History and Policy: The Case of Iraq
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1 The decision by Americans to go to war against Iraq has appeared to be such a colossal mistake that it has called forth many condemnations by historically minded intellectuals. Most have condemned the hubris and historical insouciance of the administration of George Bush. Few historians think that the President resembles Abraham Lincoln, guiding his country through a necessarily difficult but morally majestic period. Rather, we are told, history directs us to other policy choices and will mercilessly appraise these Republican statesmen. What is the connection between history and policy-making? What is the role of the historian, qua historian, in contributing to today’s appraisals? These questions require far more consideration than they have been given, because scholars have oversimplified historical evaluations of American policies in the attempt to show the current leadership in the United States to be uniquely clumsy or malign. Moreover, in their zeal to condemn the war, historically minded academics have fallen into confusion about the nature of historical knowing. Examining these issues is complex, and requires some extended analysis.
2Consider this extraordinary aspect of historical study, mostly unnoticed by practicing historians: they presuppose that the sort of understanding they garner only emerges at a later time, only subsequent to the occurrence of an event they are studying. For professional historians, even the writing of ‘recent’ or ‘contemporary’ history necessitates the passage of twenty to thirty years. Part of this necessity stems from the need to base history on documents, which are usually only made available long after something has happened. Historians presume more importantly that matters make sense, that insight is generated, when the historians construe the events they study as part of a larger whole. This whole in some measure only becomes such after the events have taken place, with ‘historical perspective’ as historians like to say. Historical knowledge does not just get wrested from sources. It materializes in time, later than the happenings of which we have historical knowledge. I could not have historical knowledge of, say, the Vietnam War in the 1960s in the 1960s. I will only be able to gain it sometime after the War is over. Historical knowledge depends on its elements having a certain temporal order. I may recollect today how I felt in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson announced an air strike against North Vietnam: “I remember telling the lady I worked with, ‘This guy is going to get us into a war.’” But historical knowledge about the war requires that the historian enumerate the evolution of troop increases, from say, 1954 to 1966, so that we can say that there is escalation. Such a procedure can only take place after some time has gone by and the events that we are examining fit into a pattern. History has a synthetic dimension.
3Historical knowledge presupposes activities that exhibit motivation or purpose or some kind of functional rationality. Persons in communities display these sorts of intentional activities but so too can communities themselves: historical individuals such as groups, organizations, institutions, cultures, nations.1 Historical studies reveal this kind of intentionality but can do so only as it comes into view through some era or stage. We comprehend matters in categories that make sense only as we see people acting over time, as they reveal who and what they are in the temporal unraveling of circumstance.
4A number of peculiar characteristics of historical knowledge flow from and are intertwined with its sprouting over time.2 The pertinent individuals, from persons to nations, frequently do not grasp, according to historians, the fruition of their intent in the world, nor may persons at a given time be aware themselves of the culmination or abandoning of the aims of the historical individuals. Historians may not want to lose contact with standard, non-historical, approaches to grasping intent, but viewing events as part of a larger teleological whole that has ended by the present of the historian enriches such a grasp. Historians produce such enrichment because they will give an account of their subjects in which processes, persons, and historical individuals mature.
5 Take the clash of nation states, which always have interests or purposes. In the study of such political history the philosopher Hegel got at the problem when he spoke of “the cunning of reason.” Hegel noted that political struggles abounded with contesting and only semi-understood selfish designs, many of which seemed to cancel one another out. Yet, he claimed, the result advanced a greater end that the politicians involved never fully understood.3 Historical accounts often transmute the conscious goals into something other than what their originators wanted. Historians less theoretically disposed than Hegel commonly talk about these matters as expressing historical irony. Matters turn out topsy-turvy -- people get the opposite of what they try to achieve; winners often wind up losing; failure is sometimes transmuted into success.
6We commonly grasp the coming-to-pass aspect of historical knowledge by seeing historical accounts as narratives, or even stories in which an event appears as an ingredient; the event has a role in an account. Historians often speak of the meaning or significance of an event, and they are alluding to the role of the event in the account. They can’t define the role until they figure out the account in which the event will appear, and this can’t be figured out until some later time. Historical knowledge of the present is not available in the present.
