History is the study of written accounts of the past, encompassing all aspects of society: its political development, wars, cultural developments and everyday life. It is chronological, in that it assesses past events as they occurred sequentially. History is preserved and studied as a means of understanding both the past and the present which the former's events have helped to shape. It is not an objective science, though nowadays it is often classified as being a branch of the social sciences.
History is usually taken to mean a written analysis of past events and human interactions, although oral history is an important area of study also. In certain types of traditional tribal societies, for example, oral history is a well developed and sophisticated means of transmitting the story of the past to the people of the present.
Many blogs are devoted to the study and discussion of history, some quite general and international in scope. Others focus on a certain geographical area, such as the United States, or a certain time period, such as the Middle Ages or the Edwardian period.
As U.S. and Iraqi forces push through Fallujah in the second day of a major offensive to retake the town from insurgents, there is legitimate and deep concern over the conduct of the war, and certainly the “winning the peace” phase that has been more deadly than the original invasion to effect regime change. The situation is very fluid, uncertain and fraught with danger from within and without. Reasonable people can look at the situation and see no positive end in sight.
I do not share their pessimism, though I know we must do a much better job of giving the Iraqis a real sense that they truly do control their own destiny with our support, which must remain steadfast. With all of the – largely justified – negativity in the air regarding the future of Iraq and the wisdom of the invasion in light of the apparent absence of WMD in Iraq, I think it crucial we take a step back for some historical perspective.
First, Walter Russell Mead, a prize-winning scholar of American foreign policy and senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, answers questions about Iraq and Bush in light of his reelection:
At this point, are you able to speculate a bit on Bush’s place in history? He is obviously a strong campaigner.
I think a lot is going to depend on the situation in Iraq. Bush essentially has no excuses now: he has a mandate, he has both houses of Congress, and he is in full control of the foreign policy machinery. The war in Iraq is one that he chose, that he planned, that he has led. Bush is going to look pretty good if even two years from now Iraq is more or less pacified, and there is a government that is at least, in some ways, better than Saddam Hussein, and you have an island of stability in the middle of the Middle East. In retrospect he will look like a visionary, and people will forget all the ups and downs. When people now think of the Mexican War, they think about it as this quick, glorious dash. But in fact [President James] Polk had terrible problems during the Mexican War [1846-1848].
You mean politically, at home?
Yes. Politically, at home, there were questions like, “Will those Mexicans ever negotiate?” “Are we stuck in this quagmire?” And this was a war that ended with the United States getting a whole lot of territory. Likewise, if you think about the Filipino insurrection after the Spanish-American War, I think we lost significantly more troops in suppressing that insurrection than we did in the Iraq war. [American casualties in the Filipino guerrilla war are estimated at 4,000 killed and 3,000 wounded].
Iraq, I guess I would divide between effort and achievement. I’d give an A for effort. I would also say that the administration made the right decision that Saddam Hussein was the next address to visit, but I think the administration obviously did not do a very good job of building international support before the war, and [it] clearly underestimated the risks and difficulties that would follow afterward.
[Administration officials] also didn’t take advantage of some of the planning that their own State Department was doing for postwar reconstruction. They have to lose some points there. I guess you are stuck with a C-.
….But you might also say “incomplete.” If six months from now, a year from now, we are looking at an Iraqi government that more or less has a security system evolving, if the Shiite situation has calmed down a little bit and [the government is] able to concentrate on the more dangerous insurgency in the north within the Sunni triangle, and if Iraqis are more and more taking the lead politically, well maybe it works out. But it is too soon to tell.
Some people have said that the war in Iraq has interfered with the war against terrorism. What do you think?
I think if you are saying that chasing down al Qaeda remnants in the hills of Afghanistan is the only priority in the war against terrorism, you can criticize Bush. My own sense has always been if you look at what Osama bin Laden and his movement want, probably its first goal is Saudi Arabia and its second goal is Pakistan. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up tightening the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and the fundamentalists are much farther from getting hold of Pakistan now, it would seem to me, than they were a couple of years ago. And by the same token, Saddam Hussein’s refusal to disarm in compliance with the 1991 cease-fire meant that the Saudis had to have United States troops on their soil as part of the containment policy. And the presence of those troops was why Osama bin Laden declared war on both the United States and the Saudis. It was a tremendously delegitimizing and destabilizing factor in Saudi politics. With Saddam gone, the troops are gone. And what you are seeing, I think it is fair to say, is a Saudi regime, partly buoyed up by the increase in the price of oil, but also without this albatross of American troops at home, that has actually been able to take a tougher line on terrorism and al Qaeda than it was two years ago. I would say our enemies in the region are strategically in a worse situation than they were when Saddam Hussein was in power.
The key word here, for me, is “incomplete” – I think it critical that Bush be allowed more time to finish what he began, and that’s the primary reason I voted for him. I am sympathetic to the view that says he should have been punished for his post-invasion mistakes, but I still see regime change in Iraq as more positive than negative, and I do not see the original invasion as a mistake.
