Posts Tagged analogies

The waning power of the Munich analogy

The 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement (“appeasement”) came and went with almost no notice in America, and not much more in Europe. But in Israel, many people can’t forget it. I participated in a conference on the subject last month at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), which has placed my remarks (14 minutes) on Youtube. I didn’t talk about the agreement, but instead spoke about the checkered history of the Munich analogy, right up to the present. Watch and see why I think the Munich analogy in international affairs is well on the wane.

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False Iran analogies

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at a Harvard symposium on “Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?” convened by Middle East Strategy at Harvard, April 30, 2009. Posted retroactively.

Let me begin by taking you thirty years back in time, to March 1979, just after the triumph of Khomeini. A report in the Washington Post opened with these words:

In the lobby of the Intercontinental the main tea-time occupation is comparative revolutions. Those who covered the Portuguese or Cuban revolutions argue over whether Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan is more a Soares or a Castro. Those with a historical turn of mind seek parallels in the Russian revolution, wondering if the Fedayeen will fill the role of the Bolsheviks. For those who fancy the French revolution there’s the fun of identifying a future Napoleon from the ranks of obscure Iranian colonels.

Now as that suggests, initially no one was sure which analogy to follow as the revolution in Iran unfolded. But eventually, and with the help of the academy, one analogy prevailed over the others: the Iranian revolution would come to be described as a “great revolution” on the scale of the Russian Revolution.

I say with the help of the academy, because it was academic students of comparative revolution who singled out the Iranian revolution from the jumble of Third World turmoil, as something different, of world-historical significance. This may have had to do with high expectations of the revolution on the international left, for its dethroning America’s puppet, the Shah of Iran. And it was a politically correct thing to do, to add at least some Muslims to the “great revolution” pantheon. Theda Skocpol, student of comparative revolution here at Harvard, set the tone: “The Iranian revolution… surely fits more closely the pattern of the great historical social revolutions than it does the rubric of simply a political revolution, where only governmental institutions are transformed.”

But it wasn’t just the academic left. Iran and Middle East specialists loved to put Iran in the big leagues. Iran expert Marvin Zonis told a State Department session in 1984: “The message from Iran is in my opinion the single most impressive political ideology proposed in the twentieth century—since the Bolshevik Revolution. And if we accept that Bolshevism is a remnant of the nineteenth century, then I argue that we’ve had only one good one in the twentieth—and it’s this one.” And here, for variety, is Bernard Lewis: “The Iranian Revolution was a real revolution, in the sense that the French and Russian revolutions were real revolutions.” (Note that both Zonis and Lewis don’t even include China as a referent.)

This categorization of Iran’s revolution among the “greats,” so close to its occurrence, seems hasty in retrospect. Compare France, Russia, and even China, with Iran thirty years after their “great revolutions.” They became military or economic superpowers; Iran clearly hasn’t. It’s more reminiscent of Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt in its ability to mobilize and project power. But first impressions matter, and from a very early stage, Iran’s revolution was deemed analogous to Russia’s.

America’s foreign policy community, combining long Soviet experience with patent ignorance of Iran, then deliberately or unconsciously imposed a Cold War template on Iran. As a result, U.S. policy discourse on Iran has become suffused with Cold War analogies and referents. It began in earnest after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, and its collapse became the model of how America could win without war, with lots of bows to George Kennan and “containment.” In 1993, both Iran and Iraq became subject to the policy of “dual containment.” Over time, Iraq would be separated in U.S. thinking from Iran. But Iran remains quite firmly embedded in America’s Cold War template, despite Ahmadinejad’s personal efforts to evoke Hitler. And this isn’t the preference of only one side in the Iran debate. Cold War referents are used by analysts and journalists who want the United States to take Iran as a serious challenge that needs to be confronted. And they are used by those who think the United States should take Iran as a serious challenge and engage it.

