Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Historical analogies and the people who analogize them

Jeffrey Record of the Air War College has given a lot of attention to the use of historical analogies in US foreign policy making in his books Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo (2002) and The Specter of Munich: Reconsidering the Lessons of Appeasing Hitler (2007). Much of the latter book can be found online in Record's paper, Appeasement Reconsidered: Investigating the Mythology of the 1930s (US Army Strategic Studies Institute) August 2005, which I've discussed separately.

Gary Kamiya takes a look at the Cheney-Bush administration's fondness for flaky Second World War analogies in
Last refuge of the scoundrel Salon 05/01/07:
Throughout the Bush presidency, there has been one infallible rule: If someone starts talking about World War II, watch your wallet. Ever since Bush invaded Iraq, his supporters have been desperately trying to convince the American people that Iraq is the WWII of our time. They constantly invoke the Blitz, the invasion of Poland, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the fall of France, Pearl Harbor and other momentous events from the Last Good War.

Unfortunately for the GOP, Bush's own words have rendered the Churchill comparison absurd. Churchill called for blood, toil, tears and sweat. Bush called for tax breaks for the rich and continued shopping. He didn't raise taxes, or impose a gas tax, or institute a draft, or in any way put the country on a war footing. Asked by "The NewsHour's" Jim Lehrer why he hadn't asked Americans to sacrifice anything for the war, Bush replied, "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night ... And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on." Yes, that certainly has the Churchillian ring to it.
But then Kamiya himself can't resist his own Second World War analogy:
Besides, if there are any legitimate analogies between Iraq and WWII, they aren't ones that Bush wants Americans to think about. Iraq more closely resembles Stalingrad, where a delusional Hitler refused to cut his losses, or the Maginot Line - that heavily armed defensive wall that the Germans simply went around. The Battle of Britain, Iraq ain't.
Well, let's see: Stalingrad was urban warfare, and a lot of the Iraq War has been fought in cities. And the Maginot line, where the Germans "went around" it by attacking in a whole different direction is, well, not at all like anything I can see about the Iraq War.

His Stalingrad point about self-deception on the Leader's part I can see how it might fit, but the war fans will just brush it off by saying, "Oh, look, he's saying Bush is like Hitler!"

As far as the Battle of Britain, I would say the Iraq War could be like that. The US is bombing Iraq relentlessly and they're still fighting and hate us that much more. See, I can't resist making the Second World War analogies myself!

I think there's a difference between "lessons of history" and "analogies of history". The analogies usually wind up being rhetorical flourishes, or attempts to brand one war with the positive glow of another, or something along those lines. Kamiya is on better ground when he contrasts Churchill's famous "blood, sweat, and tears", we're-all-in-this-together style with Bush's we're-all-annoyed-by-watching-this-on-TV style. I though Bush's statement, by the way, was worded to fit with the complaint that the only thing that's wrong in Iraq is that the fabled Liberal Media don't bring us enough of the good news.

And Kamiya is right that Bush's Second World War posturing over the Iraq War is absurd. Cheney and Bush have taken it to extremes, like they have with a lot of things, but this Second World War imagery has been pervasive. To judge from the comparisons that have been made all along, we've fought Hitler over and over against since 1945: Kim Il Sung Hitler (with Joe Stalin Hitler in thebackground),Ho Chi Minh Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic Hitler, Saddam Hussein Hitler. The Iran hawks tell us now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Hitler is a deadly menace to our whole way of life.

Jeffrey Record points out at some length that Hitler Germany presented a combination of great industrial capability and military power and a leader who was both undeterrable and unappeasable. The Western powers couldn't have avoided war in that circumstance. But different policies in the 1930s might have made war far less costly and much shorter. In "Appeasement Reconsidered", he writes:
No post-1945 foreign dictatorship bears genuine comparison to the Nazi dictatorship. The scope of Hitler’s nihilism, ambitions, and military power posed a mortal threat to Western civilization. No other authoritarian or totalitarian regime has managed to employ such a powerful military instrument in such an aggressive manner to fulfill such a horrendous agenda. Stalin had great military power but was cautious and patient; he was a realist and neither lusted for war nor discounted the strength and will of the Soviet Union’s enemies. Mao Zedong was reckless but militarily weak. Ho Chi Minh’s ambitions and fighting power were local. And Saddam Hussein was never in a position to reverse U.S. military domination of the Persian Gulf. (my emphasis)
And the most serious problem is not that the imagery is phony, it can lead to bad policy decisions. As Record writes:
The problem with seeing Hitler in Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Saddam Hussein is that it reinforces the presidential tendency since 1945 to overstate threats for the purpose of rallying public and congressional opinion, and overstated threats in turn encourage resort to force in circumstances where deterrence, containment, even negotiation (from strength) might better serve long-term U.S. security interests. Threats that are, in fact, limited tend to be portrayed in Manichaean terms, thus skewing the policy choice toward military action, a policy choice hardly constrained by possession of global conventional military primacy and an inadequate understanding of the limits of that primacy. (my emphasis)
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