THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
of their country of assignment. Profes-
sional historians, though, cry foul and
assert that historical events are too
complex and unique to draw lessons for
the present from them; the past, they
assert, is more unlike today than similar.
The Power of the Past
, Hal Brands
and Jeremi Suri use the work of noted
scholars to tackle the interplay between
these two dynamics. The result is a
compelling work which draws on events
from contemporary history such as U.S.
decision-making during the 1991 Gulf
War, intervention in the Balkans and
reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
Other chapters look at how analo-
gies to Vietnam and Munich have
guided policymaking, the ambiguities of
humanitarian intervention, and Henry
Kissinger’s unique approach to learning
The book’s firsthand accounts
are especially powerful. Former
Deputy Secretary James Stein-
berg notes the influence in the
Clinton and Obama adminis-
trations’ decision-making of
both widely read historical
works and policymakers’ per-
sonal life experiences.
Former Republican offi-
cials William Inboden and
Peter Feaver perceive similar
forces at work in the George W. Bush
White House, but also note the impor-
tant role played by history as the com-
mon language through which experts in
varying disciplines communicated.
Former State Department Counselor
Philip Zelikow draws on examples from
the Iraq War, the 2008
financial crisis and
other instances (such as
Pearl Harbor) to discuss
the difficulty in under-
standing and explaining
Several chapters note
how the same historical
event can prompt contra-
dictory lessons learned.
Both Pres. George W. Bush
and Senator Edward Kennedy likened
the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq
to the Vietnam War. Yet they drew very
different lessons from that comparison.
Vietnam’s lesson for Kennedy was that