It was March of 1939, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was shocked that a man he trusted had gone back on his word. Chamberlain, German dictator Adolf Hitler and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier had met in Munich the previous September. There the British and French leaders assented to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in exchange for Hitler's promise his territorial ambitions would be satisfied with the acquisition of the Sudetenland.
Chamberlain had told his Cabinet Hitler "would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation." But now Hitler had marched his troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain was as mistaken about Hitler's opinion of him as he was of Hitler's geopolitical intentions. "Our enemies are little worms," the German dictator told his aides. "I saw them at Munich."
Turning points in history usually are hard to detect when they are occurring. Most Americans were too absorbed with the Olympics and the John Edwards sex scandal to pay much attention to the Russian invasion of Georgia over the weekend.
"Historians will come to view August 8, 2008 as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell," wrote the military historian Robert Kagan in the Washington Post Monday.
Russia (pop 140.7 million) has immediate, intermediate and long term goals for invading its democratic neighbor (pop 4.6 million), all invidious to our interests.
The immediate goal is to prop up high oil prices, without which Russia's faltering economy might implode. A major oil pipeline (featured in a 1999 James Bond film) runs from the oilfields around the Caspian sea through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. A major interruption of supplies (about one percent of the world's oil flows through the BTC pipeline) could reverse the recent decline in oil prices. Russia tried to bomb the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and an adjacent natural gas pipeline, but missed.
The intermediate goal is to force from office Georgia's democratically elected, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and replace him with a Soviet stooge. This would put the kibosh on the efforts of Georgia and other former Soviet republics to join NATO.
The long term goal of Russian strong man Vladimir Putin, who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century," is to force Georgia and the other former Soviet satellites back into the Russian orbit, and thus to give Russia powerful leverage over the economies of Western Europe. The BTC oil pipeline and the BTE natural gas pipeline are the only pipelines to Western Europe not under Russian control.
Whether Mr. Putin achieves these goals depends, in large part, on the extent to which Western leaders imitate Chamberlain and Daladier.
History never repeats itself exactly, but there are frequent echoes, because greed, stupidity, and cowardice are universal human traits, and our capacity for self delusion seems infinite.
Mr. Putin is using the same excuse for invading Georgia (protecting Russian ethnic minorities) that Hitler used for invading Czechoslovakia and Poland (protecting German minorities). French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has flown to Moscow to head peace negotiations, seems as eager to accept that excuse as Daladier was in 1938.
When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, President Bush remained in Beijing, swatting the fannies of U.S. Olympic volleyball players, perhaps because, like Neville Chamberlain, he trusted too much in the word of a dictator.
When he met Vladimir Putin in 2001, President Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." But in his press statement Monday, Mr. Bush said Moscow's attacks are "inconsistent with assurances we have received from Russia that its objectives were limited to restoring the status quo in South Ossetia that existed before the fighting began on August the 6th."
"Mr. President, did you hold off speaking out and acting because of these assurances?" asked Gordon Chang on Commentary magazine's blog. "Your reliance on Russian promises would explain your inadequate response to a clear act of aggression."
When John McCain looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes, he saw "a K, a G, and a B." He is our Winston Churchill. We will need him soon.