Counterfactuals and relevant policy: the case of Iraq and Afghanistan

Oct 15, 2014

By Jo and David

When we talk about the relevance of history to policy, we are frequently asked to point to specific decisions that might have been different had historians been involved.  One that immediately comes to mind is the 2002 invasion of Iraq.  While hawkish American analogized the moment to appeasement, many a historian on both sides of the Atlantic was appalled, wondering on what pretext we had decided to rehearse the invasion of Vietnam, let alone the expansion of American Empire in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Panama, Haiti, and Guatemala, so that soldiers of another generation following American sugarcane and bananas to protect commercial interests have been replaced by soldiers following oil.  

In broad terms, given the history, policy-makers might in general have known better than to attempt a nation-rebuilding project that involved any expectation of holding and administering territory with recent empires as their model.  The cycle of oppression and dissent in Latin America has not diminished with US intervention; rather, those experiments predict a cycle of embittered memory, reconsolidation, and revenge that predicts a heating up of Jihad straight up to ISIS from the moment when the first footage of torture at Guantanamo went viral. Economics might predict a world that in Thomas Friedman's caricature never saw two nations with MacDonald's go to war with each other, but history knows no such law; it does know -- courtesy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- plenty of stories about embittered colonial subjects organizing themselves into resistance movements which persist in the cause of evicting the colonizer for generations, whether or not political or economic stability is thereby ensured.    

"Iraq would have looked different had historians been involved" is a bold claim, for there are dissenters -- historians who advocate an aggressive role of the US in insuring international stability and trade; historians who hold up Britain's empire in the nineteenth century as a monument worthy of re-enactment.  But it is fairly trivial to prove that those historians are in the minority.  Count their books and those of their students against the masses of historical scholarship in the last thirty years that demonstrates the long-term results of British empire in creating long-term political instability, oppression, and resistance, and the former is a nightstand worth of reading, the latter a mountain of paper.  

One of the forms of what we call the "short past" that emerged among historians after 1968 was a form of historical critique that was absolutely grounded in the experience by baby-boomer historians of the Vietnam War.  Dozens of twenty- and thirty-year-olds returned, in 1968 and 1974, from Southeast Asia, morally and politically astonished by the display of disproportionate force that they had witnessed in the name of political stability.  Consider the writing careers of historians like Nick Cullather, James Hevia, or Alfred W. McCoy.  In the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, those historians and their colleagues — many of them with personal experiences of Vietnam or anti-war protests — filled bookshelves of research with new material on the long-term consequences of real human abuse that happened in earlier escapades when American armies and intelligence entered Guatemala, Nicaragua, or the Philipines; or when the British tried to govern India, China, or Singapore. Their inquiries about empire have flooded the libraries with detailed excavations of the ordinary workings of empire -- economic, social, and politics. They are not few in number, and while they apply many different methodologies and look in many different archives, their conclusion icicles around a consensus about how racism has been enshrined in each of these forms of government at a distance, with terrible and lasting results.

The thesis of those studies might be summarized as such: distance of class and racism produced, in most of these empires, a distance between the governed and their subjects that resulted in human abuses so cruel, so scandalous, so contrary to any stated aims of civilization, that they had to be written out of the record altogether; they could not be known and generally talked about at home.  We could not bear to look at our own history.  Follow that line of thinking a little further, and it runs like this: we should have know better.  Even if it was hard to look at our history; we should have done so, and had we done so, there might not have been a Vietnam.  Historians themselves often express skepticism that power wants to listen -- or that power can be persuaded by anything other than the self interest of moneyed elites.  Consider the following anecdote.  A few weeks ago, one of our historian friends -- in this case an Ottomanist -- lifted a glass of wine to her lips and paused to think about the arguments I was telling her about. You know, she said, in the scholarship of the Middle East, it's not that we have no historians who engage in policy, quite the contrary.  But the historians who are likely to be taken seriously by policy are cherry-picked for their hawkish opinions.  A few of them and their students are beloved by the State Department.  The rest of us, however, disagree. 

Our friend didn't need to fill in the rest; we both know and love many colleagues in the study of the Middle East.  Many of them are activists; some of them keep blogs critical of the US presence in Iraq which are read and commented on by hundreds of individuals every day.  

It is true, as well as troubling, that the more conservative and hawkish of Middle Eastern scholars have more ties to the current regime in the US.  But is that necessarily how things must play out?  Will hawkish elites forever dominate political conversations, and are progressive or radical colleagues forever destined to be ignored?

We know of no law of history, pace Pareto, that says that elites will forever dominate political institutions.  Rather, decades of close inspection of the Progressive and Populist Movements, the era of 1968, and the progress of democracy in the west stress how the alliances of power are contingent upon event, institutions, movements, and moments.  As we show in The History Manifesto, if historians in general haven't been talking to power, it's because of specific, contingent reasons having to do with the changing hierarchy of disciplines around 1968.  Caught up with other political events, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists turned to labor politics, feminism, and postcoloniality, often choosing the leading edge of global policy over the failing international institutions like the United Nations whom they had served to date.  

Let it not be thought that because historians largely agree about the costs of the Vietnam war and generally shake their heads about Iraq, that we are naive about the geopolitics of protecting energy and creating national stability.

Historians are no strangers to issues of energy security; as Tim Mitchell's work demonstrates, we know only too well how protection of supply chains has overdetermined political action for generations.  We know that pattern of protecting national hegemony and shorting investment in alternative energy well enough to hunger for something new in the policy landscape.  As Paul Sabin of Yale might suggest, we know how long it takes to build up the alternatives to coal and oil, and the importance of institutions -- from the EPA to Interstate Highway to the the Los Angeles automotive lobby and the Texas Railway Commission -- in influencing new policy.  For a policy-maker in favor of radical new possibilities or investment in altnerative energy pathways, historians like Sabin could be enviable allies in brainstorming the best allies to pursue in making a new constituency.

In The History Manifesto,  we insist that a policy governed by history opens up utopian possibilities (peace in the Middle East, for instance?) but offering not static laws of society, but rather multiple possible futures predicated on the different forms of agency realized in many different pasts.  "Iraq would have looked different had historians been involved" is a bold claim, but indeed, historians have been wondering for some time about how mistakes of the scale of slavery, empire, and torture are allowed to happen, and how they could be prevented.  We now know for certain, thanks to the work of Tim Hitchcock and Simon Dedeo,  that the decline in violence in nineteenth-century Britain, long speculated about, is a reality.  Might not a global decline in violence be a real possibility in the future, if history were adequately applied to geopolitics as a raw stop to hawkishness?


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