Archive for Thursday, October 11, 2001

History not always the guide

October 11, 2001


Among the most overused cliches in American journalism is that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. Not nearly as well understood is that those who rely too much on such guideposts often are steered down the wrong road.

As the U.S. response in the first war of the 21st century began Sunday with strikes against Taliban targets, Americans should carefully consider whether the past says much, or for that matter anything, about this conflict.

Among my more enjoyable experiences was a course at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard on the uses of history. The course's counterintuitive message is worth considering.

We often put far too much weight on history in dealing with contemporary problems. Different circumstances often make comparisons inexact and invalidate comparisons.

First on that list of potential miscalculations is that President George W. Bush's war policy will follow his father's during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

One might expect that because this president's team strongly resembles the elder Bush's crew. Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary and Secretary of State Colin Powell was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Moreover, this Bush has followed the same game plan of assembling an international coalition to back U.S. action.

But I would be surprised if this Bush's war policy follows his father's approach.

First, it's clear this president learned from his dad's decision not to finish off Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. I would be shocked to see a similar, limited, approach this time.

With Powell having a strong role, one might also expect that the doctrine that bears his name to govern policy. The Powell doctrine, conceived following Vietnam, held that policy objectives should be balanced with a need to minimize U.S. military, and civilian casualties.

However, clear from the start is that the Powell doctrine will no longer apply, and significant casualties could be in the offing.

Those who may want to equate this war with either of the nation's two most recent conflicts should reconsider.

Vietnam had a similar David vs. Goliath ring to it. But the similarities end there.

Most significantly, at this point, is that U.S. public support for this war is as solid as backing for Vietnam was shaky. The more than 5,000 American civilian dead, and the war-zone look of Lower Manhattan, makes the case that a war on terrorism is in the national interest.

Moreover, the U.S. military, despite the cutbacks of the Clinton era, remains a superior force to its Vietnam-era predecessor, and this conflict will be better suited to its strengths. U.S. forces won't seek to occupy Taliban land but will raid terrorists and destroy their infrastructure.

Technology will give our forces the kind of edge they had in the Persian Gulf War.

It is true that many of these same Afghan forces repelled Soviet occupiers in a guerrilla-type war more than a decade ago. The news media have been filled with dire warnings about the difficulty of combating bin Laden and his fighters in such hostile territory.

I have two words to those who see doom and gloom: Republican Guard.

Those were Saddam Hussein's elite fighting force. U.S. critics, before the actual fighting began with Iraq, warned that the Republican Guard would exact a terrible toll on American forces. It didn't happen then, and it won't happen this time either.

Those who ignore history may be destined to repeat it, but those who depend on it without thinking things through are likely to get blisters from wringing their hands.

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