Can History Help Us Understand What's Happening in Iraq?

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Mr. Matray is the chairman of the history department at California State University, Chico. He is the author of THE RELUCTANT CRUSADE: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY IN KOREA, 1941-1950, which won the Phi Alpha Theta Best Book Prize in 1986, and editor of HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF THE KOREAN WAR, which won Choice magazine's Outstanding Academic Book Award. His latest book, EAST ASIA AND THE UNITED STATES: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELATIONS SINCE 1784, was published in October 2002.

"History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain reportedly once advised, "at best it rhymes." On 21 May 2004, four professors sought to find assonance between the Iraq War and previous American conflicts during a roundtable at the 2004 Policy History Conference near St. Louis, Missouri. Joining me as presenters were Michele Angrist of Union College, Mark Lawrence of the University of Texas at Austin, and Chester Pach, Jr., of Ohio University. During the two-hour session, we each spoke for ten minutes and then answered questions. The roundtable attracted an audience of about fifty people.

My opening comment noted the difficulty of placing a war that U.S. forces still were fighting in perspective. And while it made sense at a Policy History Conference to discuss U.S. wartime policy in Iraq, it was not clear that President George W. Bush had one. I then presented a brief discussion of how, in my view, the Iraq War reflected the unilateralist pattern in U.S. foreign policy from the start of the Bush administration. My purpose was to provide a context for my colleagues to offer comparative analysis.

On 17 March 2003, President Bush delivered his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, demanding that he leave Iraq or face U.S. military action to oust him from power. Two days later, the war began. On 1 May, Bush declared victory aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Not only did the U.S. military prevail after just six weeks, there also were fewer American casualties than the United States suffered in the Persian Gulf War twelve years earlier. But despite its brevity, it was a long fuse that had ignited the Iraq War.

Bush and his advisors had followed a curious road leading to the president's day of apparent triumph on an aircraft carrier's flight deck off the coast of San Diego. During the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate Bush had criticized prior American attempts at "nation-building" abroad. He instead insisted that the United States should be "humble" in world affairs. His stunning volte-face after taking office exposed a brazen arrogance that was driving the administration towards war with Iraq. For eight months, the Bush administration followed policies that rejected the need for international cooperation.

That the United States stood as the world's only superpower had an intoxicating impact on Bush and his advisors. Far from being humble, they in fact were developing a National Security Strategy that provided a blueprint for the achievement of nothing less than global hegemony. Since no nation could match U.S. power, they seemed to believe, nothing would stop fulfillment of their vision of an orderly post-Cold War world. For its first eight months, however, there was no compelling rationale to persuade countries to unite behind the U.S. plan. Then came the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Bush opened his "War on Terrorism" with a warning, in neffect, that "you are either with us, or against us." Afghanistan was a sideshow in his hegemonic plan, as the president made clear in January 2002 when he identified the "Axis of Evil" as the real target. Iraq would be the test case. But Bush had problems from the start, at least abroad, because he could not link Saddam Hussein with 9-11. More persuasive was the necessity to remove Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, although UN inspectors found none. When Bush prepared to wage a preemptive war, many historians objected that this would be a dramatic break in U.S. policy. George Kennan, the father of containment, was among Bush's critics.

I then read my post to H-Diplo of 19 March 2003:

George W. Bush made it clear in his 17 March ultimatum speech that his war against Iraq seeks regime change as its exclusive goal. . . . Absolutely nothing that the UN inspectors accomplished would have satisfied the Bush administration, which, to repeat, has had as its sole aim to oust Saddam Hussein, regardless of the consequences. . . . Just yesterday I recalled what Madame Nhu said in November 1963 after the assassination of her husband and brother-in-law in South Vietnam: "This will be just the beginning of the story." Americans should know that dictating what sorts of governments people should have is a dangerous business that can have unexpected and disastrous results.

Since Bush's victory declaration, events in Iraq provided confirmation for this warning, most recently the prisoner abuse scandal, the attack on an alleged Iraqi wedding party, and the repudiation of Ahmad Chalabi. The emerging irony of the Iraq War was that it was providing an answer to the main American question after 9-11: "Why do they hate us?" It was because of the towering hubris of U.S. leaders like Vice President Dick Cheney, who told the world that Iraqis would greet U.S. soldiers as liberators. William Sloane Coffin was right when he observed how "power blinds before it corrupts."

