Waging War Through the Rearview Mirror

(Illustration By The Washington Post; Photos By Sgt. Don L. Maes (Uss Cole) And Bloomberg News (Mirror))
By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 9, 2007

President Bush said last week that his thinking on the U.S. situation in Iraq was informed by an analogy: the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. The lack of a sufficient American response to that and other al-Qaeda attacks, Bush said, led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush is hardly the first leader to apply a historical analogy to a policy conundrum. European leaders drew on the analogy of World War I, in which rigid diplomacy was believed to have played a role in precipitating a bloody war, to appease Hitler in the 1930s. The disastrous consequence of appeasing Hitler was used as an analogy by American leaders as they decided to escalate the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The fiasco of that war, in turn, became an analogy that informed how the United States dealt with the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut -- by withdrawing U.S. troops from Lebanon -- and the bombing of the Cole, analogies that now inform how Bush thinks about the war in Iraq.

Historical analogies are not always wrong. But they always carry a psychological risk -- the mind has a tendency to latch onto the certainties of the past as a guide to the future.

Yuen Foong Khong, a political scientist at Oxford University's Nuffield College, has studied how analogies influence leaders at crucial turning points in history. Khong said that in 1989, China's then-leader, Deng Xiaoping, cracked down harshly on student protesters at Tiananmen Square because he drew an analogy between the protests and the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution.

"The Cultural Revolution analogy says nothing about whether the implied solution, suppression, will work," Khong noted. "It does tell Deng that suppressing the students is morally correct . . . and it also warns of no dangers associated with this course of action."

Khong's insightful book, "Analogies at War," looks at how U.S. foreign policy has long been shaped by the analogies that presidents choose. Once selected, the analogies often develop lives of their own, and leaders go to great lengths to defend them.

Why do presidents gravitate toward particular analogies? Political convenience plays a role -- President Bill Clinton's response to the Cole bombing, for example, will always be more appealing to Bush as an analogy than President Ronald Reagan's handling of the Beirut bombing.

But the problem with analogies goes deeper than political point-scoring. When people confront a dilemma, they invariably search for parallels in their own lives or in the recent past. The results can be ludicrous. In the early days of World War I, Khong said in his book, President Woodrow Wilson was concerned that war would break out between Britain and the United States over sea routes, because a similar conflict had occurred when James Madison was president: "Madison and I are the only two Princeton men that have become President," Wilson noted. "The circumstances of the War of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further."

President Lyndon B. Johnson used the Korean War as an analogy as he escalated the Vietnam War. Superficially, the conflicts were similar. Both were in Asia, and both involved conflicts between pro-American souths and communist norths -- and the U.S. defense of South Korea had been successful.

"What my research tells me is that it would be wise to adopt a skeptical attitude to all usage of historical analogies in foreign affairs," Khong said. It is not that analogies are never useful -- they can be important mental aids, especially in science. The difference, Khong said, is that after drawing an analogy, natural scientists "proceed to test the analogical inference in the lab, something which politicians either seldom or cannot do."

A historical analogy helped mislead U.S. intelligence services about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the current war in Iraq, said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University scholar who reviewed the intelligence failure for the CIA.

"People not only learn from the past but overlearn from it," Jervis said. "A recent and important event is likely to leave a deep imprint on people, especially when they were in error. People will be sure not to make the same mistake again -- and are more likely to commit the opposite error."

Intelligence analysts who realized after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that Hussein had duped them by concealing his weapons programs were extremely unwilling to make the same mistake again, Jervis said. The political scientist, who counts himself as a critic of the Bush administration, said that a focus on this historical analogy -- not political pressures from the White House -- played the central role in the intelligence failure.

"We overlearned from the past, and the inference drawn was the plausible one," Jervis said. Hussein "was heading down the road toward suicide. He could have shown he didn't have WMDs. We thought he was scared of us, but he was scared of Iran first, and then his generals and then the Shia, and we were fourth. If I talked to you as a decision maker and said that, you would have laughed."

The ringing clarity that a historical analogy provides, Jervis added, makes it very difficult for both leaders and the public to examine closely whether the historical event really has any bearing on a dilemma: "Are these situations similar, or do they seem similar to me because they both happened to me?"

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