Another very difficult issue is the administration’s handling of the balance between civil liberties and the exigencies of a very real war against terror abroad and at home: there really ARE people who want to kill as many of our citizens as possible wandering among us as we speak. The threat of domestic terror did not magically disappear with 9/11.
Geoffrey R. Stone has an extremely germane new book out, PERILOUS TIMES: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, in which he examines just that. Christopher Hitchens reviewed the book in Sunday’s NY Times:
HOWEVER seductively it may be phrased, the offer of an exchange of liberty for security has a totalitarian hook sticking out of its protectively colored bait. Societies that make the trade have very often ended up with neither liberty nor security. But on the other hand … totalitarianism can present a much more menacing threat from without.
….America’s first experiment with a national-security state was at once its most unambivalently disastrous and its shortest lived. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were, to begin with, flagrantly partisan. The easiest proof of this is the exemption of the vice president from the list of official persons who could be calumniated, simply because the anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson was at that time the holder of the office. They also vastly exaggerated the threat from revolutionary France and flatly negated the spirit and letter of the First Amendment.
….So great was the eventual revulsion from this that, six and a half decades after the acts were repealed, President Lincoln had no choice but to read the most viperous editorials in the Democratic press, describing him as a demented tyrant bent upon a bloody war of self-aggrandizement.
Stone’s pages on this period are completely absorbing. He shows that Lincoln did imprison or fine the occasional editor, but with scant relish for the business, and that wartime censorship was so easily evaded as to be no censorship at all.
….In the run-up to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt swung out against the antiwar isolationists with Lincoln’s vigor … The trial of William Dudley Pelley, leader of the fascist Silver Shirt militia, provided the war years’ test case. Pelley had taken the Nazi side, proclaimed an administration conspiracy to exploit Pearl Harbor and announced that Americans were being drafted to fight a Jewish war. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served 10, which meant that he also stayed inside until after the war was over.
….one would expect the United States, after one civil war and two global conflicts, to have many fewer liberties than it had in the 1850’s. But the effect is as much dialectical as it is cumulative, if not more so. As Stone demonstrates, the courts have made concessions based on precedent. In the Pelley case, a court of appeals reconsidered the Espionage Act of 1917, under which Pelley had been charged, to refine and dilute the definition of subversive speech. There was a line to be observed, demarcating the propagation of deliberate falsehood from the circulation of disputable opinions. By the time the United States was next divided in wartime, during the Vietnam years, the courts were ready to rule that speech and action should in effect be considered separately.
….Stone does not take up the peacetime panic after the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City that produced the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which is still employed for prosecutions and deportations. There was enough law already on the books, you might say, before the passage of the Patriot Act. And surely one central part of that act — the correct decision to allow the sharing of intelligence between foreign and domestic agencies — could have been made for its own sake.
I agree, but the great improvement in our historical response to contrary speech during perilous times must be honestly noted in any consideration of our current environment: calling the Bush administration’s response “fascistic” is extreme hyperbole.
Lastly, a looming foreign policy nightmare is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons – how do we deal with this? Another new book, Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle, puts that dilemma in historical perspective. Michiko Kakutani reviews it in today’s NY Times:
[Pollack] provides the reader with a brief history of Iran, underscoring the ferocious xenophobia of Iranian leaders like Mohammed Mossadegh and Ayatollah Khomeini, while emphasizing how the country’s experience as a pawn in the Great Game played by Russia and Great Britain during the 19th century nurtured Iranians’ suspicion of foreign interference in their country’s affairs. He discusses the tendency of the Iranian people – fed by centuries of weak and corrupt regimes – to resent and resist their rulers.
…Like most observers, Mr. Pollack sees the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh as a defining moment for Iranian attitudes toward America. “What is most knotty for the United States,” he writes, “is that the popular Iranian version of history portrays Mossadegh as a wildly popular prime minister forging a new, democratic Iran fully in command of its own destiny, who was overthrown by American agents to prevent Iran from achieving political and economic freedom.”
Though he argues that this myth “embellished and exaggerated” American mistakes “to grandiose proportions,” he adds that “there is a kernel of truth in it, and therein lies the rub; the United States did help to overthrow Mossadegh, and it was culpable in the establishment of the despotism of Mohammed Reza Shah that succeeded him.”
Many Iranians, furious at the shah for a multitude of sins, from his creation of a repressive police state to his squandering of money on military equipment, blamed the United States, which they saw as “his ally or colonial ‘master.’ ” Mr. Pollack, on his part, contends that “to the extent anyone was manipulating anyone, it was the shah who was manipulating the United States through his ability to influence oil prices,” his monopoly over “strategic freedom of action in the gulf region” and “his control over virtually all of the information the United States received from his country.”
“The shah brought the Iranian revolution on himself,” he concludes: America’s “greatest mistake was not in failing to prevent his fall but in following policies that made his fall so injurious to our interests.”
