The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 36

advocating for a course of action—different in some way from
current U.S. policy—on an issue of their choice related to the
Arab Spring. Syria, drone policy in Yemen and assistance to
Egypt were the most popular topics.
Any Analogy Will Do
Those writing about Syria universally advocated U.S. mili-
tary involvement, whether through providing weapons and
training to opposition fighters (using U.S. military advisers),
imposing a no-fly zone or supporting a NATO-led ground
intervention. What struck me most about these papers were
their uses of history and analogy. One cited Kosovo as a prec-
edent, and another raised the U.S. experiences in Iraq and
Afghanistan—only to dismiss their relevance to Syria.
It seemed to me that my students picked (or interpreted)
an analogy to fit the position they had decided on, rather than
taking a broader view of history to inform their decision-mak-
ing process. Rather than probing deeply into similarities and
differences, they reached quick conclusions. A NATO inter-
vention worked in Kosovo, so it could in Syria. Conversely,
U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan need not occur in Syria,
given the many dissimilarities.
I quickly recognized that my students were far from alone
in using historical analogies to justify preferred policies. At a
seminar on Bahrain on Capitol Hill, one panelist argued that
it was natural for the Bahraini government to crack down on
protesters. After all, he observed, other governments do the
same when significant portions of the population rise up—
look at Kent State in 1970. (No, I’m not kidding!)
The panelist beside him flinched. When asked subse-
quently to explain her objections, she invoked the American
Revolution—for reasons that remain unclear to me—as a
counter-analogy to argue against crackdowns.
To go back to Syria, consider the op-ed by Turkish politi-
cal scientist Soner Cagaptay and former U.S. Ambassador to
Iraq James Jeffrey in the May 17
New York Times
. They argue
for arming the rebels or imposing a no-fly zone, pointing to
Bosnia and Kosovo as “proving the value of American leader-
ship.” Or take the campaign by Senator John McCain, R-Ariz.,
invoking his service in the Vietnam War, to urge Washington
to impose a no-fly zone and undertake other military actions
beyond the current policy of furnishing light weapons to the
opposition: “I’ve been in conflicts where there was gradual
escalation, and that approach doesn’t win.”
Whether the arguments cited above are right is not the
point. There’s no doubt history can be a useful tool in devel-
oping and defending one’s position. Sen. McCain, Amb. Jef-
frey and others are right to draw on their extensive experience
and historical knowledge. But a quick reference to historical-
analogy-as-justification should prompt listeners to raise their
antennae. Such rhetoric is seductive, for it says: “Trust me;
I’ve learned the lessons of the past.”
An analogy isn’t necessarily a bad starting point, of course.
But how is Kosovo like Syria? How isn’t it? What are the prob-
lems each situation presented to the United States? Are the
regional and domestic contexts similar or different? And how
do the key countries and leaders involved see the situation?
It is easy to cite an analogy to justify one’s position. But
as my Georgetown student so succinctly put it following our
simulation, assessing a foreign policy challenge is much
For the most difficult problems in foreign policy, asking
the right questions rarely leads to an obvious answer (except,
perhaps, in hindsight). But ideally, it will lead to a way for-
ward that is both informed and clear about our assumptions,
why we have made them and what (if anything) might cause
us to change them.
Thinking in Time
by Richard Neustadt and
Ernest May (Free Press, 1988) expands on this framework to
offer a marvelous guide for using historical reasoning in the
policy process.
The Foreign Service Angle
What value can a Foreign Service officer bring to the table
in an internal policy debate? On the surface, there’s an easy
answer. Our knowledge of a given country or region—its lead-
ers, influences, economy, people and culture—can inform
recommendations, giving policymakers a nuanced under-
standing of the situation under consideration.
Examples abound: George Kennan’s Long Telegram; the
contributions made by three FSOs who participated in Presi-
dent John Kennedy’s ExComm; the China hands’ analysis of
the prospects of the Communists and Nationalists; and the
efforts by State Department professionals to improve post-
invasion governance in Iraq.
My students were far
fromalone in resorting to
historical analogies to justify
preferred policies.
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