Top Bush administration officials seem to revel in historical analogies, particularly when it comes to the war in Iraq. At different times, the Bush gang has referenced Korea, the Revolutionary War, WWI, and the Civil War. By mid-2005, the president had settled on World War II as a personal favorite.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is especially fond of pointing to history to justify White House decisions. When pressed a few months ago about the failures of the administration’s policies in the Middle East, Rice told reporters, “I’m a student of history, so perhaps I have a little more patience with enormous change in the international system. It’s a big shifting of tectonic plates, and I don’t expect it to happen in a few days or even in a year.” Apparently, Rice’s detractors just don’t know enough about history to make sound judgments. We should leave it all to Dr. Rice.
With this in mind, the Wall Street Journal noted today that when Rice compares today’s challenges in the Middle East to the Cold War and post-World War II Europe, as she does quite frequently, she has no idea what she’s talking about.
Her contention is while things may look bad now in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, history is on the administration’s side. She pushed a similar argument to reporters last month. The Middle East is “moving toward something that I am quite certain will not have a full resolution and that you will not be able to fully judge for decades,” she said.
Critics dismiss Ms. Rice’s references to the Cold War as both convenient and a sign of her limited frame of reference. The challenges facing Europe in 1946, they say, bear little similarity to those of the Middle East in the 21st century.
“The administration’s reservoir of historical analogies seems limited to the 1914-1991 period. And it’s all about Europe,” said Adam Garfinkle, a former Rice speechwriter who edits the foreign-policy journal The American Interest. “No one in a senior position in this administration seems to have even the vaguest notion of modern Middle Eastern history.”
When a Rice speechwriter says the administration’s top officials are clueless, you know it’s bad.
Of course, Rice’s misguided perspective, in which she seems to force modern situations into the historical models she’s familiar with, have real consequences. As the WSJ noted, Rice “tends to portray events, particularly the clash between what she calls ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism’ in the Middle East, as driven by huge, almost inevitable forces that make diplomacy impractical, or even irrelevant.” Rice personally fed that notion this week by insisting diplomatic negations had nothing to do with “deal making.”
“There’s a tendency to think about diplomacy as something that is done untethered to the conditions underlying it or the balance underlying it,” she said. “In fact, that’s not the way that it works. You aren’t going to be successful as a diplomat if you don’t understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating. It is not deal-making.”
Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former advisor to Secretaries of State from George Schulz to Colin Powell, said Rice’s comments were so misguided, he “nearly fell off [his] chair” when he read them.
Remember, back in 2000, when candidate George W. Bush said it didn’t matter if he knew anything; what mattered was he’d have top-notch advisors?