We don’t know what’s in the secret policy briefs, but the same kind of message has come across in public statements by U.S. officials. Example: in beefing up the U.S. presence in Dubai to monitor the situation in Iran, Nick Burns, who’s now here at Harvard, invoked Riga Station:

We sent a young kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926 out to Riga station: George Kennan. We said, go and learn Russian. Sit in Riga. You be our window into the Soviet Union. That is what we are saying to these young kids today. You go to Dubai. We can’t be in Iran. You interview every Iranian you can find… all the Iranians who… do their banking… and weekends there—and you tell us how we should understand Iran.

Had I more time, I could regale you with similar snippets, which I would label under the category of Sovietological displacement.

But there’s a problem with the Cold War analogy. It hides Iran’s weakness. It presumes Iran has the kind of superpower clout that the Soviet Union had—even though Iran can’t invade countries, sell top-of-the-line weapons systems, or rattle a nuclear saber. In doing so, it tilts the U.S. approach to Iran away from prevention and preemption, and toward containment and deterrence. It thus works, paradoxically, as a self-fulfilling analogy. Thanks to its hold on our imaginations, the United States is already in the process of resigning itself to the continued growth of Iranian power, until it does more closely resemble a major power in its capabilities.

Many of those who do favor “containment” cite George Kennan as their hero. But for Kennen, Iran was no Soviet Union. We know that, because Kennan testified on Iran in 1980, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, Iran was holding U.S. hostages. Kennan said that in face of what he called “unprecedented insults” by Iran, the Carter administration should go to Congress for a declaration of war. It should then seize Iranian assets, and intern Iranian officials in the United States. He then added this: “We should hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military ones.” Kennen would have found preposterous the notion that the United States might ever be locked in a Cold War with the likes of Iran—a state with about one percent of the U.S. GDP and one percent of U.S. military expenditure.

And there are people who have watched Iran up close and reached the same conclusion. A year ago, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was asked this question in an interview: “So is there a New Cold War, comparable to that with the former Soviet Union, between the U.S. and Iran?” He gave this answer: “The Soviet Union was a formidable force at its height, with a massive nuclear arsenal. It had half of Europe locked up in its grasp. Iran simply does not carry anything remotely like that weight, not internationally, not even regionally.”

If this is so, why do we demoralize ourselves and feed Iran’s ambitions with flattering and misleading analogies? Which is why it’s time to stop thinking analogically about Iran. The alternative is simple: think logically.

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Netanyahu and Churchill: analogy and error

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on March 7, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on March 8.

The Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, Winston Churchill had been the only foreign leader to address a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

The subject of the speech also lent itself to comparisons. “There is a reason that the adjective most often applied to Prime Minister Netanyahu with respect to Iran is Churchillian,” said Senator Ted Cruz the day before the speech, comparing an Iran deal to Munich and “peace in our time.” “In a way,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer in a post-speech assessment, “it was Churchillian—not in delivery; it was not up to Bibi’s norm—but in the sonorousness and the seriousness of what he said. And it was not Churchill of the ’40s. This was the desperate Churchill of the ’30s. This was a speech of, I think, extraordinary power but great desperation.”

This was followed by the inevitable “he’s-no-Churchill” rebuttals, the most noteworthy by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Netanyahu, he opined, “is the absolute antithesis of Churchill; whereas Churchill projected power, confidence, strategy and absolute belief in Britain’s ultimate victory, Netanyahu repeatedly mentions the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, terror, anti-Semitism, isolation and despair.” Most of the other criticisms emphasized that Churchill worked with, not against, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For this reason, wrote Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to speak didn’t pass “the Churchill test.”

All’s fair in love, war and analogies, and self-serving or rival-deprecating historical analogies are part and parcel of politics. But it irks me when analogies are constructed on error. I’m not talking about spin; I’m talking about grievous error. My topic here is a particularly egregious example, from a journalist interviewing a journalist: NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewing Israeli celebrity journalist and best-selling author Ari Shavit (now an anti-Netanyahu partisan).