7As an aspect of their work historians want to grasp the intent of actors, and to see the world from the perspective of these actors, but this amounts to a paradoxical effort. Historians work from a viewpoint -- their own present -- denied to the actors. Historians can ascertain the intent of the people in the past in ways that the actors do not have accessible. An historical account of what past people were about will embrace attention to their understanding of their intent but also transcend this understanding.
8Woodrow Wilson could not designate himself as initiating an American foreign policy impulse that would later have the doubtful connotation Wilsonian. Nor could Lyndon Johnson understand in 1964 that subsequent historians might correctly describe his efforts as those of a failed Wilsonian. Wilson could not know he was starting a tradition, and in 1964 LBJ had not yet failed.
9As a form of knowing, history must differ from that kind of knowing available to policy makers in the present. It is logically impossible that they could see themselves as an historian would, and it is equally impossible for observers in the present to see the world as the historians will see it when they see it as the past. Historical knowledge also requires that the actors be seen not as they see themselves but as others see them, and is thus never autobiographical. We can never have historical knowledge of ourselves. We could not, apriori, have an idea of what we were doing as historical figures, let us say of what our aims are in all their convolutions, how these aims appear to others, how others might rightly oppose them, and how things will turn out. We cannot learn these things until we become the objects of history, and can be exposed to the pitiless inspection with which historians scrutinize the past.
10In their cruelty, historical knowledge and the knowledge that others have of us are closer kin to one another than the knowledge we have of ourselves. Anyone who has gone to a dinner party and spoken of absent acquaintances must understand the difference between the way people appear to themselves and the way others regularly describe them. We judge the calculations, motives, moral decision-making and even minor foibles of individuals far more ruthlessly than do the individuals concerned. I here make not just an empirical observation about dinner parties and history. Civility involves the delicate dialectic that militates against our telling others what we think of them, in return for which they do the same for us in order to make social life possible. Civility is never mere civility. People could not function if they understood themselves the way others do. Historians lack civility in their treatment of their subjects.
11Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine Woodrow Wilson immediately after the American declaration of war against Germany in the spring of 1917 and after America associates itself with the Western Allies, Britain and France. Wilson receives historical knowledge of himself. He learns that his entire rationale for waging the war will become unhinged. The United States will never involve itself with his pet project, the new and proposed League of Nations; his vision of a world of global democracies will never come to fruition and indeed Fascism and Communism will fiercely challenge democracy. Wilson also learns that he will suffer a debilitating stroke in campaigning for his ideas in America. But if he also learns that a second World War will follow his failed efforts, someone argues, perhaps Wilson will be energized to fight even harder for American entry into the League. On the other side, many historians contend that the failure of the United States to commit itself to the League of Nations had little to do with the crucial issues of the next twenty years, mainly the rise of an avenging Germany. On the contrary, the agreements at the peace conference held at Versailles in 1919 resulted in the harsh peace toward Germany and produced the Nazis. Should Wilson not work to mitigate the punitive aspects of the peacemaking at the Conference that were directed against Germany? But if Wilson successfully were to push uncompromisingly for a peace that would re-integrate Germany into a place of power in Central Europe, would that not convince the Germans they were not really defeated, and spur them to another effort at hegemony in Europe? On hearing the historical news, does Wilson fear for his health?4
12Just conjecture that Wilson gains this sort of knowledge that can only come into being in the future, and in a crucial moment elects to change course. It is January 1918, and he decides not to give the famous Fourteen Points address that elaborated on his reformist and idealistic peace program. But Wilson has strangely gained historical knowledge; it rests on what has already taken place. Is it then inevitable that he must still develop his peace program? Must things be as history tells us they were? The President appears before the American Congress assembled and finds himself -- against his will? -- saying: “The First of the Fourteen Points …Open covenants openly arrived at…,” as he simultaneously struggles unsuccessfully to voice his new sentiments.
