Misreading History into Wars

Official Washington’s “tough-guy-ism” often cites historical precedents, like Hitler at Munich or the Rwanda genocide, as simplistic justifications for new wars. President Obama’s two new national security appointees Susan Rice and Samantha Power seem prone to that mistake, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama’s appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power certainly have caused a stir. Without adding to the pile of overall judgments about these choices, something more can be said about how these appointments raise an issue concerning the correct and incorrect ways to draw lessons from history.

Both appointees are identified with ex post factoanguish over the international response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and a determination not to let a similar event happen again. Rice is quoted by Power, in the latter’s later writing about this event, as saying that “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who has been named President Barack Obama’s new National Security Advisor. (Official Photo)

The extraction of lessons from salient (and especially unpleasant) historical episodes should go beyond a simple determination that a piece of policy was good or bad and instead examine in detail exactly why and how a policy didn’t work or an initiative went sour.

Such a careful approach recognizes that: most policies are not entirely good or entirely bad; some aspects of an initiative can be executed well while other aspects of the same initiative are executed poorly; the right policy may be pursued for the wrong reasons, or the wrong policy for noble reasons; and multiple national interests are typically at stake, some of which are better served by a particular policy than are others.

Extraction of lessons, for example, from the Iraq War, one of the most salient, unpleasant and costly episodes in recent American history, should take this kind of careful, fine-grained form. It should not be a simple matter of declaring that the war stank and this means the United States should not intervene militarily again in the Middle East.

The latter, simplistic approach is what some advocates of intervention in Syria depict as the frame of mind that they are battling against, warning Americans that they should not be afraid of intervening in Syria just because they got traumatized in Iraq. No doubt some Americans do have that frame of mind, as reflected in what is usually described as war weariness of the American public. But as far as serious debate among policy elites is concerned, the depicted frame of mind is a straw man.

Many important lessons can be, and have been, drawn from the Iraq War and the decision to launch it, lessons that should be applied to possible interventions elsewhere, Syria included. Substantively, for example, there are lessons about foreign perceptions of U.S. troop involvement, the importance of ethnic and sectarian rivalries, and the inability to inject a liberal democratic culture through the barrel of a gun.

The procedural lessons are just as important, including ones about failing to plan sufficiently for later phases of an occupation, rejecting expert judgment about the challenges likely to be encountered in those phases, and failing to have any policy process leading to the decision to undertake such a major expedition.

A contrast to such careful lesson-drawing is the never-again, I’ll-go-down-in-flames way of reacting to a past episode. If we are to take Rice and Power at their word, this approach is not a straw man. And it is a really bad way to apply history to current policy issues.

It ignores or discounts the aforementioned complexities about mixtures of good and bad and the trade-offs among different interests. It overstates the similarity between the historical episode that has had the searing effect and whatever is the policy problem of today.

Swearing in advance to take a particular side in a future policy debate without knowing the details of the problem that will be debated is a very bad way to make policy. To the extent that emotion and guilt over some past horror come into play, this gets even farther away from careful examination of policy options and makes bad policy even more likely.

This approach already has damaged U.S. interests. Excessive and simplistic application of the grandaddy of all international policy wonks’ guilt trips, the response to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, has been a major factor in such damage, including that resulting from the U.S. decision to intervene in Vietnam in the 1960s. As for the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was especially fond of telling us that Saddam Hussein was a latter-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler.

The no-more-Rwandas version of this approach also has caused damage, less severe than that of the wars in either Vietnam or Iraq but harm that is still in the process of being incurred and tallied. Of particular note in this regard is the intervention in Libya two years ago, an action that Rice and Power reportedly supported strongly.

The notion that this intervention was wise appears to rest on the idea that the target was a dictator nobody particularly liked and that in the civil war that was then ongoing people were getting hurt, as is always the case in civil wars. The notion also rested on the myth, unsupported by evidence to this day, that Gaddafi was planning some sort of genocidal bloodbath in eastern Libya and that failure to intervene would mean Rwanda all over again.

The dictator was swept aside with U.S. and Western help, at minimal material cost to the United States, and so the episode gets casually put in the win column. The actual balance sheet on Libya is far more extensive than that.

The disliked dictator had already, through an enforceable agreement with the United States and Britain, given up his unconventional weapons programs and gotten out of international terrorism. He was still a quixotically inconvenient and sometimes disagreeable cuss, but he was not a threat.

What we have had since he was ousted is extremist-infested disorder in Libya that has given rise to a flow of arms to radicals in the Sahel and incidents like the fatal encounter at a U.S. compound in Benghazi. (If Rice were being nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation, this is the aspect of the Benghazi incident she ought to be grilled about, not some manufactured silliness about talking points.)