Shavit: Let’s go with Netanyahu’s own Churchillian logic. Winston Churchill—the great thing Winston Churchill did was not to give great speeches—although he was a great speaker—but he understood that to stop Nazi Germany he needs American support. He came in the middle of the war to this town, to Washington, and he worked with President Roosevelt, really seducing him, courting him, doing everything possible to have him on his side, and in the process guaranteeing the dismantling of the British Empire, something that was very difficult to Winston Churchill. Netanyahu, who saw the threat—the Iranian threat—in an accurate way in my mind, never did that. He didn’t go the extra mile to reach out, whether to President Obama and to other liberal leaders around the world—in Europe. He never did what he had to do, which is to stop settlement activities so the Palestinian issue will not produce bad blood. And so people will really be able to listen to his accurate arguments regarding Iran. Israel…

Siegel: This would be his equivalent of Churchill saying India will be independent and Africa will be free after the war.

Shavit: It’s—Churchill had that. And Netanyahu, who wants to be Churchill, never had the greatness and the generosity and the flexibility to pay.

What’s the problem here? I’ll leave aside the implied (and absurd) comparison between the Jewish presence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and British imperial rule from Suez to Singapore. There’s a larger problem obvious to anyone who knows the history: contra Shavit, Churchill didn’t guarantee to Roosevelt that the British Empire would be dismantled, and pace Siegel, he never said that India would be granted independence after the war. In fact, Churchill fought tooth and nail to assure that the Empire would emerge intact from the war, and that India, in particular, would remain the heart of it. He showed no trace of either generosity or flexibility.

It’s true that the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Churchill signed in Newfoundland in August 1941, promised (clause three) “to respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcefully deprived of them.” The Americans thought this should apply to the subject peoples of the British Empire. But Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on his return home, insisted the clause only applied to “the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke.”

To mollify Roosevelt (and the Labour party at home), Churchill did dispatch a (Labourite) negotiator in the spring of 1942, to present an “offer” to Indian nationalists (the Cripps Mission). He also did everything to assure that the take-it-or-leave-it “offer” would be unacceptable to them. When the mission failed, Britain’s Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office launched a well-orchestrated propaganda effort in the United States, to persuade American opinion that the Indian Congress Party couldn’t be relied upon to negotiate in good faith. They worked to portray Gandhi and Congress, which had declared their wartime neutrality, as potential fifth columnists for Japan and intransigents incapable of reaching any workable agreement.

As the war continued, Churchill never flagged. “Let me make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter,” he told told an audience in November 1942 (the “End of the Beginning” speech after El Alamein). “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and under a democracy I suppose the nation would have to be consulted.”

Roosevelt and his advisers understood that mention of India, in particular, could bring forth Churchill’s wrath. Robert Sherwood, a wartime speechwriter for Roosevelt, described India as

one subject on which the normally broad-minded, good-humored, give-and-take attitude which prevailed between the two statesmen was stopped cold. It may be said that Churchill would see the Empire in ruins and himself buried under them before he would concede the right of any American, however great and illustrious a friend, to make any suggestion as to what he should do about India.

In the interest of amity, the President sometimes tried to raise the matter indirectly, with predictable results. In 1943, Roosevelt gave a lunch for Churchill at the White House, and invited the publisher Helen Reid, an outspoken opponent of British rule in India. As the host expected, she turned on Churchill to ask what would become of “those wretched Indians.” Churchill’s reply (according to an aide): “Before we proceed any further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied alarmingly under benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America, who, I understand, are almost extinct?” Mrs. Reid shrank, Roosevelt laughed heartily, and yet another witty barb entered the Churchill corpus.

Churchill remained unyielding right through the war’s end. In December 1944, when the State Department tried to revive the idea of international trusteeship as an alternative to British imperial rule, Churchill shot off this missive to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any of the Dominions or Colonies. Pray remember my declaration against liquidating the British Empire… ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”

Eden told Churchill he had no cause to worry. Perhaps that’s because Roosevelt, taking the larger view of the war, had given up, leaving the question of India and the British Empire for post-war resolution. Had Churchill had his way, the Empire would have lasted indefinitely, according to Lawrence James (author of the recent Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist): “Restoring the authority of the Raj was essential to the Churchillian vision of the post-war global order in which the Empire would remain intact and, as ever, substantiate Britain’s claim to global power.” It took Churchill’s fall from power and a Labour government to extricate Britain from both India and the Empire.

