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Policy and History

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Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (Brookings, 2016)

“Embrace complexity! It’s the more reliable path to knowledge.” Such words might one taciturn islander exclaim at the beginning of Star Wars Episode VIII should The Walt Disney Company call on Philip Zelikow to author the screenplay. The exhortation is central to his chapter and implicit to eleven others in Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri’s The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft, an important new book seeking “to work toward a more fruitful interaction between the production of historical knowledge and the making of U.S. foreign policy.” The co-editors have assembled a distinguished, bipartisan team of historians and political scientists, several of whom have served in high-level positions in Washington and may yet return to the art of statecraft (Brands himself is currently on leave from Duke University as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Defense).

The Power of the Past succeeds in answering two key questions that Brands and Suri lay out in the introduction: “How and why do policymakers use history?” and “[W]hat light can history shine on the dilemmas confronted by contemporary policymakers?” Former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg speaks authoritatively to both. In his chapter, titled “History, Policymaking, and the Balkans: Lessons Imported and Lessons Learned,” he describes three dimensions in which policymakers tend to approach the past, starting with “deep history.”

This information is easier to acquire today, he might have elaborated, than during the era when his colleagues in the Clinton administration were reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and hesitating to get involved in Bosnia. Stranded at an airport with spotty wifi in 2016, junior staffers can probably learn enough about 1914 to surpass the collective knowledge of their 1993 counterparts simply by reading the July Crisis Wikipedia entry, which boasts 215 citations to respectable sources such as Fritz Fischer and David Fromkin. One does not need to spend half a decade in the Widener Library, that is to say, in order to grasp the origins of World War I just about as well as anyone.

Nor does one require immense subject expertise to engage constructively in the second dimension Steinberg describes: “analogic history.” Policymakers ask each other: Is the situation at hand another Haiti, Somalia, or Rwanda? Good history can contribute to effective policy by stimulating conversations that produce options and predict opportunities, costs, and risks. Unfortunately, policymakers so readily and frequently draw upon metaphors of catastrophe to devalue analogic examples. After reading chapters by Mark Lawrence, H.W. Brands, Peter Feaver, and Will Inboden — all of which address lessons derived from America’s experience in Vietnam in one way or another — I wondered how many times Sen. Edward Kennedy invoked Vietnam and actually stopped a president from acting.

Analogic thinking is not the same thing as constructing a narrative. As Lawrence states, Ronald Reagan’s insistence that leaders in Washington chose defeat in Vietnam contributed to the astounding gulf that persists between what the majority of dedicated scholars think and what most Americans choose to believe. One could accept Reagan’s narrative — as did nearly everyone around him during his presidency — while drawing upon the same analogies to reach different conclusions. The American experience in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984 is a case in point.

Deputy National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane was seared by Vietnam, where he had fought, whereas Secretary of State George Shultz had no role in that conflict. Both yearned to demonstrate that the United States could employ military power and sustain political will to impose stability upon a volatile region with porous geographic boundaries. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was ostensibly talking about Vietnam in his oft-invoked 1984 speech, “The Uses of Military Force,” and Lawrence and Brands discuss his admonitions in this context.

Yet the articulation of the “Weinberger Doctrine” was basically a post-mortem on the flawed planning, tragic execution, and humiliating conclusion to U.S. intervention in Lebanon, an endeavor Weinberger had opposed from the start. If not necessarily with Weinberger, Vietnam crystallized Reagan administration “doctrine” elsewhere. The obsession to fund the Contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua outlasted the blowback from the revelations of covert assistance following the downing of alleged C.I.A. cargo hauler Eugene Hasenfus in October 1986. Reagan’s associates were convinced that the only way to prevent the inevitability of another Vietnam was in the form of a U.S. deployment in Central America, an alternative scenario they regarded as inevitable within 5–10 years.


Exploring the uneasy relationship between policy and history

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