Why Is Powell Channeling Chamberlain?

There are few more politically charged historical analogies than to compare someone's behavior to that of Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.

Viewed with hindsight, the British prime minister's efforts there to avoid a new, global conflagration by "appeasement" of Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler has come to epitomize naivete and cravenness in the face of international blackmail backed by incipient, if not actual, violence.

For that reason, I proceed advisedly to compare Colin Powell's current foray to the Mideast to the diplomacy Chamberlain fatuously promised would produce "peace in our time." Yet, certain ominous parallels are unmistakable:

— Powell, the first black secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security advisor to the president, enjoys tremendous personal popularity. It is hard to remember that Chamberlain did too — that is until the British people witnessed the foolish futility of his effort to sate Hitler's appetite for German "living room" by forcing Czechoslovakia to part with its Sudetenland region.

— Chamberlain's efforts to appease Hitler were not only popular at home, they enjoyed strong support elsewhere as the international community hoped it would ensure that the "War to End All Wars" was not succeeded by a second world war.

How reminiscent of the endorsement Secretary Powell received yesterday in Madrid, Spain, from European Union, Russian, U.N., and other officials anxious to see him end the Israeli operations in Palestinian-controlled areas and force the Jewish state to make other concessions in the name of "peace."

— Like Israel today, pre-war Czechoslovakia was a powerful, freedom-loving ally in a dangerous region — an asset to Britain and France, the great democratic powers of their day. With the Sudetenland, it was capable of defending itself, and its military and arms industry were actually far more formidable than Hitler's in 1938.

Like Czechoslovakia then, Israel bereft of the strategic depth of the West Bank and confronted by enemies still determined to destroy it could find itself in mortal peril, notwithstanding its relative superiority in military capabilities.

— Finally, in 1938, Neville Chamberlain viewed Hitler's demand to permit self-determination for the Sudetenland's ethnic Germans (read, Nazi annexation of the region), and Czech opposition to such a step, as morally equivalent. If anything, since the Czech position was inconvenient to a Britain bent on avoiding war with Germany at all costs, Britain viewed its ally's stance as inferior to Hitler's.

Today, despite Bush administration rhetoric to the effect that the world is divided between those who support terror and those who oppose it, Secretary Powell's whole approach to the "cycle of violence" between Palestinians and Israelis reeks of moral equivalence — if not outright contempt for Israeli efforts to defeat terror spawned, enabled and applauded by Yasser Arafat and his friends.

And, as in 1938, the great democratic power is signaling to friends and foes alike that it will abandon its allies in the hope of currying favor with its enemies when what has come to be known as a "peace process" so requires.

Of course, there is one obvious difference between Neville Chamberlain and Colin Powell. Chamberlain was the leader of his country in 1938. Secretary Powell works for President Bush, a man whose moral clarity about the war on terror and the legitimacy — indeed the common purpose — of all nations who collaborate in fighting it is far more reminiscent of Munich's harshest critic, Winston Churchill, than the man Churchill succeeded as prime minister.

To be sure, President Bush has, from time to time, mouthed the sort of rhetoric favored by State Department bureaucrats — full of often incomprehensible incantations about process (for example, "the Tenet plan," "the Mitchell plan," "Camp David," "Oslo," etc.). He has sent Mr. Powell on his present mission and he has personally called on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from Palestinian cities immediately.

Mr. Bush nonetheless remains the best hope that America will pursue a wise, just and successful course at a moment when the world is once again confronted by the global menace of an evil that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has correctly called a "culture of death" reminiscent of that of Nazi totalitarianism.

The question is: Will he be remembered as a man who understood and rose fully to the challenge of his time, like Churchill? Or will he allow his period in office to become vilified as Chamberlain's has properly been by history, as yet another example of well-meaning but morally deficient and strategically inept diplomacy that endangered an ally, his nation's vital interests and, ultimately, world peace?

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.