Zakaria says it all:
To review a bit of history: in 1938, Adolf Hitler launched what became a world war not merely because he was evil but because he was in complete control of the strongest country on the planet. At the time, Germany had the world’s second largest industrial base and its mightiest army. (The American economy was bigger, but in 1938 its army was smaller than that of Finland.) This is not remotely comparable with the situation today.
Iran does not even rank among the top 20 economies in the world. The Pentagon’s budget this year is more than double Iran’s total gross domestic product ($181 billion, in official exchange-rate terms). America’s annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran’s. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are real and dangerous, but its program is not nearly as advanced as is often implied. Most serious estimates suggest that Iran would need between five and 10 years to achieve even a modest, North Korea-type, nuclear capacity.
Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA’s wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives’ more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA’s lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians—most prominently the Cox Commission—doubled the estimates of China’s military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein’s capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons—and because he was a madman, he would use them.
And it’s really here that the “appeasement” trope really falls apart. To invoke 1938 does not simply argue “there’s an enemy and he’s getting stronger”, although it’s important to note that the analogy fails even on that level when applied to Iraq. Invoking 1938 suggests a conflict of world historical significance that threatens to destroy international order. This may not be the intent of the author, but it is the inevitable consequence of employing the analogy. If you don’t mean to suggest that Iran/Iraq/North Vietnam/Libya/Venezuela/North Korea is a threat to humanity on the same par as Nazi Germany, then use a more appropriate analogy. For example, when I describe DJW, I don’t say “he’s like Hitler” in reference to their similar dietary habits, because such a comparison invariably invokes a set of other associations that are inappropriate.
Indeed, conservative descriptions of Ronald Reagan as an appeaser in the 1980s are, while absurd, a good deal more plausible than the uses of 1938 by our current crop of hawks. The Soviet Union was a genuinely powerful state, and a potential threat to the international system if you squinted properly and ignored most of the evidence. Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are military midgets in their own neighborhoods; comparing them to Nazi Germany serves only to obscure the issue, rather than to shed light.
…also, read PTJ on why “appeasement” isn’t even logically possible in reference to Islamic terrorism.