When Netanyahu spoke before Congress to denounce the deal that the Obama Administration is negotiating with Iran, he made the inevitable comparison to Munich. In September of 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and other Western powers negotiated a deal with Adolf Hitler that gave Germany major portions of largely German-speaking Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler’s promise of peace in Europe. Chamberlain returned to Great Britain declaring that he had achieved “peace for our time.” In a year, Europe would be at war and Chamberlain would resign his office in disgrace. Henceforth, “Munich” would become a metaphor for any disastrous policy of appeasement that leads to dishonor and catastrophe. Obama was negotiating a Munich-like deal, Netanyahu implied, attempting to appease the bellicose Iranian regime by allowing Iran to build its nuclear capability and, with the blessing of the West, become a major nuclear power in ten year’s time. He didn’t say it, but surely Netanyahu wanted to echo Churchill’s rejoinder to Chamberlain in 1938: “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”
In many ways Netanyahu made a powerful speech, but the Munich reference fell a little flat. Perhaps we’ve heard it too many times. Munich was hauled out to justify many of our aggressive policies during the Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Even as recently as 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry derided our failure to combat Bashar Assad in Syria as “our Munich moment.” Not every foreign policy dilemma is as freighted with danger as the Munich crisis of 1938, just as not every threat to a civilian population is an impending genocide or Holocaust. At least not as far as the American public is concerned (although the Iran crisis may look that way to many Israelis).
Furthermore, Netanyahu left himself a little too open to the Obama retort. Nothing new in the Netanyahu speech, said Obama, and the Prime Minister of Israel failed to provide a workable alternative, since America has no intention of going to war with Iran. Here is where Netanyahu should have picked a different historical analogy. Instead of asking us to consider Munich, he should have led us to contemplate Reykjavik. In 1986, Ronald Reagan held a summit with Mikael Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two men, mostly working without a script, came tantalizingly close to an agreement to completely eliminate nuclear weapons from the arsenals of the two countries. At the last minute the negotiations fell apart, over Reagan’s insistence that the US be permitted to continue development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, a far-fetched missile defense system that was likely infeasible and never built. At the time, Reagan was widely derided for coming so close to an important agreement and then walking away from the table. But within a few years the US and the Soviet Union negotiated important nuclear arms reduction agreements and, of course, the Soviet Union collapsed. Sometimes walking away from the table is a sign of strength in a negotiation and can help produce an eventual favorable outcome. As experienced negotiators know, walking away has a powerful affect when it is based on reality: the party that walks away must be in the more powerful position and the other party must have a greater need for the agreement.
Netanyahu attempted to get this message across in his speech. He asked: why are we conceding eventual nuclear power status to the Iranians? The Iranians need the deal more than we do. Drive a harder bargain and walk away – or force them to walk away. In the meantime, ratchet up the sanctions again. Like Gorbachev, the Iranians will be back at the table and, like the Soviet Union, their system will continue to weaken.
A deal with the Iranians will be announced shortly and hailed by the Obama Administration as a breakthrough. Israel and Saudi Arabia will wring their hands and the Republicans will stew. One party will be clearly rejoicing – the Iranians. There will be celebrations in Tehran – the sanctions will be lifted, the Iranian economy will strengthen and the nuclear program can continue, with some limitations. Will the world be safer?