13Focus not on Wilson but on all the diplomatic and military leaders at Versailles. Would they have been able to negotiate had they the knowledge of how they would appear when the standard books about the diplomacy of World War One were published in the 1960s and after? Can we even figure out what it what would it mean for them to have this kind of knowledge? They acted in 1918-1919, they thought, in such a way as to avoid war. How could the diplomats grapple with the historical notion that their shortsighted behavior began a story that led to another war? The historian surely cannot say that they intended to promote a future war, but we could not rule out that their “real” intent was not to prohibit a war but to promote short-term gains without regard to the likelihood of war.
14 This speculative exercise gives the lie to any belief that present individuals can have historical knowledge of their situation, and shows that the unknotting of intent by historians is a complex affair.
15Historical knowledge gives insight into the ends of action but can conflict with what I call actor-knowledge. Agency requires the point of view of the actor -- a ‘decider’ if you will; historical knowledge requires more the view of a spectator.5 On the one hand, actor-knowledge will wrongly understand what is going on if contrasted to the knowledge generated with temporal perspective. The historian presumes that knowledge of the present, in the present, is in some way fundamentally flawed. On the other hand, as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago in his work on history, historical knowledge may make the bearer of that knowledge ill, unable to do work in the world. Such knowledge has the tendency of diminishing a sense of the efficacious and desirable nature of outcomes chosen.6 Historically immersed individuals might be less able to act because they would not know for twenty or thirty years whether what they had decided to do was correct, and perhaps not even then. And maybe things would have been the same, even had the protagonists behaved differently. Historians are hard pressed to judge that alternative courses of action would have had better effects, or that human persons had much latitude in choosing what to do. A deep knowledge of history, for Nietzsche, can make one sick.
16Nietzsche may be hyperbolic, but he recognized that matters are complex for historians and more than usually ambiguous.
17The war has called forth an ocean of quasi-academic writing, much of it in the form of instant historical analysis. It purports to show that even a rudimentary understanding of American foreign policy could have alerted statesmen and politicians in the United States to the disastrous implications of deciding to go to war. This literature also now makes a raft of putative historical judgments, e.g., that George Bush will ‘go down in history’ as the worst president that America has produced. Here is what is troubling: commentators who presume to be grounded in history have gone beyond the limits of historical thinking. In their rush to judge and to show the administration’s faulty decision-making, they have additionally vulgarized the history of American foreign policy into a series of easily accessible lessons about what should and should not be done. Similarly overwrought discussions that purported to be scholarly took place during the Vietnam War. International crises do not bring out the best in academics.
18According to a common professional view of the early 21st century, the war in Iraq represents at least a monumental misperception by American policy makers, evidencing not just a blunder but also overweening entitlement and a grotesque belief in the correctness of the path of the United States. The most recent makers of policy have overstepped the bounds of realism; they suffer from a unique sense of American exceptionalism, and lack a fundamental ethical balance.7 Commentators even suggest that the United States may be slipping into a ‘fundamentalist’ ‘jihadist’ position that has ‘fascistic’ overtones in its zealotry and lack of prudence. The well known conservative policy analysts associated with the White Houses when it was inhabited by Ronald Reagan and now George Bush have nurtured this constellation of obligations. Yet many critics of the war finally add that these same Republicans have had crucial help from non-conservative intellectuals. The real firepower that has generated the commitments in Iraq, the common critics say, has come from theorists of worldwide democracy situated on the left and generally supposed to be devoted to the Democratic Party. These “Neo Wilsonian” purveyors of nation building, global law, and human rights have put forward ideas that conservatives have literally high jacked for use in Iraq. Indeed, liberal political theorists and political scientists in the United States have written much about what steps the United States has to take to achieve a responsible, humane foreign policy in the Middle East. They helped to provide the prescriptions and ideas that conservative ideologues have cashed in in Iraq. Both the large number of critics and the increasingly beleaguered intellectual spokespersons for the Bush administration have fed on one another in the attempt to refute the position of their opponents and to shore up their own inclinations. Each group has ransacked the history of American foreign policy to find justifications for what that side has done in the present, or what it has wanted to do.
