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Interview with Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt is academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Natasha Hunter: From the president on down to callers on C-SPAN, more and more people are consciously using the term "appeasement" in reference to softer positions on Iraq. Some even refer directly to Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s. Is this a valid comparison?

Professor Stephen Walt: No. It's a completely invalid comparison. Appeasement means giving an adversary something it wants, rolling over and letting an aggressor alter the status quo. The two options that have been on the table for the past six months have been containment or preventive war. Both of those are hard-nosed, keep-Saddam-in-his-box-or-get-rid-of-him options.

People who favor containment are not rolling over to Saddam. They want to keep Iraq weak through sanctions, they want him to know that if he uses force of any kind to threaten his neighbors, he'll face massive opposition from much stronger countries, like us. These are not pacifist strategies. Nobody has argued accommodating or appeasing Saddam. The only serious argument has been between those who want to contain Iraq through military deterrence, and those who want to overthrow Saddam through preventive war. Neither of these options is appeasement.

Natasha Hunter: Is there a parallel between the threat that Saddam poses and Hitler's threat in Europe?

Walt: No. The German military power grew steadily from 1933 onward. Adolf Hitler attacked nearly a dozen countries by the time he had been in power for eight years. Iraq has gone to war only twice since Saddam took power 30 years ago, and Iraq’s armed forces are weaker today than at any time in the past 20 years. Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler are both evil despots, but Iraq is not Nazi Germany, Saddam is not Adolf, and the Iraqi army is not the Wehrmacht.

People use scary historical analogies when they don't have good arguments based on the facts today. They try to scare us by talking about bad people and disasters in the past. It's usually a sign that you don't have the facts on your side when you have to go 60 years into the past to find a way to inflate the threat.

Natasha Hunter: If these comparisons are not apt, what other era in history would you draw parallels with?

Walt: Here's one. Another parallel would be Wilhelmine Germany, between 1890 and 1914. In 1890 Germany had good relations with all major powers in the world except France, which Bismarck had managed to isolate through careful diplomacy. By 1914, however, Germany faced combined opposition from Russia, France and Britain, and had only Austria-Hungary as its allies. Germany did this by throwing its weight around over that 20-year period, eventually causing its own encirclement.

Now look at the United States. When Cold War ended, the United States was on good terms with nearly everyone in the world, and this continued under the first Bush administration and the Clinton Administration.

Since 2000, though, we’ve seen a steady erosion in America’s diplomatic position, and unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism worldwide. Today, we can’t get even get five votes -- let alone a majority of nine -- in the [United Nations] Security Council, even when the issue on the table is how to deal with a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. The Bush Administration’s commitment to preventive war has turned this dispute from a debate about Saddam into a debate about American power, and that’s not good news for the United States. What we are witnessing is the progressive self-isolation of the United States.

The key thing I'd emphasize is that the issue is not where we are a month from now. It's not how the war goes in the short term -- it'll probably go pretty well. The issue is more where we are a year from now. What condition Iraq is in, how our willingness to use force is viewed in other countries and how this affects the much more important campaign against terrorism. That we won't we know for a while. I don't think this is going to have, on balance, positive effects for our international position.

This interview fir st appeared on TomPaine.com and is reprinted with permission.