We also have sent a very unhelpful message to the likes of the Iranians and North Koreans and have perversely affected their motivations regarding the possibility of reaching their own agreements with the United States. It is remarkable that the Libyan intervention is so often considered a success.

Let us hope that in the future when lessons are drawn from this episode, by either advocates or opponents of some future intervention, they will be drawn carefully, rather than in the simplistic manner that seems to have become respectable even among presidential appointees.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Misreading History into Wars

  1. bobzz
    June 9, 2013 at 22:24

    I recall presidential candidate Bill Bradley’s proposal years ago to return the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux. That went over REAL big in South Dakota.

  2. John
    June 8, 2013 at 19:22

    I made a small error in my piece above. Rice’s plane came down at Gander Newfoundland not Goose Bay in Newfoundland & Labrador the northern part of the province.

  3. John
    June 7, 2013 at 22:23

    I once though a lot of Susan Rice, she put in funds to buy computers for schools in Labrador, Canada after her plane had been redirected to Goose Bay due to 9/11. She was well treated by the small community nearby.
    Then she became the US representative at the UN and her statements and views regarding what was going on in Palestine completely sickened me.
    The Palestinians had been promised that the Balfour Declaration didn’t mean a Jewish country in Palestine, (Arabs were a huge majority), and on that promise they said that Jews could move to Palestine. Well that promise was broken as backdoor deals were made.
    The 1967 war which brought the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank was precipitated by Israel which was diverting water from the Jordan and also because they were using tractors in the DMZ on Syrian soil upsetting Syrians. Egypt had a pact to help Syria if war broke out between with Israel. Things were a bit hot between Syria and Israel at this time. Egypt put a small force out in the Sinai in a defensive position and notable Israeli politicians and military men of the time admit that Egypt’s forces were no offensive threat. But that is what Israel wanted, to draw Egypt in when it was vulnerable (had just lost a war to it’s south) destroy its airforce and then strike Syria and gain the Golan. America didn’t want Israel to start war with Syria, so to silence US intelligence on the intimacy of the strike, they attacked the US intelligence ship ‘Liberty’ claiming it was an accident. It was no accident!
    With that behaviour and the brutal occupation and increased deprivation of Palestinian society, Israel continues to build it’s dream of the Greater Israel and Rice doesn’t have a problem! I am sure if 700,000 Americans were displaced by foreigners a few would be very radicalized. Zionists want us to forget or never find the truth. They pump out propaganda with political aims to secure their Greater Israel. I admire Jews who stand up to them and take the brunt of obscene abuse (ie. self-hater tripe). Politics with religion can be very dangerous if exceptionalism is present.

    • Paul G.
      June 12, 2013 at 05:21

      Interesting analysis of the USS Liberty attack by Israeli fighters and small craft during the 1967 war. I had thought it mainly a false flag op; but this adds a further complication. I recommend looking up the USS Liberty survivors website, http://www.uss-liberty.com/, for this little known piece of US and Israeli treachery. The most notable aspect of the incident was that LBJ refused to defend the ship.

  4. Hillary
    June 7, 2013 at 14:29

    Nothing could be more welcome to the neocons in Washington DC.
    American experts such a Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol repeatidly told us that a US invasion of Iraq would be welcomed with flowers by the Iraqi people.
    Such wide spread laughter in Iraq is now followed in Syria.
    1.5 million dead Muslims —-neocon Mission accomplished.

  5. elmerfudzie
    June 7, 2013 at 14:22

    Susan Rice is a well groomed political hack, a neoliberal lackey who fell under the imperialist spell. It began way back in her vitae working as an aid for Michael Dukakis. She believed in that bait-and-switch our Intel folks pulled on Saddam when he presumed he had White House approval to invade Kuwait. She believes in the new yarn, that Al-Qaeda really exists and that responses to terror acts cannot be launched from super aircraft carriers but can be adequately substituted with the sort of cyber intel that hovers over the whole world. Cyberspace and foreknowledge will act as a new the new hammer in the hand of national defense networks. She believes the West will find and train a few quislings to infiltrate and defeat terrorist organizations; were ALL still waiting on this one. These ideas are illusions and skirt the whole issue of going to all out declared war only when Absolutely necessary. Either the enemy has the correct name and address or it doesn’t. Efforts to fight on platforms or in spaces that resemble a DMZ are the stuff of evil contrivance(s) by powers unseen. No-one appreciates this kind of baloney and we’ve been getting it for a long, long time.

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