Michele Angrist, assistant professor of political science, spoke next. A specialist on government and politics in the Arab states, she soon will publish a book titled Party Systems and the Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Explaining Regime Formation in Turkey, Iran, and the Arab World. Angrist underlined the importance of comparing current U.S. difficulties in Iraq with British experiences during the 1920s. When Britain assumed government power in 1928, Iraqis immediately rose in armed rebellion. A long history of nationalism meant that it was naïve to think Iraqis would welcome liberators.

Angrist then described Iraqi politics during the decade after World War II ended to show how expectations of democracy taking hold in that country are overly optimistic. Competitive multiparty elections occurred from 1945-1954, but the result was increasing political polarization. New governments followed policies that threatened the power base of elite groups. Three issues created the most discord: border disputes, including uniting with Syria, land reform, and ties with Britain. Fears of radical nationalists seizing power ultimately led to rigged elections and the utter failure of democracy in Iraq.

Britain helped promote this unfortunate outcome because it remained involved in Iraqi politics. The United States, Angrist explained, is now playing a similarly polarizing role. She emphasized that the Bush administration's primary goal must be to end all U.S. involvement in Iraq's internal affairs. Angrist ended with five policy recommendations for the United States: 1) stick to the 30 June deadline for self-rule; 2) elections must take place before 2005; 3) start U.S. military withdrawal soon; 4) support a federal form of government recognizing religious and ethnic differences; 5) do not exclude the Baathists. Angrist was not optimistic about the future success of U.S. policy in Iraq.

Mark Lawrence, assistant professor of history, then drew comparisons between Iraq and the U.S.-Philippine War of 1899 to 1902. A specialist on postwar U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, his Constructing Vietnam: the United States, European Colonialism, and the Making of the Cold War in Indochina, 1944-1950 will be published later this year. As a starting point, Lawrence recommended John Gaddis's new book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, where the author contends that United States has followed the policies of unilateralism and preemption since Washington's Farewell Address. War on Iraq was not a radical departure, but comfortingly consistent with U.S. tradition.

Lawrence, however, challenged Gaddis's description of the Iraq war as preemptive. Rather, much like Vietnam, it was a war of choice. He then explained how the Philippine conflict offered a more revealing set of comparisons. In both cases, the president moralized the reasons for war, but critics saw behind-the-scenes manipulators controlling events for ulterior motives. After an initial conventional combat phase, each became a guerrilla war. Both administrations acted on bad information and then manipulated the press to build public support.

Two common aspects of these wars Lawrence viewed as especially illuminating. First, he noted the complexity in the chain of events leading to war, equating the sinking of the battleship Maine with 9-11, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt's prewar machinations with those of Vice President Cheney, and the dream of exploiting the famed China Market with the drive for access to oil. Second, the United States waged war using questionable methods. For Lawrence, U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners was the ultimate tragedy of both conflicts. He speculated that domestic outrage over these acts of barbarism might turn public opinion fully against the Iraq War, as it did in Vietnam.

Associate Professor of History Chester Pach, Jr., who has written comprehensive studies of both the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations, also recommended Gaddis's book, describing it as provocative and insightful. He then remarked on how current U.S. difficulties in Iraq demonstrated the powerful hold that memories of Vietnam had on the thinking of Americans. Senator Joseph Biden had likened a recent attack on U.S. forces to the Tet Offensive and Senator Ted Kennedy had referred to Iraq as a quagmire. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell denied that prisoner abuse was another My Lai.

Pach then emphasized that Iraq was not Vietnam, except in the sense that both were wars gone wrong. First, Bush waged war in the Mideast for regime change, while his predecessors fought in Southeast Asia for regime preservation. Second, U.S. public support for the Vietnam conflict never approached initial American approval for the Iraq War. Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson's presidency, but Bush's political situation is not so dire. And the former president's pessimism about his war contrasts sharply with the optimism of the latter. Johnson, unlike Bush, had no expectation of victory.

In conclusion, Pach perceptively observed that a domino theory motivated the thinking of U.S. leaders in both wars. If the United States allowed South Vietnam to fall, U.S. leaders believed that the Communists would seize power in one after another nation in Southeast Asia. Once Iraq emulated the U.S. example, Bush and his advisors expected the rise of democracies across the Mideast. For Pach, Bush's policy in Iraq was reckless in comparison with the strategy of containment his predecessors pursued in Vietnam. In contrast to Vietnam, however, the United Nations still might become involved in Iraq.

