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Learn from the past? Sure, but what about madmen with nukes?

Britain's Neville Chamberlain naively insisted appeasement would guarantee
Britain's Neville Chamberlain naively insisted appeasement would guarantee "peace in our time." It didn't. Will President Trump's more confrontational approach produce a better result? Let's hope so. (AP file photo)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, April 20, 2017 12:01 am

British philosopher George Santayana was on to something when warned in 1905 that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, many of history's most important lessons come into focus only with the help of time and often-painful experience.

It would be wonderful if the study of the past could tell us whether President Donald Trump's decision to back up his tough talk against North Korea with several aircraft carrier battle groups and the escalated use of force in Afghanistan and Syria has made wider warfare more or less likely. Unfortunately, history is not always so willing to give up its secrets.

Just as some fear Trump's use of America's largest non-nuclear bomb against ISIS and cruise missiles in retaliation for a Syrian gas attack against civilians, others insist the appeasement policies of previous administrations only strengthened and emboldened the very regimes threatening us now. Did they learn nothing from Neville Chamberlain?

The former British prime minister is appeasement's historical poster boy, famously waving an agreement that surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 while proclaiming "peace in our time" to cheering crowds too clueless to realize war with the Nazis was nearly inevitable and would come just a year later. At least French leader Edouard Daladier, who had also betrayed Czechoslovakia in Munich, was astute enough to say this when he was greeted by similarly ecstatic anti-war crowds after the Munich agreement: "The fools."

It took six years of war, and millions of lives, to prove him right.

So should the United States and the world have acted sooner to prevent rogue states such as North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the missiles needed to deliver them? Isn't that Chamberlain's legacy?

President George W. Bush may have had that very lesson in mind when he ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2001. Saddam Hussein had already used chemical weapons on his own people, and Bush and many other world leaders were convinced he still had weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found, however, and much of the instability in the Middle East and the growth of ISIS can be traced to that invasion and the too-hasty withdrawal during the Obama years.

 History warns that not only are pre-emptive wars inconsistent with the American tradition, they also can create as many problems as they solve. Just as it warns that tyrants, if not challenged when they are relatively weak, will challenge you once they have grown stronger and bolder.

Which lesson — if either — should Trump heed?

Previous administrations' failure to deal with the threats are irrelevant. Conversely, Trump's stated lack of trust in the  intelligence community (which was apparently very wrong about Iraq's WMDs), makes a pre-emptive strike in Korea less likely. The best response in Korea and in Syria, where the Russians and Iranians are never far away, is to project strength and build the capacity to respond if needed. Such an approach largely kept the peace during the Cold War and, so far, Trump seems to be walking that fine line even as he tries to persuade China to convince its North Korean allies to behave.

Unfortunately, ISIS and Korea's leaders are not so rational as Nikita Khrushchev, who had the  good sense to pull Soviet missiles out of Cuba rather than risk nuclear war with the U.S. How should a president respond when a lunatic has the bomb and threatens to use it? Is it more moral to let millions die than it is to strike first?

The past is no help at all, because the choice is a new one. More such choices almost certainly will follow, however, which is why it is so important to get it right the first time. The world's seemingly shrinking pool of sane adults needs to figure this out before the historians do.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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