19The above summary of the scholarly debate and the consensus on the value of history tries to capture the vehemence, passion, and certainty of the writing. But I also want to intimate that in my own nightmares about contemporary American diplomacy, I share the feelings of fury and betrayal that many American and European students of diplomacy have displayed. But, dare I say it, feelings don’t cut it in scholarship.
20We should not slight the demands of history. Why on earth should historians think that, as scholars, they can make technicolor and definitive verdicts about the war in Iraq before it is even over? As citizens we surely can work ourselves into a rage about the deficiencies of the Bush regime, certainly if we are Democrats in the United States, and even if we are European intellectual observers with an investment in America. But as academics searching for understanding, historians must surely know that when events recede into the past, their valence changes. We cannot clearly see what the outcome of this conflict will be, nor how historians will parse it.
21The flattened uncritical version of the history of American foreign policy that even historians have advanced under the duress of the war makes me even more suspicious of the hasty verdict about the present strategy of the Bush administration in the Middle East.
22Many American liberal internationalists have vehemently criticized the Bush administration but have also defended and still defend the main diplomatic initiatives that the United States has undertaken in its rise to world power. They, and many Europeans believe in an ‘American promise,’ while simultaneously distancing themselves from present policy in the Middle East. For these scholars the spread of democracy from the eighteenth century has been an unalloyed good. In the United States in the last century the continuingly relevant commitments of Woodrow Wilson, the struggle against the Nazis, and the long battle with the Soviet Union in the Cold War have forwarded Enlightenment goals. The critical commentators even recognize that the formulators of Iraq policy today have a heritage of ideas that joins up with these earlier successes of American diplomacy, certainly in the commitment of the Bush administration to ‘nation building.’ The liberal internationalists see themselves as promoting democracy in ethnically homogeneous states, and their debt to Wilson’s grand vision is clear. They look especially at the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War Two, the movement for European integration that was initiated by the Marshall Plan, and even the security interests that NATO came to embody. All of these developments are perhaps too easily associated with the global political ideals that Wilson promulgated, but whatever exaggerations are possible in assessing Wilson’s influence, it is nonetheless true that Wilson has left a permanent deposit in the American mind. Simultaneously, the critical scholars have found it easy to distinguish the beneficial peacekeeping that has been part of the American past from the belligerent interventionism that they find in the current regime in Washington.8
23Yet only a selective reading of the intellectual formulations of American policy in the past and a cartoon version of the nation’s diplomatic history, can sustain this perspective. For good or ill, the politicians in power today in the United States are much like their predecessors.
24For the formative period of the Cold War read carefully the Truman Doctrine Speech by then President Harry Truman in March of 1947. Truman told his audience of the emergence of a struggle between ‘the free world’ and it enemies and called for a global contest between America and Russia. George Kennan’s ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct,’ which was published shortly after Truman’s speech, has always been recognized as the founding declaration of American foreign policy in the second-half of the twentieth century. Kennan was more cerebral than Truman, but even more bellicose and given to contrasts between good and evil. Kennan believed the Soviet adversary of the post-World War Two period to be pathologically unhealthy, and the diplomat wanted the United States to confront its opponent everywhere because “Providence” demanded action by America. The rhetoric of the other crucial operational document in the early years of the Cold War, NSC-68 of 1950, was authored in part by the stalwart US statesman, Paul Nitze. Nitze was as extreme as Truman and Kennan. His lengthy memorandum demanded a planetary military mission by the United States in behalf of a righteous Christian polity. All of these statements propounded claims for American exceptionalism every bit as outrageous as the many ex cathedra statements of George Bush on Iraq and on the role in the world of the United States that liberal critics of the Bush administration love to quote.
