I’ve mentioned before that the contrasting stories of Churchill and Chamberlain in the lead up to the Second World War have become the founding myth of neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservative foreign policy is based on the counterfactual presumption that if Churchill had been prime minister, Hitler’s rise would have been thwarted. The appeasement of Hitler by Chamberlain thus caused Hitler’s rise in the neoconservative view.
However this myth took root, it is now the framework which neoconservatives use to understand every foreign policy issue: Every threat to America thus becomes Hitler’s Germany, no matter how marginal – from Kim Jong Il’s North Korea to Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Chavez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia. There are two possible responses to the rise of these existential threats: appeasement or confrontation. The right thing to do is to project confidence and bellicosity to deter the next Hitler from rising. Every sign of restraint is debasing appeasement; every Democrat then who advises restraint, who seeks to put these threats in perspective thus is portrayed as Chamberlain – from Carter to Clinton to Kerry to Obama. Every leader of this war, of our warrior nation, is compared to Churchill for his resolve and rhetoric. This neoconservative root myth thus leads to a policy of constant belligerence against every possible foe as a homage to a man who was belligerent for a lifetime and memorably right once.*
In a sense it seems, neoconservatives looked with hope to Obama Tuesday night (see especially these responses by Kagan, Kristol, and Gerson), as he promised to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan as they hoped. They hoped he could be their Churchill. Many on the right wing though not all, having been trained to focus most of all on symbology and rhetoric over substance, believed Obama had failed to meet their Churchillian expectations, and so took the comfortable position of assailing him.
Anyone who doubts this story of Churchill’s intransigence is at the core of neoconservative foreign policy can find evidence looking at the right wing responses to Tuesday night’s address:
The National Review‘s lead editorial:
Churchillian it was not.
Is Gen. McChrystal in Kabul regretting that Obama didn’t strike a more Churchillian tone…?
In the first part of his speech he sounded like Winston Churchill.
In the second part of his speech, he sounded like Lady Churchill.
Stanley Baldwin, not Winston Churchill.
Charles Krauthammer on Fox News:
Not exactly the kind of speech you’d hear from Henry V or Churchill.
Hmm. What to say about Obama’s speech… Well, he sure as hell ain’t Winston Churchill.
* I quite admire Churchill – and he was also prescient about the specter of Communism and had a remarkable view of history, as if from a distance. But the single opinion of his that created his out-sized reputation was his steady belligerence against Germany during its rise.
[Image of Winston Churchill not subject to copyright.]