Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lessons in disastrous analogies

There has been some buzz this week over Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster, which documents key decision-making moments during the Vietnam War from McGeorge Bundy’s perspective. According to George Stephanopolous, the book has become a must-read for Obama administration officials. Of course, since this is a book about Vietnam, you can guess that the message administration officials are going to take away is unlikely to be that escalation is the answer to American problems in Afghanistan. Putting the debate about the correct path forward in Afghanistan aside for the moment, the selection of Goldstein’s book raises a larger question about how policymakers form their opinions on international issues. While Goldstein’s book is undoubtedly a fine history of the difficult decisions surrounding the Vietnam War, merely raising the specter of Vietnam means that the lessons likely to be set out before the spine is cracked. It seems unlikely that Vietnam will ever be invoked by a politician as a successful case of U.S. military operations.

The greater problem is how history is being used here. Obama is certainly not the first President to employ this tactic. George W. Bush read Hugh Thomas' The Spanish Civil War, which leads to the argument that if fascism were stopped in Spain, further horrors could have been avoided. If we simply treat history as a grab bag, from which we draw examples to affirm our pre-existing beliefs, the true value of history is lost. While on health care Obama assigned an article with social-scientific underpinnings (Atul Gawande’s “The Cost Conundrum”), on foreign policy issues there seem to be only a small number of examples from which we can draw lessons (Munich, Yalta, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam) and these tend to be very poor approximations to most modern problems faced by the United States. As Yuen Foong Khong has pointed out, such analogies tend to generate more heat than light: we read into them the message that we want to see.

Admittedly, finding good data on success against insurgencies is difficult, although the Enterline and Magagnoli dataset mentioned in an earlier post is a good start. Perhaps the fact that Presidents repeatedly select histories for guidance on foreign policy is more a comment on the shortcomings of international relations scholarship: unreadable prose, limited policy applicability, and a focus on theoretical debates. Still, I’ll dream of the day that I see the White House book club is reading an IR scholar’s book. Then I can criticize them for reading the wrong scholar…