25We must, moreover, look squarely at the adventurism that accompanied some of this rhetoric during the early part of the Cold War. Examine the second part of the Korean War. In the fall of 1950, after achieving the initial American purpose of turning back an invasion by North Korea, the Americans marched to the north of Korea. Ignoring multiple warning of Chinese intervention, the United States dreamt of a rollback of communism, part of the promise of NSC-68. The incursion resulted in an ugly and unnecessary expansion of Asian conflict. It would help us in comprehending Iraq to grasp the reckless policy of Truman’s Democratic Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Do we even need to mention the case of Vietnam, which falls within the logic of American foreign policy and is often compared to Iraq? This was a foreign policy delivered to the world by liberal Democrats such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy as heavily involved in nation-building as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheyney.
26In short, the history of American “Wilsonian” diplomacy is open to much interpretation, and the Bush Doctrine fits right in with it. Or put it another way: if you don’t like the Bush Doctrine, you should have a hard time swallowing many of the acts of American assertiveness around the world in the last 100 years, and the justifications for these acts.
27Nonetheless, for policy-minded historians history is a batch of examples whose lessons are clear and ready to use. They show how good we were then, and how bad we are now. This history teaching that we get from the many critics of American policy today is dubious. The record is cloudier, the thinking and doing far more indistinct than those scholars wishing to be policy-wonks would lead us to believe. One might even argue that if one finds George Kennan’s ideas attractive, one should also find attractive the ideas of Condolezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz. I would rather say that we find in any fair attention to the historical record many more complications than scholars have been willing to acknowledge. The record will surely not teach us to act in conformity with the moral standards of liberal internationalists who want to praise most choices made in the Cold War but to condemn Iraq.
28Perhaps more important, the oversimplified vision of the past goes along with a disregard for the fact that as historians we must be enjoined not to assess the present now. The more historians get caught up in delivering pronouncements about current events, the more they ignore the logical impropriety of presuming that our present understanding can have the impartiality of historical knowledge. The historical disciplines embody an important truth about the world of scholarship: there is a point to the detachment of the Ivory Tower. But historical policymakers not only have a distorted idea of what history can accomplish. In making it do service for contemporary events, they will degrade its complex integrity.
29The standard and utterly conventional but nonetheless accepted argument for the importance of the study of the past says that we learn from history. The notion of learning has a forceful aspect -- it pertains to changing the world of the present for the better. All sort of commentators elaborate it in various ways. Karl Marx: we make our own history but only in the context of the past (and thus might be freed of some constraints in the future if we attend to how the past works). George Santayana: those who ignore the past condemn themselves to repeat it. John Maynard Keynes: practical folks often unwittingly find themselves under the spell of some past purveyor of ideas and (as Marx also believed) can liberate themselves with knowledge.
30Modern social scientists, committed to the amelioration of the human estate through the use of a thorough empirical method have given the most lucid and compelling statement of such ideas. These scholars believe that the careful accumulation of evidence combined with theoretical sophistication can lead to warranted generalizations about human activity in society and politics that we may benignly use to solve social problems. To some extent we can reduce such problems to questions of effective administration and use the appropriate techniques of applied economics, sociology, or political science to solve them.
31This mental picture of the social sciences usually brings with it a complementary one of the role of history. It functions as a sort of field, or area, that social scientists can mine for facts necessary to confirm or disconfirm theories that may be used to better the world, or explain behavior. Some aspects of this view of history strike me as foolish: that historians are bereft of conceptual ability, and that their unskilled labors basically generate a store of usable, past facts for the use of more rigorous and analytically adept social scientists. But this false view has its grounds. Historians, in general, don’t display a lot of imagination. An empirical quest for evidence often nudges aside abstract issues and governs much of what historical scholars do. Although this stereotype contains less truth than it did before the more or less new emphasis on theory in history, it has some resonance. And although social scientists don’t have much of an understanding of how historians ascertain facts to be such, working historians do generate a factual basis for their work. We should not be surprised that social scientists do not see the way the facts are embedded in a larger creative process, and simply cannot be gleaned to assist them in the construction of effective theories of human behavior.
