In a discussion with Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute about U.S. policy towards Syria, Prof. Marc Lynch commented on the title of his opponent’s article by saying that authors do not chose their own title but rather they find it as given. What he mentioned was that Tabler was completely right to claim that Syria is collapsing. Syria is melting down as we watching (please be noted that this discussion took place in 2013, as we are advancing in 2014, Syria is still melting down). This is a complete truth, no doubt about it. Moreover, we are not only watching the destruction of a country, but also that of its people, economy, infrastructures, history, and its children and future. The videos, photographs, figures, death tools, predictions are all shocking. Crisis in Iraq and the destruction and humanitarian disaster the ISIL or IS (Islamic State as they call themselves now) caused. Or think about Ukraine. I do not want to plunge into those ugly numbers and examples once again here not just because I am sure that everyone are tired of watching and reading them but also because the statistics simply hide an unfolding “humanitarian tragedy”. The US is the only sole superpower that has the capacity to stop occurring such disaster. (look at the book of Samatha Power, the US’ ambassador to the UN, to elaborate more on moral responsibility of the US to stop this kind of atrocities) This fact is accepted by Obama as he was giving an explicit interview a few days ago. What I want to dwell on is not the fact that the US sometimes do intervene into disaster or not intervene but the way in which the US policy makers use of the analogies in explaining their position towards it.
Jeffrey Record points out in his article that “decision-makers and their critics employ reasoning by historical analogy to interpret new events as well as deploying historical analogies to mobilize public opinion”. Record elegantly shows us how different analogies had been used and abused during the 2003 Iraq war. On the one hand, pro-war side before the Iraq intervention in 2003 referred hugely to the analogy of Munich. Even President Bush, Jr. used this analogy by saying that “half a century ago, the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it… I do not make that mistake again.” On the other hand, anti war side constantly used the analogy of Vietnam by implying that a US invasion of Iraq risked stumbling into a Vietnam-like quagmire as a war in Afghanistan went on.
In a similar direction, when it came to Syria, for instance, many other analogies such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Bosnia were already employed to build so called “historically educated reasoning”. Many argue that Syria will be another Iraq like quagmire for the USA and its allies by implying that there was no way to stop the conflict going on in Syria even if there would have been hundred thousands of boots on the ground, which is a bitter lesson have learned from Iraq for Americans. Many argue that even a quick operation to oust brutal Assad family from their violent led regime would not have guaranteed a sustainable democracy in the country as it did not work out in Libya. Many argue that the USA could have made it through by supporting certain side in the conflict, as it was the case in Bosnia.
However, the use and abuse of history by unwittingly extracting analogies from it is nothing but misleading and misrepresenting. Munich indisputably propelled the United States into Vietnam, but caused Iraq War as Vietnam stopped the United States involving in many slaughters took place around the world such as Bosnia, which left behind many dispensable humanitarian crisis.
For the record, historical analogies have little use in evaluating humanitarian crisis. For very long time wars are destined to be long lasting in the age of insurgencies. This is a fact and there is nothing to do with the war in Vietnam or Iraq or with other analogies that can be used. This is a direct result of changing face of war. War became nasty and long as human beings develop more advance weaponry. There is no easy victory any more. Yes, a matter of fact, we have a humanitarian duty to stand tall against abuse of human rights no matter where it takes place, again irrespective of any analogies. This is simply how it is, a result of progressive development of human affairs and from the times of the great thinkers such as Vitoria to today we have expanded our humanitarian responsibilities in terms of international humanitarian law as our collective conscience expands. So, there is no need to bring about any analogy at all for evaluating Syrian crisis or any other crisis. The question is simple; are we going to handle the issue bearing in mind the real politics in which there is no room for morality, or are we going to lean on more moral duties, which we care most when they are relevant to our interests? Nonetheless, it is wittingly true that states act on moral duties when those moral duties comply with their national interests. Having intervention on Libya but not on Syria is one of the obvious proven real politic attitudes. For a matter of fact, Obama restrained from getting involved in Syria. Even there is a more striking example nowadays. Obama’s unwillingness to intervene as ISIL advancing towards Bagdat but his limited engagement while the very same group turned to Kurdish region in the North of Iraq. Is it because just humanitarian ground as he spelled it out or oil played a lot in making that decision? What do you think?
Therefore the use of analogies in understanding war or crisis and evaluating the best option to put in place is the abuse of history. What is proper use of history, I think, must be a little bit different than we used to. History does not only guide us but also it also often judges us. In this respect, history will be used at most in next generation’s attempts to judge our generation as we did judge Hitler and Mussolini as well as Chamberlain.
Picasso’s painting Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering of innocent civilians, and tries to reflect the shame of humanity. We cannot find anyone who stand behind of brutal act of Guernica bombardment, or anyone who do not feel sorry for as we look at this painting, there will be neither anyone who stands behind of those turning a blind eye to Syrian calamity, nor anyone who stand behind of those committing brutal war crimes and their supporters in the future as future generations look at historical documents. Because history is mostly used for judging the past not to legitimating now and the future.