undertaken on the basis of rosy neoconservative assumptions about the degree of difficulty involved and without adequate preparation for the possibility of postregime violence and the challenges of national political and economic reconstruction. Yet one can speculate that the magnitude of the task of forcible regime change in Germany in, say, 1938 would have dwarfed that in Iraq today. Hitler was a genuinely popular leader within Germany, whereas Saddam Hussein was detested by all but the minority Sunni Arab population. Germany in 1938 had a burgeoning economy and a rapidly expanding and highly competitive military establishment, which could have been counted upon to offer much more formidable resistance than Saddam's sanction-crippled forces. An effective occupation and reconstruction of Germany would in any event have required far more manpower, resources, and time than the United States has been prepared to invest in Iraq. (my emphasis)

Record emphasizes repeatedly throughout the book that in evaluating the decisions made by British and French officials, we have to keep in mind that they didn't know they were making pre-Second World War decisions. They were trying to avoid a war.

The bulk of the additional material in the book come in the last two chapters, where he looks in particular at the lessons he would draw for the United States today from the appeasement experience of the 1930s. He formulates the major lessons he sees as follows:

* "Don't propitiate an insatiable great power dictator if you are in a position to pursue and alternative policy" - but rely on reality-based evaluations of when the opponent is "insatiable".

* "[T]hreat miscalculation can have severe penalties". The popular version of the "lessons of Munich" recognizes that underestimating threats can be dangerous. But part of the Anglo-French miscalculation in the 1930s was overestimating German air power - even neocon idol Winston Churchill did that.

* "[D]emocratic governments are constrained by public opinion", both in a policy of initating war and in sustaining public support in a protracted war. He expands on this as follows:

Leaders of democratic states must necessarily consider public opinion in making decisions to use (or not use) force. They can and do attempt to mobilize public opinion for war, but in the end they cannot readily march off to major war - or continue to sustain a policy of war - in the face of a hostile electorate. This is especially the case in wars of choice as opposed to wars of necessity. (my emphasis)

* Take account of "the risks inherent in discordance between foreign policy aims and military force posture".

* Be aware of the "dangers of strategic overextension". This can be done either by boosting the resources devoted to the strategic goals, or by scaling back on those goals (or of course some combination of the two). Clarity in the way a nation defines threats is an important component of this.

* It is important to maintain "a proper offensive-defensive balance".

* Maintain as much as possible "consistency in threatening and using force".

Record discusses these lessons extensively in the context of the Iraq War and the current assumptions of military "transformation", which has focused on developing more high-tech capabilities relying even more on air power. It could be argued that Record's usage of his "lessons of Munich" to frame his own criticisms of the Iraq War can lead to the same kind of reading current experiences back into one's evaluation of historical events.

It's certainly easy to fall into that. I would argue that Record does not do so in this case because he uses those broad lesson categories to examine aspects of our current situation in terms of realistic analysis of the current situation. Where American statecraft (which seems an awfully highfalutin word to apply to the cynical operations of the Cheney-Bush administration, I know) has so often gone wrong is to try to make every enemy we face be the new Adolf Hitler and every war as critical to American security as the confrontation over Czechoslovakia in 1938 proved to be for the world.

This is a rich chapter, almost any paragraph of which could be the basis of extensive discussion and debate. Here, I'll mention just a few. On the subject of threat miscalculation he writes:

War is the province of miscalculation. History is littered with wars arising from misperceived enemy intentions, capabilities, or both, and this reality seems endemic in the practice of statecraft. Just as Chamberlain misread Hitler's intentions in 1938, Hitler misread British intentions in 1939. In Korea in 1950, the Soviets misread the intentions of the Americans, who in turn misread the intentions (and capabilities) of the Chinese. In Vietnam, the United States overestimated its own capabilities and underestimated those of the Communists. And Saddam Hussein misread George H. W. Bush's intentions in the Persian Gulf in 1990-91, while the George W. Bush administration misread Saddam Hussein's capabilities as it approached America's second war against Iraq in 2003. Saddam certainly wanted deliverable weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but wanting is not the same thing as having.

On the mismatch between foreign and military policies:

The fatal misfit between France's foreign and defense policies finds no analog with the United States today. ...

That said, however, there is a discernible and growing disjointbetween the kind of war the United States prepares to fight and the kinds of wars it has actually fought. To put it another way, U.S. military force posture is increasingly at odds with the emerging strategic environment. The United States remains focused on preparation for high-technology conventional warfare against other potential military peer competitors (most notably China), whereas the predominant threats to its security interests are rogue states, failed states, and nonstate unconventional adversaries practicing asymmetrical war. This new threat environment places a premium on preparation for operations other than war (OOTW)- that is, operations other than the big conventional force-on-force mission for which the U.S. military is optimized. Such operations include peace enforcement, counterinsurgency, stability, and state-building operations. Success in performing these operations is certainly essential to a foreign policy that embraces forcible regime change in places like Iraq and the muscular promotion of democracy in the Arab world and other regions of political autocracy and economic stagnation. (my emphasis)

He believes that the institutional resistance to shifting the focus of the US military from conventional war preparation to OOTW is extremely strong, especially in the Army: "Unfortunately, whatever the strength of the arguments for establishment of OOTW-dedicated ground forces (and there are serious arguments against), such forces stand little bureacratic chance of ever seeing the light of day."

