Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is both timely and important as we face significant foreign policy challenges. Few Americans are familiar with this history and/or the strain of American thought that led to the “Birth of American Empire.” Jackson Lear’s review of this book is an excellent overview of this book, and makes a great case for its significance.
“Kinzer concludes by returning to the republican tradition: “Nations lose their virtue when they repeatedly attack other nations,” he writes.
That loss, as Washington predicted, has cost the United States its felicity. We can regain it only by understanding our own national interests more clearly. It is late for the United States to change its course in the world—but not too late.
The recovery of civic virtue and the clarification of national interest are urgently necessary goals, and the only way we can hope to achieve them is by reviving the debate over American empire.”
Source: How the US Began Its Empire | by Jackson Lears | The New York Review of Books
David A. Bell writes a much-needed rebuke against the popular tendency to compare everything with World War II and Hitler. As he explains, “Comparing modern threats with World War II is neocon nonsense.” It may seem like harmless drama, but this kind of hyperbole has real consequences. As Bell points out, “References that were already misleading a generation ago have become dangerously absurd. The putative lessons of history have become imprisoning, rather than enabling. In this sense, we really do suffer from an excess of it.”
His discussion of the Munich lesson is particularly noteworthy. “Ever since, it has been de rigueur for Americans to justify action against alleged foreign threats with Hitler analogies, and to denounce the alleged appeasement of such threats with Munich analogies. Sometimes, the comparisons have been laughably inappropriate.” We see almost all foreign events through this lens and it has made us particularly war prone. We have come to see violence (or the threat of violence) as the most effective tool of foreign policy.
To read the other dangers posed by using inappropriate WWII analogies go here: Not Everything Is Munich and Hitler | The National Interest
In conclusion Bell writes, “But it can still help if as many people as possible take the time to remember just how false the comparison actually is, and if they keep in mind that a keen sensitivity to the parallels between the past and the present is not always a good thing. When it comes to the moral lessons of the terrible years the world lived through between 1939 and 1945, particularly those of the Holocaust, we must always remember. But when it comes to the strategic lessons of that era, we might do well, sometimes, to forget.”
I agree with Bell’s overall analysis, but I have to disagree with his solution: forget history. The problem is a result of superficial knowledge, bad analogies, and a desire to inflate the importance of one’s own issues by associating them with extreme examples (Hitler, genocide, slavery, etc.).
“Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have embraced a shallow, platitudinous approach to counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency warfare.”
Max Boot effectively explains the flawed analogy (resulting from a lack of historical perspective) behind the simplistic approach to counter-terrorism espoused by Trump, Cruz, and many Americans. Their understanding of war is based on the crushing defeats inflicted on the Axis powers during WWII.
But as Boot points out, “The situation with the War on Terror today is very different. We are fighting insurgencies, not nation-states, even if some of the insurgents (the Taliban before 9/11, ISIS today) have taken on many of the attributes of nation-states. This is an unconventional conflict in which our enemies seldom wear uniforms or mass in the open. They prefer to hide among a civilian population and to strike with stealth and surprise, usually against civilian, not military, targets. As I argued in my book Invisible Armies, this is an ancient form of warfare that requires a different response from conventional conflicts. Using maximal force against terrorists and guerrillas can backfire, more often than not, by killing innocent civilians and thereby driving their friends and relatives into the insurgent camp.”
Read the entire article here: Counter-Terrorism Beyond Platitudes | commentary
The “Munich lesson” that we should never appease evil has to be one of the most pervasive and incorrect lessons of history. In this HNN post, John Kelly explains why the lesson is wrong. And as John Kelly points out, “millions of Americans who know nothing about the Munich Conference or the Sudetenland know that evil appeased is evil emboldened because American presidents have evoked the Munich lesson to justify almost every U. S. military action since 1945.”
The lesson is flawed in both its understanding of the events in Munich and in its application to events that bear no resemblance to the unique circumstances of 1938 Nazi Germany. As Kelly explains: “It is a fantasy to imagine that, had Churchill rather than Chamberlain been sitting across the table at Munich, Hitler would have been deterred. Unafraid of war and boundlessly ambitious, Hitler was that most dangerous of leaders, a man who could neither be appeased nor deterred by threats of force.”
It will take more than one article to debunk the “appeasement” foreign policy reasoning, but its a start. We historians need to call out this kind of abuse of history, especially when a misguided history lesson is driving us to make bad foreign policy choices.