For Americans, Mr. Pollack goes on, the defining moment in relations with Iran was the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, which “left a terrible scar on the American psyche” and which has remained the “elephant in the living room” of American policy toward Iran ever since.
“The hostage crisis made the United States look weak in the eyes of the world,” he writes, “and weakness invites challenge. It seems fairly certain that this impression of weakness contributed to Iran’s decision to challenge the United States in Lebanon in the 1980’s and throughout the Persian Gulf in the 1980’s and early 1990’s; Iraq’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 and then to remain there even after the United States committed 500,000 troops in 1991; Syria’s willingness to challenge us in Lebanon in the 1980’s; and possibly to other international confrontations that followed.”
Namely al Qaeda’s decision to strike America directly on 9/11. This is exactly why forceful action in the Middle East, ie Iraq, was absolutely necessary after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan: to make it absolutely clear to any and all observers in the Islamic world that we may no longer be perceived as “weak,” and at a minimum, that crucial mission has been accomplished.
Now it is time to win the “peace” Iraq, and to provide an example of an American-facilitated democracy in the heart of the Middle East, right next door to Iran where for any number of practical reasons, use of military force is an extremely poor option.
Beware the siren song of easy regime change … there is good evidence that most Iranians want a different form of government, but there is little evidence that they are ready to take up arms against their rulers. Most Iranians simply don’t want to go through another revolution. While Iranians on the whole are probably the most pro-American Muslims in the region, they are also fiercely nationalistic. Given our experience in Iraq, we should assume they would resist any effort by America to interfere in their domestic affairs.
A diplomatic solution is far preferable to a military one. Though the problems America faces in Iraq today would likely be argument enough against invading another Middle Eastern state, there’s another reason to hold off on attacking Iran: we do not have a realistic military option there. Our troops are spread thin, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could mount a far more potent military insurgency than the rebels in Iraq. Nor do strategic air strikes on nuclear targets seem like a viable alternative. One lesson Iran learned from Iraq was to widely disperse its nuclear facilities, duplicate them, hide them and harden them. Today we do not know enough about Iran’s nuclear network to know if a widespread air campaign could even set it back significantly, while we doubtless would face retaliation from Iran in the form of terrorist attacks and an all-out clandestine war by Iranian agents in Iraq.
A multilateral approach can produce results where a unilateral course may fail. The key element in Saddam Hussein’s decision to give up his nonconventional weapons programs – or at least put them on ice – was the willingness of the French, Russians and Chinese to agree, in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, to a system of inspections and economic penalties built around the idea that sanctions would remain as long as the inspectors kept finding elements of the regime’s illegal weapons programs.
….If we and our allies ever want to force real changes by the mullahs – and give them a reason to slow or halt their nuclear program – we are going to have to agree to a multilateral approach that combines carrots and sticks. That means being ready to reward positive steps that Iran might take – including greater access to nuclear sites and diminishing support for terrorism – with immediate trade benefits, while simultaneously imposing tough sanctions for each step it takes in the wrong direction.
It’s worth recalling that over the past 15 years we have seen Iran back down in the face of the threat of multilateral sanctions. In 2003, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that Iran had a program for uranium enrichment. Convinced that the Europeans and Japan were serious about punishment, Iran agreed temporarily to suspend the program. (Not surprisingly, once the European threat faded, the program was restarted immediately.)
One of the goals of a balanced approach should be to convince Iran to accept a robust inspection program with a legitimate threat of sanctions to back it up. Here as well, the experience with Iraq should make us comfortable that if we can get such a system in place with Iran, it has a good chance of succeeding. Of course, the difference is that with Iraq we had Security Council resolutions that authorized comprehensive inspections, imposed draconian sanctions and permitted, under certain circumstances, the use of force. With Iran today, we have only the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – a voluntary measure that allows inspectors to look only where the country allows them to look, does not actually prohibit the development of fissile material and carries only the vague threat of unspecified sanctions if the Security Council can agree on them. Only a coherent strategy among the United States, Europe and Japan will bring Iran to heel.
….we have to lay down clear red lines that, if Iran chooses to cross them, would automatically set off pre-established multilateral sanctions. The violations could include Iran’s deciding to resume production of uranium hexaflouride, a compound used in enriching nuclear fuel for weapons; starting new enrichment operations at the Natanz centrifuge facility; importing additional enrichment technology; constructing new enrichment or plutonium extraction plants; testing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warhead; and refusing to stop mining uranium domestically.
Looking at the Iraq example, the bottom line for Iran is that we have to act now, while we still have some options left that might persuade the mullahs in Tehran to slow or halt their nuclear program. But we must get our allies on board immediately, and get firm commitments from them should Iran go back on its word in the future. The last thing we want to do three or five or ten years from now is to be bickering at the Security Council while Iran joins the nuclear club.
Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.
Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted.
Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.