Campaign 2008: Jaw, Jaw, War, War

Winston Churchill, master of eloquent bellicosity, is also remembered for saying that “‘jaw, jaw’ is better than ‘war, war.'” As a general matter, who could disagree? If conflicts can be settled by the arts of politics and diplomacy, they should be. But are there situations when “jaw, jaw” makes things more dangerous than the plausible threat of “war, war”? Can the soft power of “jaw, jaw” change minds bent on wickedness, absent the mind-concentrating possibility of the use of hard power?

The classic cautionary tale here involves Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s “jaw, jaw” with Hitler at the 1938 Munich conference wrote a death sentence for independent Czechoslovakia; when Chamberlain returned to London to proclaim “peace with honor” to the cheering throng, Sir Orme Sargent, a senior Foreign Office official, observed acidly, “You might think that we had won a major victory instead of betraying a minor country.” That betrayal — which was rooted in Chamberlain’s vain conviction that he could talk Hitler into reason and moderation — helped unleash the dogs of war, on very unfavorable terms for the defenders of civilization.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev summit of 1961 was another example of “jaw, jaw” making things worse. By Kennedy’s own (off-the-record) testimony, the Soviet dictator ran roughshod over him. Coming shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, the Vienna summit left Kennedy worried that Khrushchev judged him a weakling — a premonition that proved warranted a year later when the Soviet Union began installing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba, dramatically escalating the Cold War. The net result of a failed “jaw, jaw” between JFK and “Mr. K”? The Cuban Missile Crisis, and a world teetering on the brink of “one minute to midnight” (as Michael Dobbs’ new book on the drama of October 1962 puts it).

“Jaw, jaw” was unavailing in the 1990s as Yugoslavia came apart at the seams; “jaw, jaw” has arguably made matters worse with North Korea (now a nuclear power), Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Burma. On the other hand, “jaw, jaw” prevented a bloody little war between Argentina and Chile in the late 1970s; “jaw, jaw” broke the political-military logjam between Egypt and Israel and led to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty; and “jaw, jaw” may just have taken hold in the embryonic political institutions of Iraq, making something approaching responsible and responsive government possible there.

In the presidential campaign, the question of whether “jaw, jaw” is always better than “war, war” will likely focus on Iran. For six years, the world has known about Iran’s secret nuclear programs. American and European diplomacy has failed to get Iran to come clean on what it’s really up to. The U.N. has proven less-than-useless; the organization’s chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed El Baradei, is usually dismissive of western security concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Last December’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which claimed that Iran had stopped pursuing the weaponization of nuclear technology shortly after Saddam Hussein fell, is of cold comfort when you realize that building the bomb itself is relatively easy; what the Iranians have been concentrating on in recent years is the hard part — creating sufficient quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Israel a “stinking corpse” and pledges to wipe it off the map; he’s made similar threats against the U.S. and Great Britain. Ahmadinejad’s political fevers, and those of the mullahs who hold ultimate authority in Iran, involve apocalyptic speculations: as they understand Shi’a eschatology, vaporizing Jerusalem will hasten the messianic age. Is Ahmadinejad a man to whom one can talk reason? Are the mullahs?

If the Iranian nuclear program is not halted, the next president of the United States will almost certainly face the prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran that can wreak havoc in the Middle East, transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists, or, in its more subtle moments, conduct nuclear blackmail. How is “jaw, jaw” to prevent this, if Iran’s leaders imagine the West to be feckless?

That is a question of the gravest moral and strategic import. It must be discussed seriously in the weeks ahead.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • goral

    In today’s scripture readings we are reminded of evil present in the world and, to some degree, in all of us. How we deal with this reality is the result of our perception. The spirit discerns reality and course of action.
    The evil spirit that was in the man recognized danger in the presence of Christ.
    The knowledge of things in fallen spirits as in fallen man is skewed and wholly inperfect.
    Only the the will and proclivity to act according to God’s will results in just and proper action.

    The West is feckless, it was feckless at the time of Churchill. The statement by Sir Orme Sargent, “You might think that we had won a major victory instead of betraying a minor country.” spoke volumes of the West’s arrogance and short sightedness.
    I’m afraid the West since then has rose to a next level of that attitude and is finding itself incapable of rightly judging the difference between perceived and real danger. Economic and material superiority don’t provide all the tools to do that.
    Let’s pray that at the very least a spiritually guided individual will make the right decision because there are still so many of these individuals living among us.

  • DMilavickas

    “Jaw, Jaw” only works if the threat of busting someones is present! 😉

    With that in mind, Reagan’s practice of speaking to the Russians, but building up our military hastened the end of the Cold War. Teddy Roosevelt said it best in “Walk softly, but carry a big stick.” We can speak kindly, charitably, and patiently, but when the time comes to kick butt, we need to do it! I don’t believe I’m out of line when stating that Jesus had tons of patience, but when it came time to take on the the Pharisees and Sadduccees, He had no problem opening up a can of you know what on them!

  • tomdundee

    I am unsure of the intent of goral posting.

    The desire for a spiritually guided individual to make a decision on war or no war is somehere between ambiguous and dangerous.

    The mahidi, divinely guided one, (aka 13th imam or missing imam) is the one the Mad Mollos & Mamhoud are waiting to lead them to victory against the the West/Infidel.

    The belief says that the Mahdi will return during a time of chaos & war, and lead Islam in the final battle to make Islam dominant in the world, at which point anything & everything that is not Islamic will be destroyed.

    Rational thought does not apply here. Death or martyrdom is a promotion for these wackos. Hitler & the Soviets were rational people, evil but rational. They wanted to live. But Islamites win by dying.

    Remember whatever happens to Israel will happen to all infidels in due time.
    This is a war we must win to survive as a nation & a culture. It only takes one side to fight a war. One side does the all the killing & the other side does all the dying.

    Peace is desirable, but not fighting back does not mean there is no war nor does it mean peace. These people must realize that we will preserve our way of life, even if it means that we will destroy their country.

  • theshahids

    I am reminded of a quote from John Stuart Mills, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing that is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”