According to Ted Cruz, Barack Obama is having a “Munich moment.”
In a radio interview in March, the Republican senator and presidential hopeful claimed to hear “echoes of history” in the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran. He explained that “we are at a moment like Munich in 1938” when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s troops in the hopes of averting war. (Needless to say, it didn’t go as planned).
No analogy is more beloved in our political life. Secretary of State John Kerry evoked it when he pushed for intervention in Syria in 2013; Fox News pundit Michael Goodwin wrote on the network’s website in March 2014 that “the real Munich moment of our times is taking place in Ukraine”; and uber hawk and conservative columnist William Kristol evoked Munich (and the actors and events relating to it) 61 times between 1997 and April of this year, in reference to everything from trade with China to the Charlie Hebdo murders, according to New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait. One of Kristol’s favorite lines is the rebuke Winston Churchill delivered to Chamberlain: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
The fixation on Munich has nothing to do with precise parallels. Iran in 2015 and Germany in 1938 have very few similarities. The analogy’s power is grounded in the idea that Chamberlain’s weakness and “dishonor” fueled Hitler’s ambitions, leading to war. The analogy sets up a false choice — war or dishonor — that is brilliantly exploited by hawks. It led us into the disastrous war in Iraq. If Cruz and his like have their way, it will take us to war with Iran.
If Munich in 1938 is a poor a guide to foreign policy, though, the “echoes of history” that Cruz heard are real enough.
Weak politicians are leading us to the brink of a global disaster. And a global leader of Churchillian proportions has just called them out. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, scheduled for late this fall, presents them with the choice between dishonor and tragedy. They will likely choose dishonor. This is their Munich moment.
Like a wrecking ball
Our Churchill of the moment, Pope Francis, addressed the moral implications of climate change in an encyclical released in mid-June. In it, he wrote that the planet “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” because of our “throwaway culture,” and that “we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that the problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”
The current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, Jeb Bush, who identifies as a Catholic, wasn’t ready to go there. He responded to a question about the encyclical with a shrug. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said, adding that religion shouldn’t be about things that “end up getting into the political realm.”
That kind of evasion is routine among conservative politicians, of course, and Bush isn’t the worst of the GOP presidential hopefuls on climate change. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has a strong claim to that title. Long supported by the Kochs — the billionaire brothers who have been a major funding force behind climate-change denial — Walker has pledged his opposition to any climate-change legislation that increases government revenue, such as a carbon tax, and he has been a fierce opponent of carbon-reduction targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s not that the Democrats are profiles in courage, either. The issue remains a stunningly, shamefully low priority for the party, given the stakes and the consensus about the scale of what we face. And far too many Democrats have a mixed record — at best — on the environment. Hillary Clinton, for example, has supported fracking.
But among Democrats, climate change is at least on the agenda, and no major figure within the party denies humanity’s contribution to it. It is an irony of cosmic proportions that our party of “values voters” — the “culture of life” party — proudly stands in the way of any meaningful action.
Since the Reagan era, the GOP has thrived by holding together an alliance of business interests and social conservatives. The religious Right has been driven primarily by opposition to reproductive and gay rights, and by what they view as growing cultural rot. Business interests have been driven primarily by free-market ideology.
This division between economics and morals is no longer sustainable — and never was. The great value of the pope’s encyclical is its insistence that our choices about how we create and distribute wealth are also, always, deeply moral choices. “The idea of infinite or unlimited growth,” he wrote, “is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry at every limit.” We’re lying to ourselves, that is, when we push the earth to the brink this way.
In the wake of the encyclical, many conservative pundits have pointed out that it isn’t about climate change per se. It’s about the sustainability of life more broadly. Fair enough. But while that move scores a point in the abortion debate, it also raises a dilemma for Republicans: What exactly does the conservative movement aim to conserve — and how does its free-market ideology advance the “culture of life?”
The day after the pope’s encyclical was officially published, a team of scientists released a paper assessing humanity’s impact on the planet. It reported that the “sixth great extinction,” in which much of the planet’s biological diversity will vanish, is well underway, and that species are dying at about 100 times the normal rate between mass extinctions. “We are now living through one of those brief, rare episodes in Earth history when the biological framework of life is dismantled,” as the Guardian dryly put it, reporting the results.
Unrestrained capitalism isn’t the only culprit, but still: The incessant drive for endless, ever-greater profits is a planetary wrecking ball. Religious values are its final, or maybe its first, victim. In his awkward effort to separate economic policy from religious values, Jeb Bush implicitly nodded to this irreconcilable tension.
Moment of truth
It is virtually impossible to have discussions of this sort — about ultimate values and our relationship to the planet — when one of our political parties is mired in denialism and obstructionism regarding climate change, and both parties are chin deep in corporate donations and influence.
Yet there is also a growing awareness that we must have the discussion. The surging campaign of Bernie Sanders — who almost never talks about religion, but always links economics, environmentalism, and morality — is one sign that we are desperate for it..
This fall, when leaders from around the globe gather at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, politicians in the United States will have a prime opportunity — during a campaign season — to assert leadership on the issue. The goal will be, as it has been for many years, to come to an agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. What we will get from GOP candidates, almost certainly, will be more skepticism, foot-dragging, and evasion.
To paraphrase Kristol, I can’t get out of my mind the pope’s recent admonition to us all: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
What would, indeed? Winston Churchill couldn’t have said it better.
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