Germany is now confronting the question once asked of ’60s peaceniks: “How weird can you take it, brother, before your love will crack?” The kidnapping of aid worker Susanne Osthoff presented Angela Merkel last week with her first test of leadership, and presented the logic of appeasement with its most recent pungent challenge.
The logic of appeasement is straightforward. Trading present peace on the risk of future war guarantees an absence of violence up until there is nothing left to trade — a point which has the virtue, for those looking to minimize the chance of war, of only possibly arriving. Usually when it does, it comes in the form of a conflict orders of magnitude worse than what it would have been had the postponers shortcutted straight to battle on their side’s own terms. But for the real pacifist appeaser, whose ideology is consistent and principled enough to be treated seriously, scale of bloodshed isn’t quite the point.
Conscientious objectors have always asked the general version of whether, in order to redeem Iraq from decades of murder at Saddam’s hands, we have to kill large numbers of Iraqis ourselves. Others, however, are more comfortable with the paradoxes and ambiguities of guilt and innocence. The gory calculus of the revolutionary has been worked out across continents and centuries: “many may die today, but many more, tomorrow, will live in freedom” — be it freedom from slavery, freedom from capitalist oppression, or freedom from tyranny. (Admitting the parallel logic is no moral relativism. Quite the contrary. There are better and worse freedoms, more natural and less natural orders to be freed from.)
Still, the revolutionary calculus can support a moral philosophy of martyrdom regardless of the cause for which it’s deployed — with just a bunny hop between the absolute rightness of martyring myself for Justice and martyring you. Or of martyring them for Justice — the “them” who “we” are fighting for, and who could at least pull the weight of their numbers by enduring some casualties, too.
ANYONE WHO SUPPORTS a particular war has to support it on its own terms. The simplest way out of that exercise, which requires discipline and hard work, is pacifism — and despite its impracticality, the guilt trip underlying pacifism is neat, coherent, and honest. As such, it’s to be taken more seriously than those weak manipulations of success and failure that too often pass as policymaking and trade on guilt for political gain. Pacifism manages to be good as well as weak: a culture of Christian nations, for example, could prefer to submit to the sword than join in the bloodshed. So could a culture of post-Christian nations — and so it has.
At the head of the line is Germany. Whereas France has a fine history of regional military adventures, Germany’s unwillingness to fight in Iraq reflects a deeper, truer distaste for battle borne of the unique German experience in the 20th century and shared by vast numbers of Europeans. The Iraq war, like all war, remains fantastically unpopular even in nominally allied states like Italy. Arm-twisting European governments into joining a war their people despised was one of the ironic necessities of the runup to war. The absurd mania for a coalition that “looked like the international community” drove the U.S. to recruit whichever teammates it could. Left masked was the extent to which France and Russia stomped UN legitimacy out of sheer great-power politics — exercising their Big Five right to veto because they didn’t want to see Iraq coerced at all. The hopeful days of “enforced inspections” talk were ground to a halt by great-power cynicism and obstinacy, and America’s bluff was called.
We learned then the hard lesson of putting faith in democratic decision-making. If Spain wanted to leave Iraq because the war was brought to them, Spain could. That’s freedom. Spain ought to be pleased with the peace it’s won. Appeasement, the sovereign right, seems to have worked.
NOT SO FAST. Another key to appeasement is the idea that one is dealing with essentially rational adversaries. Key to interacting nonviolently with Al Qaeda is the idea that when you do what they want, they will be glad enough to not do what it is you do not want them to do. This is the way civilized people behave themselves. But even civilized people sometimes cheat, and badly. It isn’t only in the movies that people smile and say, “I lied.”
In that spirit, even peace-paragon Germany has worked a violence upon the Islamists, by not opposing the elected government of Iraq. “The pictures of Susanne Osthoff were taken from a video in which her captors demanded that Germany stop any dealings with Iraq’s government,” the AP notes.
Aha. Appeasement is a hard dollar, a track and field event where the hurdles keep rising and the baton gets heavier with every stride. What’s next? How long until affirmative support for Al Qaeda in Iraq — speeches, protests, and fundraisers — is the extorted condition for peace? Angela Merkel has distinguished herself early by showing an unwillingness to find out:
We are not open to blackmail. [Applause.] We cannot relent in the fight against international terrorism. It targets that which is important to us and forms the core of our civilization. It targets our entire value system. It targets freedom, tolerance and respect for human dignity, democracy and the rule of law. If we were to surrender these values we would surrender ourselves.
If words like these are cheered in the Bundestag, there is yet hope for Western civilization.
THE ALTERNATIVE: the kidnappees from the Christian Peacemaker Teams. They’ve already made their peace — a peace of appeasement to its bitter finale. For the crime of “documenting and focusing public attention on detainee abuses, connecting citizens of Iraq to local and international human rights organizations, and accompanying Iraqi civilians as they interact with multinational military personnel and Iraq’s government officials,” their members have been “taken hostage.” (Hostage in exchange for what one can only venture a guess.) But Christian Peacemaker Teams isn’t asking. The organization “does not advocate the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a conflict situation.”
It’s a noble strategy for resisting complicity in the sins of humankind, but a sad one, too, and on a nationwide level it tends to breed the sort of deflated inevitability that, drained of its God component, looks suspiciously like the existential exhaustion of Vichy France. When peace is worshipped for its own sake, the world’s aggressors soon demonstrate how easy it is to enforce a peace that’s no good at all. Stripped of joy, devoid of freedom, subject to ever-so-periodic applications of (now-) institutionalized terror, oppressor regimes create order, call it peace, and wage perpetual war on their own. When one really boils it down, Iraq forces the question: whose freedom will you fight for? An answer of Everyone’s might be folly, but so too is an answer of Not even my own. That Merkel’s Germany understands this is a victory, all too crucial, all by itself.
James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.