The Foreign Service Journal - April 2017
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APRIL 2017


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

from history.

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

historical events.

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