In sum, the notion that Churchill showed Roosevelt “generosity” and “flexibility” regarding British sway over the Empire, “guaranteeing the dismantling” of it, is utterly without foundation. In the end, it was Roosevelt who showed flexibility, in the interest of the alliance. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for President Obama. But then, he’s no Roosevelt, is he?

Addendum: Shavit has repeated his error, this time in print, in a fiercely partisan article entitled “Netanyahu’s Churchill Complex” at Politico. Quote:

In the end, [Netanyahu] was unable to do what Churchill had done: win the heart of the American president, the person who (as in the case of FDR) will really determine whether the war is lost or won. In the end, he was unwilling to sacrifice what Churchill had sacrificed: the empire. The British prime minister gave up the jewels of the crown in order to vanquish the enemy; the Israeli prime minister was unwilling to give up anything. His emotional miserliness would lead to ruin.

And it turns out that this wasn’t the first time Shavit had made the error in print. There is this instance, from last October, in an article entitled “Bibi and Obama may still have a bit of Churchill and Roosevelt in them.”

Churchill sacrificed the British Empire to enlist America against the Nazis, while Netanyahu prefers to keep the Israeli empire at any cost, and that’s why he’s losing America.

This was far from a one-time gaffe: Shavit has now repeated it three times.

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The Colephate

Juan Cole’s penchant for specious analogies misleads his readers once again, this time in regard to the caliphate. Here is Cole:

There are different conceptions of the caliphate, sort of a Sunni papacy. At some points in history the caliph was both a temporal and a spiritual leader. But over time there was a separation of religion and state of sorts in medieval Islam, and civil rulers such as the Buyids or Seljuks exercised material rule, reducing the caliphs of the tenth through thirteenth centuries to largely a spiritual function.

Note that the link for this authoritative analysis is to the Wikipedia entry for “Caliph,” written by… well, God only knows.

So let’s quote instead from the entry “Caliph” in a genuine encyclopedia, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World an entry expertly written by Glenn E. Perry. It seems to contradict Cole head-on:

The caliph is not the Muslim equivalent of the pope, that is, the head of a Muslim Church, for Islam has no such institution that may be differentiated from the state. It is misleading to think of the caliphate as a spiritual office; it is a religious office mainly in the sense that the purpose of the state itself is religious in Islam.

Of course, Cole manages not only to mislead his readers, but to contradict another specious analogy he made a year and a half ago: “Sunni Islam most resembles, it seems to me, Protestant Christianity in its authority structures…. As in Protestantism, there is no over-arching authority.” Now wait a minute: if Sunni Islam resembles Protestant Christianity in its authority structures, what’s it doing with “sort of a papacy”? (And what does the Shiite authority structure look like? Elsewhere Cole has explained that “you can choose, in Shiite Islam, which ayatollah to follow.” That sounds sort of Protestant, too.)

Or maybe the whole business of analogies with Christian denominations is pointless? Here’s a real expert, Bernard Lewis:

Some, in trying to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shi’a to Western audiences, have described them as the equivalents of Protestants and Catholics…. The absurdity of the comparison is shown by a very simple test. If the Shi’a and Sunnis are Protestants and Catholics, then which are the Protestants and which are the Catholics? The impossibility of answering this question will at once demonstrate the falsity of the comparison.

Juan Cole is a virtual storehouse of misleading, absurd, and false “juanalogies,” which cut against more than a century of scholarly efforts to explain Islam in its own terms. It’s thanks to those efforts that no one calls Islam Mohammedanism anymore. When Cole draws analogies between Saudi Arabia and Amish country (“Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative society; going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country in the United States”), or between Al-Qaeda and David Koresh, he functions as an anti-expert, obscuring the very complexities whose elucidation we expect from someone who’s spent years studying Islam. Cole’s only possible excuse is that he’s talking down to his fans, because they’re not smart enough to grasp the intricacies. Well, maybe they aren’t: after all, they’re his fans.

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