Thoughtless in Time?

Historical analogies often serve as tools to explain the world we confront today or expect for tomorrow. Harvard professors Richard Neustadt and Ernest May insightfully examined the use (and misuse) of such historical analogies for policymaking in their seminal work Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. It seems that at least some in the Defense Department might want to review his work.

Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, is generally acknowledged as one of the leading intellectuals in the Department of Defense. He is also “the administration’s most persistent advocate of ousting Saddam Hussein” according to a recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In this article, Wolfowitz lays out a case for optimism about a war with Iraq and the positive, long-lasting results of this war.

Post-conflict Iraq is unlikely to be like post-war occupation of Germany or Japan according to Wolfowitz. “‘If you’re looking for a historical analogy,’ the soft-spoken, professorial Pentagon official suggested, ‘It’s probably closer to post-liberation France [after World War II].’”

This analogy does not stand up to detailed–or even cursory–analysis. There are at least seven key differences:

  • In World War II, France was occupied by its arch-enemy, Nazi Germany. Saddam Hussein, however unloved he might be, is home-grown in Iraq.
  • By 1944, the French populace was virtually united in its desire for liberation from the Nazis and for the overthrow of the Vichy regime. It is unclear whether Iraqis will consider Americans as liberators or as occupiers.
  • France had a long democratic and capitalist economic tradition on which to build. Iraq has never been a democratic state and has rarely been an open market economy.
  • French forces played a significant role as part of the forces fighting to liberate France, through both the resistance and the Free French forces under de Gaulle. Such contributions by Iraqis are at best a remote possibility.
  • De Gaulle was the recognized and acknowledged leader of the Free French forces with a legitimacy across all segments of the French population. He had authority over essentially all resistance forces (including those led by the Communist Party). No similar charismatic legitimate leader allied with the West exists inside or outside Iraq.
  • Liberated France had a huge structure (after some cleansing of collaborators) of bureaucrats on which to base a functioning government (from schools to courthouses to trash collection). Does this mass of competency exist in Iraq?
  • Last, and not least, in 1944-45, the United States was part of a true international coalition–the Allies–that was supported by virtually all citizens in the alliance states and with clearly shared objectives in the defeat of the Axis powers (even if holding differing views of the post-war world). In 2003, no such popularly supported “coalition of the willing” exists.

In general, war planning is done on the basis of “worst-case” possibilities. In many ways, this administration seems to be looking toward a possible war with Iraq through the “best-case” or rose-colored glasses perspective. As Wolfowitz said, “[Saddam's] demise will open opportunities for governments and institutions to emerge in the Muslim world that are respectful of fundamental human dignity and freedom….” While optimism is a pleasant way to live, it might not be the best way to prepare for war. Optimism underpinned by false understandings of history moves from risky to outright dangerous.

The United States government is, one hopes, in a period of serious reflection over whether and how to conduct a war against Iraq. Our past experiences will play a role in shaping our thinking and approaches to this challenge. We must, as May cautioned, carefully test our history for relevancy and “think in time” rather than substitute inappropriate analogies for thought. Relying on the wrong analogies can promote a false sense of confidence and send the nation down false–and dangerous–paths. Sadly, all indications are that the current administration is thoughtless, rather than thinking, in time.