32What does history accomplish if it does not help us to learn very much? Here we can get some help again from Nietzsche and a few other thinkers.9 When we need to act in the present, according to them, we want to do the best we can and thus need to know exactly how we are situated. The critical study of the past is most likely to help us out. History arises from present interests, but Nietzsche demands in his own way a commitment to the truth. Think of two old adages: One, ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you’; the other, ‘forewarned is forearmed’. Of these two proverbs, Nietzsche likes the second. Human beings have very little capability to plan their future, so if we use history for this purpose, we have a weak reed. But in addition, the glorification of, or nostalgia for, the past is dangerous. Human thoughtlessness and gullibility fill the pages of history books. Ruthlessly critical history liberates us from the past. We don’t learn from history how to do better. We rather learn that its study will not help us very much in the present. Missteps, fools and foolishness, madmen, and human-made disasters inevitably fill human history. We need to eschew hero-worship of the past or reliance on such worship in the present. Good history will rather help us to concentrate on our present achievements; we have got to act on our own. Mastery of history will leave us more clear-eyed about the present -- clear eyed in the sense that we know we cannot rely much on our forbearers. In this diminished learning it seems that we learn but only that we cannot learn and that we must do it ourselves. We can escape the past or overcome it. With enough critical history, we will be able to master our fate.
33In my own view, our understanding of the use of history ought to be even more minimal than this minimalist view I have attributed to Nietzsche. Historians write about continuity and change. Understanding the past involves comprehending the unique locus of people in their world but also their connection to aspects of human life that we can describe as trans-temporal and trans-cultural. If we study Abraham Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson, we may be interested in their peculiar difficulties but also in the nature of the institutions that make war and in the feelings of helplessness unrelated to participation in the Civil War or World War One per se, but perhaps part of the human condition. Lincoln and Wilson had their own peculiar stories, but their tale also has enduring features -- work, struggle, despair, triumph.
34We identify some dimensions of our historical accounts with our own lives and simultaneously contrast the histories with our own lives. History thus forms a species of self-knowledge. History tells us about ourselves by telling us our likenesses and our unlikenesses from others; who we are, who we are not. I would even go so far as to say that history gives us reflective self-knowledge. It provides us with a sense of our place in the world and instructs us that we may not have unique passions, that while our anguish is our burden, it will not endure forever. We find in history a discipline of reason that can make us celebrate, or weep.
35This sort of knowledge, however, has never usefully predicted anything of value, or helped control the future in the slightest, and at the present time shows no signs of having such ability. And this sort of knowledge does not help to make our lives morally or materially better. For this reason some committed social scientists believe that history as actually practiced is trivial or “merely” entertaining. This aspect of historical knowledge does in fact resemble the movies and professional sports, though studying history has a deeper and more durable sort of entertaining quality. History constitutes a ‘higher entertainment’. It has a certain civilizing quality like the opera or the drama.
36Indeed, I would not make much of a distinction between written history and what appears in some movies or documentaries. The film Thirteen Days (on the Cuban Missile Crisis) might trouble historians as history. But although it ‘represents’ the past in a way different from the way that a good book on the Missile Crisis does, the film has problems because it ignores and misuses evidence. Filmmakers in Hollywood or the History Channel in the United States usually have more an interest than professional historians in selling a product and less interest in telling the truth about the past. This does not make the filmmaker much different from some popular historians, who have done estimable work and have a substantial value.
37Social-science inspired critics may argue correctly, and the future may bring a new sort of history that will have a prominent place in upgrading our life, and assisting statesmen and decision makers with their deliberations. Nonetheless, much of our grasp of the past intimates that the urge to reconstruct and control the political and social side of human life has the character of a noble dream. Moreover, we may say something positive for the sort of reflective self-consciousness that the history we have has generated. It can afford hope in a time of trouble and a measure of humility in time of pride. I do not find these minor virtues. They do at least suggest that historians might do better at what they are supposed to do -- examining the past -- if they gave up trying to do what they are not suited to do -- pontificate about the heavy dilemmas of the present. There is something to be said for adhering to an ethic of complexity instead of one of strident moralism.
Bruce Kuklick, « History and Policy: The Case of Iraq », European journal of American studies [Online], Vol 3, No 1 | 2008, document 1, Online since 21 January 2008, connection on 25 March 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/1822Top of page