Circumstances in Iraq have improved since our roundtable attempted to place this war in historical perspective. The Bush administration appears to have learned that it will pay a stiff price for following a unilateralist foreign policy both at home and abroad. But gaining UN Security Council support for Iraq's interim government does not validate a Bush Doctrine that seeks global regime change. President George H.W. Bush explained why in 1998 when defending his restraint in the Persian Gulf War: "Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into the occupation of Iraq . . . would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. . . . The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." It appears that father knows best.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Global hegemony" is a platitude too far for me. Is American power and influence being advanced in China, Korea, Russia, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, beyond what it already was in the old "multilateralist" days of Clinton and Bush I ?

Despite the presence of political scientists in this St. Louis conference, it seems to have overlooked the paramount Rovian goal of winning the November, 2004 presidential election with just over 50% of the electoral votes (rather than just under 50% as in 2000), and the obvious appeal thereby of repackaging an inexperienced, tongue-twisted and unelected president, devoid of policy goals, as a "war president". For this selfish reason, pursued with unswerving fanaticism and incompetence, America's national security has now been weakened for decades. Eventually historians will see shed their Cold War, Left-Right, and Domestic-Foreign blinders to see this starker reality. This bunch has not quite got there yet.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Thanks for clarifying, Arnold. I agree with you about the bi-partisan hypocrisy of American politicians. I further tend to agree that a clear if not "overwhelming" "majority of the US historians" on THIS website are partisan, and to the detriment of historical insight.

I don't think that is the case in the profession generally, however, and I believe that, with the passage of time, historians of all stripes will come to better appreciate that, whatever the long term trajectory of American foreign policy, the disasters wrought by the immoral and inept Bush II administration are historic in scale and non-partisan in their sweeping and long-lasting negative effects.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I can agree that Big America with its Big Government, Big Military, Big Corporations, and Big Media Outlets, has a bigger influence, by far, than any other country. Where I would differ is regarding the notion that this all leads to some ordained, unswerving and inevitable planetary "hegemony". There is such a thing as historical contingency, I think. I also think that Halliburton, Microsoft, Fox etc., could not care less about "hegemony". As long as you buy their overpriced crap they don't care whether you are a potentate or a peon.

Of course, the fall of the USSR made the U.S. relatively even stronger than before. But not overwhelmingly so. America did not prevail in Vietnam, nor did it then nor has it since found any real alternative to dependency on OPEC. China helps America now economically. In the 1970s it was an eastern counterweight to the Soviet bloc. Pakistan was an ally then and now. Cuba is less of a threat. Brazil is a less automatic friend. The fundamental relative geopolitical and economic weight of America in the world has not changed drastically since the 1960s.

What has changed, among other things, is the effectiveness of American foreign policy-making. It wavered under Clinton and has plummeted under Bush II. One comparison of many that illustrates this demise is that of the two Iraq wars. Europe, Japan and the Arab world were with the U.S. in 1991 and mostly stood to the side in 2003. Most of the costs of Gulf War were paid by other countries whereas most of the financial burden of Dubya's reckless and pigheaded gamble is falling and will fall on U.S. taxpayers and their offspring. The paramount reason for this difference is the arrogant, selfish ignorance and incompetence of the Junior Bush, versus his drab and short-sighted, but at least experienced and competent, father.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I don't know what "obviously hypocritic partisan game" you refer to, Arnold, in your latest remarks above. With all due respect, I suspect some language or communication glitch there. You are of course, right to distinguish, as I did not (and most "pundits" rarely do either, to their discredit) between ruling regimes and subjects thereof. You think America's control over the rest of the world is getting stronger and stronger, year by year. I do not. That fundamental question seems to me to be one on which reasonable, informed and non-partisan commenters can amicably and profitably disagree.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/26/2004


