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Scanning History for Analogies to Iraq War

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Scanning History for Analogies to Iraq War


Scanning History for Analogies to Iraq War

Scanning History for Analogies to Iraq War

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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To find out which historical analogy best suits the U.S. situation in Iraq, Robert Siegel talks with several scholars: Professor Francis Fukuyama of the School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; Harvard professor Joseph Nye; Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California.


As we've heard, President Bush drew analogies between the current situation in Iraq and what the U.S. faced in its wars with Japan, Korea and Indo-China. And analogy is a crude tool, even at its most apt, but we wondered what other people who think and write about U.S. policy for a living would consider the most appropriate analogy, the experience from the past that holds the best comparison with the present.

So we called up a few political thinkers and asked them. First, Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

Professor FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (International Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University): I actually find the Bush's analogy to Vietnam not bad. It's a lot better than his analogy to World War II or the Cold War, because I think the stakes in Iraq are a lot lower than either of those global struggles. And I think he's right about the stakes with regard to Vietnam that it's going to be - a withdrawal will actually be terrible and costly for the people in the country itself - people of Iraq just as it was for the people of Vietnam.

But that the consequences internationally from a withdrawal will actually be not nearly as dire as they were not in the case of Vietnam. And so it's a difference between the inside and the outside. It's bad on the inside, but it's probably not that terrible from the standpoint of American foreign policy interests.

SIEGEL: You're saying that there could be a great loss of U.S. influence in the region, but that's different from, say, fascism taking over Europe and Asia in the Second World War.

Prof. FUKUYAMA: Well, I think the, yeah, the analogy to either World War II or the Cold War was always way overstated because in those conflicts, we were dealing with big industrialized, very powerful adversaries that really did have a capability of conquering a large part of the world. And in the case of communism represented a global ideology, here, we've got an ideology, but one that seems to only appeal to a certain minority of Muslims. And these people run a couple of third tier countries, but they really are not nearly as powerful as our adversaries in either the big struggle of the 20th century.

SIEGEL: That's Francis Fukuyama.

Max Boot focuses on military and national security issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also the author of the book, "War Made New," about technology and warfare over the past 500 years. He doesn't disagree with the president's likening of Iraq to Vietnam, but he has other thoughts.

Mr. MAX BOOT (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "War Made New"): Of course, it's very hard to say right now what the exact analogy is to Iraq or to Afghanistan because, of course, we don't know how they're going to turn out. But the two things that come to mind right away are two conflicts in the 1950s. In Malaysia, as it's now known, or Malay as it was in the 1950s, and Algeria where the French and the British confronted very difficult insurgencies which took many years of difficult fighting for them to come to grips with.

In the case of Malaysia, the British prevailed over the course of a decade -the British government, the British public, and the British army kept their will to win and we're ultimately able to contain a communist uprising and to defeat it. Whereas in the case of Algeria, the French lost. And it wasn't because they lost on the ground, in fact, the military won the battle of Algiers. They were defeating the nationalist uprising in Algeria.

But ultimately, the cost of that, a conflict with tens of thousands of casualties and also the perceived laws of French honor through the use of torture and other repugnant techniques destroyed the will on the home front to continue the struggle and ultimately, of course, France's enemies prevailed in Algeria, it became independent. So we don't know which one of those is going to be a good analogy for Iraq or Afghanistan, but I think those are the range of possibilities that we confront today.

SIEGEL: That's Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Professor Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California reaches a little farther back into the past for his most apt analogy. Steel compares the war in Iraq with a counterinsurgency the U.S. fought in the Philippines after capturing the islands from Spain in the Spanish-American War.

Professor RONALD STEEL (International Relations, University of Southern California): The fighting lasted until 1913, started in 1898. And U.S. troops remained there really until independence in 1946.

SIEGEL: What's so analogous between what happened in the Philippines and what's happening in Iraq?

Prof. STEEL: Well, there are several, I think. The first - the announced goal was to liberate both Cuba and the Philippines from a tyrannical regime, the tyrannical regime in that case being Spain. Essentially, it was viewed or defended as the humanitarian act.

The second was the announced public religiosity of the president at the time. William McKinley is often quoted as saying that he had heard the voice of God, which told him to liberate these people from their terrible yolk of oppression.

Third analogy is that the controlling power - in that case, Spain, not Saddam Hussein - was immediately defeated. There was (unintelligible) there was a great victory.

SIEGEL: The difficulty came after that.

Prof. STEEL: But then, of course, (unintelligible) immediately a rebellion broke out because there was a Philippine independence movement that had fighting the Spaniards, and they wanted immediate independence, and the Americans did not want to give them that independence because there was an unspoken but very real desire to stay on to gain the important - make control of the important naval base that's Manila, which had an economic bases, which was to protect the China trade, which was then being threatened by Europeans and Japanese expansion.

SIEGEL: That's Ronald Steel.

And finally, we called Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard, who agrees to an extent with President Bush's analogy to Vietnam.

Dr. JOSEPH NYE (Dean, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): Well, there is no good analogy. This mess is sui generis. But I guess the closest would be Vietnam in the sense that we've gotten ourselves into a war against the nationalistically mobilized population, which were not in the process of winning.

And the difference with all analogies break down is that after we got out of Vietnam, the people who took over were the North Vietnamese. And that was a government, which preserved order. And the problem in Iraq is who's going to preserve order after we get out? So like all analogies, it's imperfect. But I guess that would be the closest.

SIEGEL: And any other analogies farther afield?

Prof. NYE: Well, further afield one can think back to Britain in Iraq in the 1920s but they left behind a government, which at least lasted a few decades, or perhaps even further afield, Britain in the 1890s, in the Boer War where they took on the Boer Republic at great cost. It was very damaging to Britain's reputation and soft power around the world. But again, the analogy breaks down because at least they got out of it with some degree of order.

SIEGEL: But as you say, all analogies break down in the end.

Prof. NYE: That's the problem, which is that, as Mark Twain once said, history never repeats itself, at best it rhymes.

SIEGEL: That's Joseph Nye of Harvard.

There is another saying that might be invoked, too. It's a Muslim saying, evidently from the Shiite tradition, that the first to reason by analogy was the devil.

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