This War Is Not Like the Others ... or Is It?





AS the nations of Europe leapt to arms in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s mind turned to President James Madison and the war with England in 1812.

“Madison and I are the only two Princeton men who have become president,” Wilson observed ominously in a letter, noting that tensions with Great Britain over its naval blockage of Germany recalled earlier disputes with England about freedom of the seas. “The circumstances of the War of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further.”

His fears were unfounded. Great Britain became an ally in World War I, Wilson’s alma mater notwithstanding. But his knack for reading — or misreading — historical parallels hardly stands out in the annals of American presidents and public officials.

President Bush sent historians scurrying toward their keyboards last week when he defended the United States occupation of Iraq by arguing that the pullout from Vietnam had led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. His speech was rhetorical jujitsu, an attempt to throw back at his critics their favorite historical analogy — Vietnam — for the Iraq war. His argument aroused considerable skepticism from historians and political scientists, who note that the United States’ military action in Vietnam was among the factors that destabilized Cambodia. But Mr. Bush’s statement also revived a perennial question. Whenever a public officials starts to say “the lesson of,” is that a cue to stop listening?



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