Read Kelly’s entire article here: History News Network | Why Most Everyone Gets Munich Wrong
Juan Cole lays out some desperately needed foreign policy suggestions, most of which are solidly grounded in evidence and experience. Unfortunately, many of them would be difficult politically to implement, particular his suggestions concerning Israel. However, the consequences of remaining on the same path are dire. Obama needs to do the right thing, and let the political chips fall where they may!
Source: History News Network | Top 7 Middle East Foreign Policy Challenges in 2016
hat the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.” Before comparing the vastly different Islamic movements, Fromherz reviews the history of the Almohads, a radical Berber sect which briefly ruled in Muslim Spain (A great history lesson in its own right).
He is careful to note the many differences between the groups, but notes one important “possible comparison.” He observes that it is likely that “the process of routinization—that is, the process of ideological compromise and moderation needed to practically govern as state—will probably begin soon. There is no reason to believe ISIS will not follow the path of so many religious and millenarian movements before it. In this case, the best long-term strategy for ISIS’s would-be targets and victims may be to wait for ISIS to destroy itself.” I like this option!
Fromherz is not the only to note this trend toward routinization as a factor in bringing down radical movements. Rationally, based on a cost-benefit analysis, this is probably our best strategy. But, realistically, this is not emotionally or psychologically appealing, and therefore it is unlikely to be adopted. But we should heed Fromherz’s warning: “If parties and politics in the West become increasingly intolerant and nativist in their reaction to ISIS, the West may indeed inflict more harm on itself than anything the charismatically apocalyptic minds behind ISIS could imagine.”
Source: ISIS vs. History – The American Interest
This is the lesson we can never seem to learn: “Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.”
In contrast to the hyped up rhetoric of politicians, and Mr. Trump in particular, Juan Cole rationally analyzes the goals and purposes of the terrorists. We only play into to the hands of the terrorists when we demonize and blame Muslims as a whole. They want to divide us. In that way they can bring the disgruntled formerly moderate Muslims into their camp. The clash of civilizations becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unfortunately, political leaders will continue to play into the hands of the terrorists because the rhetoric of “strength” and nationalism proves too useful in pursuit of political power.
Read Cole’s astute observations here: History News Network | In Retrospect: A Year of Sharpening Contradictions
Paris Attacks 2015
“The interesting question is this: What would a smart power campaign directed against the challenges represented by the Islamic State (which are of course broader than just that group) look like? What are the techniques; levels of resources; and strategies of cooperation, collaboration, and communication?” James Stavridis offers some suggestions: Killing the Islamic State Softly | Foreign Policy
In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks more and more Americans are in favor of sending troops to destroy ISIS and a “do whatever it takes” strategy to completely destroy ISIS and other terrorist threats. But do they know exactly what they are advocating? It’s unlikely!
It is not completely their fault. Many on the Right (pundits, politicians, and intellectuals) are advocating this strategy in the face of what they claim is an existential threat. Many of those who are pushing for this all in approach either don’t understand the level of commitment they are promoting, or have not fully thought through what it would take to achieve such a goal.
In light of this disconnect, Andrew J. Bacevich challenges the proposal by laying out in no uncertain terms what it would take to execute this strategy. He concludes that the costs (in terms of lives, treasure, and values) would be great! “By sowing fear and fostering impossible expectations of perfect security, it would also compromise American freedom in the name of protecting it. The nation that decades from now might celebrate VT Day — victory over terrorism — will have become a different place, materially, politically, culturally, and morally.”
“For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly. Power confers choice. As citizens, we must resist with all our might arguments that deny the existence of choice. Whether advanced forthrightly by Cohen or fecklessly by the militarily ignorant, such claims will only perpetuate the folly that has already lasted far too long.”
Read the entire piece here: History News Network | Beyond ISIS
Christian Appy, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, in an interview reflects on the legacy of the war. As usual, he offers great advice based on years of study. For example, he proposes “that we fully and finally dispense with American exceptionalism. I don’t think the historical record justifies the faith, it alienates other people and nations (for obvious reasons), and it contributes to public acquiescence to the tiny few who make foreign policy in our name and are all to ready and willing to assure us that they can be trusted to use our ‘indispensable’ power as a force for good in the world.”
Read the entire interview here: History News Network | Christian Appy on the Legacy of the Vietnam War: An Interview