As President Barack Obama addresses four of the gravest U.S. foreign-policy challenges in recent memory--building Israeli-Palestinian peace, deterring Iran, and escalating the Afghanistan war as he attempts to close the one in Iraq--many pundits are looking to Winston Churchill. The British prime minister's tenure during the Second World War is often cited as a model of foreign policy leadership. (Ironically, Churchill was directly involved in a military campaign in one of the international conflicts that Obama most carefully avoids: Sudan.) But how do the lessons of Churchill's era apply to the foreign-policy problems facing the U.S. today? Do they apply at all?
- Churchill Would Want War With Iran, No Health Care Reform The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol cites Churchill's 1936 warning, "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." Kristol applies this to the Iranian nuclear program, writing that "U.S. military action to stop the program [is] preferable to a nuclear Iran, and [I] urge the Obama administration to keep open (and plan for) the possibility of such action." Kristol goes on to use Churchill to argue against the economic stimulus, health care reform, and "political correctness" in universities.
- Churchill's Awful Colonial Legacy Should Provide Warnings The New York Times' Johann Hari writes, "Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain that was coloring the map imperial pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood-red. He was told a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilization. As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in 'a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.' In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of 'the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,' just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a 'strong aboriginal propensity to kill.' He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys." He also called for Gandhi to be trampled to death by an elephant and "refused to offer any aid for months while hundreds of thousands died" from famine in British-controlled Bengal.
- Conservatives Abuse Churchill for 'Warmongering' The Center for American Progress' Matt Duss writes, "Whenever conservative pundits start mooning over Winston Churchill, which is often, it's a good bet that they're getting ready to insist that America must 'get serious' about something or other, 'getting serious' usually translating as 'blow something up.'" Duss wrote earlier, "For conservative national security policy to function properly, it must always be 1938, the storm must always be gathering. There must always be new Hitlers to confront." He laments the conservative tendency to use Churchill as a "neocon dashboard saint" "for crazy warmongers trying to dress up their crazy warmongering as civilization's last stand against tyranny."
- Netanyahu Is Like Churchill, Obama Isn't The Washington Post's George Will writes, "Two photographs adorn the office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Together they illuminate a portentous fact: No two leaders of democracies are less alike -- in life experiences, temperaments and political philosophies -- than Netanyahu, the former commando and fierce nationalist, and Barack Obama, the former professor and post-nationalist." One of those is of Churchill. "Netanyahu, his focus firmly on Iran, honors Churchill because he did not flinch from facts about gathering storms. Obama returned to the British Embassy in Washington the bust of Churchill that was in the Oval Office when he got there." Will implies that Netanyahu is to Iran as Churchill was to Nazi Germany.
- How Bush Was and Wasn't Like Churchill Salon's Glenn Greenwald writes, "George Bush kept a large bust of Churchill in the Oval Office because -- like so many right-wing, super-hawk, pseudo-tough guys -- Bush fetishized Churchill for the warrior courage which Bush craved vicariously to possess but obviously lacked in himself and his own life. In stark contrast, Barack Obama sent the bust back to Britain because 'his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill's watch, for resisting Churchill's empire.' ... It's not a coincidence that Churchill is one of the most revered figures on the American Right. Note, too, the glaring irony that Obama's grandfather was 'imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill's watch, for resisting Churchill's empire.'" However, Churchill "also insisted upon candid and open debate over war."
- Churchill's 'True Legacy' The New Yorker's Adam Gopnick skips the metaphors and historically examines how Churchill really waged war. As Matt Duss points out, this includes Churchill's statement that "appeasement has its place in all policy"--for example, Duss suggests, towards Iran today. Gopnick writes of the "greatest instance in modern times of the romantic-conservative temperament in power":
Both Roosevelt and Churchill were convinced that sea power was decisive, even though, as Hitler had grasped, the combustion engine had made the old calculations moot. Churchill invested far too much emotion and money in special forces. And yet his fancies were not entirely foolish. He stubbornly supported the development of Hobart's Funnies, weird military contraptions. These included swimming tanks that would float on inflatable canvas water wings as they were unleashed from the landing craft, and then make their way ashore. (Other specialized tanks were equipped with flails for mine clearing.) Some Americans dismissed this as another piece of pointless Churchillian cleverness. Yet the tanks' presence helped explain why the British and Canadian advances on the morning of D Day went more smoothly than that of the Americans.
... What is Churchill's true legacy? Surely not that one should stand foursquare on all occasions and at all moments against something called appeasement. "The word 'appeasement' is not popular, but appeasement has its place in all policy," he said in 1950. "Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak, defy the strong." He argued that "appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace." And he remarked on the painful irony: "When nations or individuals get strong they are often truculent and bullying, but when they are weak they become better-mannered. But this is the reverse of what is healthy and wise." Churchill's simplest aphorism, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," was the essence of his position, as it was of any sane statesman raised in nineteenth-century balance-of-power politics. In the long history of the British Empire, there were endless people to make deals with and endless deals to be made, often with yesterday's terrorist or last week's enemy.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.