I apologize for some emotional phrasing in my last comments. I meant no harm to you personally.
It is just that I find hypocritic when Republicans and
Democrats constantly blaim each other for the "blunders"
of the American foreign policy happening under both
Recent case-scenario is just one of such example of
that hypocritic game both parties play to justify themselves. Democrats blame Republicans for Iraq war,
though the great majority of the Democrats voted for it
along with the Republicans. Not to have later argument
about the Democrats' position on the war, as the alleged result of them being swindled by Bush administration, I want to point out that if the Democratic party leaders are so gullible and foolish, as to take the most serious
"facts" of peace and war presented by the President and his assistants at the face value, without any critical analysis, we have to conclude the following: they don't draw any knowledge from the lessons of political history of this country, don't deserve to be politicians at all, and even less - represent American people.
Republicans, in their turn, accuse Democrats for Kosovo
and Belgrad's bombing and not decisively going after
Bin Laden(the latter they didn't do either until 9/11).
But how many of Republican leaders opposed Kosovo intervention and Belgrade's bombing? Unfortunately, I don't have the exact data on that, but don't think - many
of them.
Democrats blame Republicans for the economic recession
and jobs crisis, Republicans respond that the recession started in Clinton's time, etc.
This is just the games politicians play you might say.
This opinion granted, my concern, however, is about the
position of historians and political analysts who supposed to be intellectually honest and impartial.
But they've never been you might comment again.
That's exactly what I meant when referring to "hypocritic partisan game". Politicians will be politicians, and there is little more to say about them.
One cannot overestimate the influence their ideological and social-economic background have on their practical deeds and cannot underestimate the extent of lies and criminal conspiracy they may resort to.
But historians, by definition, must be unbiased observers and commentators, there should not be Democratic ot Republican, or Socialistic historians.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the US historians are those partisan ones. This undeniable fact
by itself, makes it impossible for them to remain objective and impartial in their observations and analysis and leads to ideologically interpreted history, not to the factually interpreted history that has to reign in a truly free society.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/23/2004


Big America with ... has not only a bigger influence than other country, it has dominance over the entire
huge world regions! It is well known that from the geo-strategical point of view this country taken alone is compared only with the entire united Europe, or entire South-Eastern Asia(China and Japan, included). Still such enormous by size and population continents, as Africa or Latin America with all their countries taken together doesn't deserve the geo-strategical comparison with the US, according to the experts.
And the rate of the dominance increase only goes up with
years, not down.
It is not an absolute dominance/hegemony(but then nothing can be 'absolute'), if that's what you expect to get following the described by me pattern, but if this not what you call 'overwhelming' dominance/hegemony than
nothing can be. Ancient Rome had the global hegemony by the unilateral opinion of historians, but it doesn't mean
it actually completely controlled everything that was happening at every corner of the planet Earth, neither
it had conquered every region in the world.
Besides, you insult my intelligence if, as you apparently
do, think that I implied that even being a global hegemony in 21st century the country can do everything
by force, in complete and perpetual disregard of the interests of international community and sometimes slightly different interests of its allies(Rome also had allies). Therefore, your OPEC argument is largely irrelevant. The Vietnam example is even less applicable,
since I never said or implied that those times the US
dominancy was greater than now(you probably forgot that
without Soviet and Chinese help and support, not only Vietkong wouldn't survive, but the US would have no second thoughts to invade North Vietnam and "prevail" over entire Asian South-Eastern region.
China in 70s was an eastern counterweight to the Soviet bloc ... in the plans of the US strategists. One have to be extremely naive not to see that, in reality, China of 70s was playing double/middle game the rules of which were declared as early as at the end of 60s: the US and the USSR are both powerful enemies and best tactics was to carefully avoid the direct military conflicts with them, simultaneously trying to instigate the conflicts between them. Saying that, however, I still don't have any clue how the "counterweight" notion(or the sentence "China helps? America now economically") rebuffs my argument about the continuing advance of the US influence in the world. Do you really mean that the situation in the area of the US-China relations/connections changed towards deterioration of this country dominance in the world or didn't change at all?

By the way, what do you think a term "world's SINGLE superpower" means that has not been applied to this country in 70s or 80s?

Pakistan was a close ally of the Afganistan under Taliban regime and sponsor and supporter of Islamic terrorism(in Kashmir it still remains so), what we call Al-Qaeda now, wasn't it? Now being scared to death(who is not with US is against US) and openly bribed by this country leaders it "miraclously" transfomed itself into
the leading anti-terrorist Islamic state on MidEast.
Oops, I forgot: nothing changed there.
Cuba was ever a threat to the US? And Grenada or Panama or Nicaragua or Guatemala, or San-Salvador was? In the sick imagination of the the US hegemonists it was. Thank you for giving one more confirmation of the reality of strive for the global dominance that the above idea was and is one of the ridiculous justifications for.

