Hawks and doves alike are fond of boiling foreign policy down to mindless historical tropes. But there is probably no historical trope as mindless as the fascination of war hawks with Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement failed to stop Hitler from launching a war. And yes, though Hitler was a uniquely evil figure, it may be possible to generalize this lesson to at least some other cases. But we have reached a new nadir when one of those cases is President Obama’s decision to shake hands with Raúl Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Yet here is John McCain, respected foreign-policy voice and recipient of 60 million votes for president, rambling bizarrely that he would not have shaken Castro’s hand because “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”
Well, okay, yes he did. And yes, Castro and Hitler are both dictators. Here are a few differences:
1. Cuba poses just a wee bit less of a military threat to its neighbors than Nazi Germany did in 1938.
2. The problem with Chamberlain’s negotiating strategy was not that he shook Hitler’s hand.
3. Castro is not promising that, in return for a handshake, he will refrain from invading our allies.
Apparently the lessons McCain has drawn from the failure of the Munich Accords was not that offering territorial concessions to insanely aggressive totalitarian dictators in return for unenforceable promises is a questionable strategy, but that offering concessions of any kind, or even a public pleasantry, to any dictator is always a betrayal. But, then, if a year from now, Raúl Castro sits atop a vast empire of conquest, with Cuban troops burning and pillaging American cities, I will concede that McCain saw it coming.