Appeasement” became a dirty word only after the 1930s. Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University, has long been interested in resurrecting its honorable side, and he takes another crack at the task in the latest issue of the National Interest.

Is he right that there is a time and place for “recognizing evil but then trying to buy it off”? Countries, he argues, might have good reason to do so “out of a sense of vulnerability, or for the purposes of prudence.” For Kennedy, the perplexing question posed by history is: “can one distinguish between a ‘good’ appeasement policy and a ‘bad’ one?” 

Neville Chamberlain’s conduct of British diplomacy has defined the bad side for all time. Kennedy offers a fascinating catalog of counterexamples, as when England made concessions regarding the contested Venezuela-British border in 1895, putting an end to a persistent and dangerous collision with the United States.

America’s current dilemma in Afghanistan is now a test case and the occasion for Kennedy’s essay, bluntly titled “A Time to Appease.” 

He asks, “What if one did pull out, scuttle, appease” in Afghanistan?

we would not be the first to leave those wretched mountains and their defiant tribes to their own devices; indeed, we would simply join that long list of former occupation armies which eventually thought the better of it and made for the exit. And if there is anyone in Washington who feels that our troops should stay forever, surging here and surging there, because it is emotionally too upsetting to think of pulling back, then that person should be voted out of office; high emotions and proper realpolitik rarely go well together. As three-time British Prime Minister and four-time Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury once observed, nothing is more fatal to a wise strategy than clinging to the carcasses of dead policies. Yet few administrations have the resolve to let go; and frankly, in the case of Afghanistan, a mushy compromise—half-concealed withdrawal—might be the least-worst way to go, at least for now.

As American and NATO casualties rise and as public support for the war declines—and victory in the conflict becomes difficult to define—Kennedy’s case is seductive. But what’s notably missing—shockingly missing—from his article is any appraisal of causes and consequences. The attacks of September 11, 2001, organized from al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan, are not once mentioned by Kennedy. Neither are the ramifications of withdrawal for the future of neighboring Pakistan and its arsenal of nuclear weapons.  Shouldn’t such things be weighed in the balance?

Kennedy is certainly right that there can be a time and place for appeasement. But as we learned in the 1930s, when it is carried out not with cold-blooded realism, but by averting our eyes from obvious dangers in the unshakable conviction that one can purchase a durable peace, is when it becomes shameful.