If you call by Arab world their ruling elites and 10%
percent of their supporters among the populus then you are right they were with the US in 1991 and even before that and remain loyal to this country and consequently to their own interests at present.
Have you ever been in those Arab countries talking to the common folks, not the official representives or journalists? Are you aware of that according to(though
approximate) statistics about 75% of the populus in those
allied Arab countries, condemned, or at the least, opposed the American policy on MidEast, even before 2001?
And even greater percentage now?
Aren't historians supposed to be reflecting historical reality, not the wishful thinking?

Also, objective historians have no intellectual or moral right to be partisan in their writings.
So, stop this ugly and obviously hypocritic partisan game to accusing each other of the wrongdoings and crimes of the bypartisanship.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/21/2004


Global hegemony, as you undoubtedly aware of, cannot be achieved overnight. Moreover, being a complex historical process, this phenomenon does not and cannot develop "linearly" and in one dimension(no other historical process does). It is an observed tendency, and is only true, if the observations are numerous and
they constitute a certain pattern. In case of the US struggling for such hegemony, the respective pattern have
been described and confirmed by the numerous events and
corresponding actions of the US goverments - Democratic and Republican alike - in the course of the last 70-80 years.
You take any continent: Europe, Asia, Africa,
not even mentioning Latin America and Central America, being for long time considered the immediate, almost domestic "responsibility" of this country Business and Politics; you find mostly uninvited and unwelcome(among
the great majority of the local populus) US interference, ranging from subversive political, economic and ideological operations to the direct aggression/invasion. If you are an objective observer, acting beyond any preconceived ideological axioms, after analyzing those numerous events in their entirety, you cannot help avoiding the same conclusion, as to the main goal of this country's foreign policy: to impose its will(whether it is good or bad one) on other countries, to rebuild the world according to the Grand American Design, suited to its narrow(mostly economical) national view and interests, considered to be the best and the noblest by definition.
It is extremely naive to divide American political leaders on two categories: blood-thirsty, belligerent,
and peaceful, humanitarian or something along these lines. Such categorization would be, first, not about
real complex people, second - confusing, since it ignores
the interests of groups those politicians represent.
The personal motives, characterizations, and partisan
affilation notwithstanding, however, they all represent,
in one way or another, the interests of the major element of American socio-economic structure: Big Business, Big Corporations.
It is those interests dictate the American foreign policy, it is those interests make very different political personalities behave identically, in spirit,
and often - in letter.
This is, I admit, criminally brief picture and the rationale behind the global hegemony concept, stated above. But, I assume, some(actually most) of the comments made here are familiar to you, and you read much
more along the same lines.

I can also give you a direct(though, far from being full) answer to the question posed at the beginning of
your last comment: Yes, American power and influence has
been advanced under Bush II, explicitly or implicitly so. As I emphasized above, the advance, in question is neither simple, nor one-dimensional development.
Thus, to China and Russia, for example, this country showed one more time its military(which is obvious) and political dominant strength; political - in the sense that despite their objections it can do anything it fits
US and its loyal leutenant - UK, and Russia and China can do nothing about it, thus stressing their new second-importance status and spitting on the economic interests these countries had/have on Mid-East, those that didn't/don't benefit the US business.
On Korean peninsula, the advance is actually self-explanatory. I just want to mention one thing: the state of scare the US put North Korea in, and the tremendous pressure the US applies to that country, that every half-brained realizes has nothing to do with the ridiculous allegation of WMD threat North Korea poses to US or its allies, but target the change of the existing regime there, as it was and is the case with Iraq, and Iran.
Should I even explain Pakistan's case? There were no developments there lately???
To Saudi Arabia this country showed one more time that
as long, as they remain our most loyal economical and political ally on the MidEast, they are exempt from any
responsibility for murdering American and other foreign citizens and soldiers, in radical difference with the way they will be treated, if they dare to go along with the democracy rule, i.e. act on the will of its own populus(the sub-pattern established long time ago, say, in Nicaragua, and Sal-Salvador, to name just a few).

I don't know well the US-Brasil situation, and so cannot elaborate on this particular one, but will be very(and pleasantly) surprised if the developments there greatly deviated from the described pattern or its immediate consequences.

As far as the weakening of America's national security mentioned by you is concerned, one might wonder why the American goverment would do such an obviously stupid, and self-defeating thing. The US mainstream historians cannot understand it, as long as they stick to the old
ideological doctrine of Good, Bad White House administration. If however, one admits the global hegemony pattern and therefore calls "blunders" and "mistakes" - deliberate and well understood actions of smart, but self-serving folks - everything falls in place, i.e. explanation of all "blunders" and "mistakes" is easily obtained.