But he doesn't use this as a shrug of the shoulders to say there's no point in worrying about changing it:

None of this is to argue that the Defense Department is hopelessly unadaptable to the deconventionalized global strategic environment - only that its force structural bias toward conventional combat is long standing and well entrenched and that overcoming that bias will entail fundamental changes in how U.S. military forces are organized, equipped, trained, and manned. For example, personnel policies that constantly rotate individuals from one assignment to another and promotion polices prejudiced against development of specialized area knowledge and linguistic skills are antithetical to the requirements of successful counterinsurgency. For another example, retention of division-level organizations makes little sense against decentralized, irregular adversaries. And what does the F/A-22 program [one of the Pentagon's most controversial] bring to the table in the fight against al Qaeda? (my emphasis)

Yes, Jeffrey Record, a professor at the US Air Force Air War College, is questioning the current policies of our infallible generals. Fortunately, these kinds of issues are discussed within the military, often more freely it seems than among our punditocracy. But maybe our punditocracy is a poor comparison to any kind of serious discussion of such matters.

And, on the question of realistic threat definition, he writes:

The argument that the war in Iraq serves as a magnet for terrorists that otherwise would be conducting attacks in the United States is not persuasive. The war certainly did not prevent the Madrid and London attacks. Iraqis are notable for their scarcity among the ranks of Islamic terrorists, and 90 to 95 percent of insurgents in Iraq are Iraqis radicalized by the dispossession of the Baathist regime and/or the U.S. invasion and occupation of their country. True, most suicide bombings in Iraq have been conducted by outsiders - mostly Saudis, Syrians, and Kuwaitis - but studies of suicide bombers in Iraq by the Saudi government and an Israeli think tank reveal that the great majority of them had never taken part in any terrorist activity before their arrival in Iraq but rather were radicalized by the Iraq War itself.  They are part of a new generation of terrorists responding to calls by Osama bin Laden and radical Islamic clerics to defend their fellow Muslims from the "infidel crusaders" in Iraq. Notes terrorism expert Peter Bergen, "The president is right that Iraq is a main front in the war on terrorism, but this is a front we created." (my emphasis)

The final chapter includes a more extensive set of "observations and recommendations" than his SSI paper. He gives 11 of these, and here are his one-sentence summaries of them:

1. Nazi Germany remains without equal as a state threat.

2. American presidents should cease invocation of the Munich analogy to justiy threatened or actual uses of force.

3. Today's strategic environment bears little analogy to that ofthe 1930s.

4. Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler share key traits.

5. British and French security choices in the 1930s were neither simple nor obvious.

6. Hindsight is not 20/20 vision; it distorts.

7. The United States is poorly served by reliance on preventive war as a means of dealing with states it fears or simply does not like.

8. Political-military coordination is essential to effective statecraft, particularly in overseas state building.

9. The prevalence of operations other than warfare (OOTW) over conventional military operations in the post-Soviet world argues strongly for the creation of OOTW-dedicated U.S. military forces.

10. A significant increase in the size of U.S. ground forces is in order.

11. A new and comprehensive assessment of the state of U.S. homeland security is also in order.

While I'm generally in agreement with Record's analysis, I would oppose any increase in US ground forces until Congress conducts a real review of US foreign policy. If we don't have enough ground forces to enable a policy of preventive war to be implemented like Cheney and Bush did in Iraq, that is a good thing. If a shortage of soldiers prevents them from attacking Iran this year - which it should, though that's scarcely the only reason not to attack Iran - that is also a good thing. Force composition can never stop a reckless or criminal Executive from making bad decisions on use of force. But the current official foreign policy of the United States under the Bush Doctrine is one of preventive war. I'm opposed to adding any more ground forces as long as such a destructive and wrong strategic doctrine is official US policy.

I'll close with this quote from Record's elaboration of his second point in the concluding chapter, that Presidents should just stop using the Munich analogy to justify wars:

Robert Merry properly observes that the word "appeasement" carries "a lot of historical freight, given that for decades it has described the soft and accommodative policies of Britain's Neville Chamberlain toward Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Thus it suggests that if we don't get tough with any particular regional power, we are going to have another Hitler on our hands." Merry also rightly warns, however, that "not every regional power with national ambitions constitutes a threat to world peace (although it might to American hegemony), and in fact policies based on that assumption are likely to be more destabilizing to peace than such countries themselves." As a strategic threat, Saddam Hussein was hardly Adolf Hitler. Indeed, if anything good can be said about Saddam Hussein, perhaps it is that he did not permit Iraq to degenerate into the world's primary recruiting and training ground for Islamic terrorism. (my emphasis)

Altogether, Record's book is a very worthwhile analysis of a major political and diplomatic turning point leading to the Second World War, and it contains some refreshing and sensible analysis about the Iraq War. It goes without saying that the current administration will ignore the latter. But Congress should pay attention to these kinds of criticisms.

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