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Jul 10, 2007 12:01 am

Students Of History

I read with interest the Halberstam articlementioned by Dr. Luker, which contains an outstanding line about the President's"recent conversion to history." This is stated perfectly. It touches on a theme in the administration's public presentation of its foreign policy that I have written about in the past, and which I discuss in my next column for TAC: their constant appeal to history and the long-term perspective that they expect will vindicate them as, they believe, it has vindicated other"failed," unpopular Presidents, such as Truman. Even worse is their abuse of history as a force that inherently validates their ideology and their policies. In one breath, other historicist presumptions are mocked, and in the next their own historicism runs rampant for all to see.

Of course, there are failed Presidents and then there are failed Presidents. Some of them (viz. Buchanan, Carter) really are, for the most part, simply failures. Probably the most reliable guide to detecting a failed political leader is the frequency with which he invokes his eventual write-up by historians as the defense for what he is doing in the present. If that is right, Mr. Bush is in a league of his own in the frequency with which he refers to the judgement of posterity. Once the hopes of"ending tyranny" and global democratic transformation have faded, there is still always the desire for the fond judgement of later historians after the politician has passed from the scene. Even this is a deferment of responsibility, an act of violence against the present, another demonstration of his contempt for the rest of us.

Prof. Joshua Foa Dienstag, in his excellent book Pessimism, points out this tendency of political optimists to invoke the future to defend their current actions. He writes:

Since, unlike the present, tomorrow is always imaginary, such idolatry can be manipulated in many ways. On the one hand, of course, the Stalins of the world can demand the death of millions in the name of a future paradise. This is an especial concern of Camus, who complains of those who “glorify a future state of happiness, about which no one knows anything, so that the future authorizes every kind of humbug."

Mr. Bush and his ministers have managed to do more than this: they invoke both past and future, as distorted through an especially self-serving lens, and manage to find both encouraging precedent and justifying inevitability where others see only disaster and error. As if on cue during the Lebanon war last year, Secretary Rice even dubbed herself a"student of history." What, one had to wonder, was this history teaching her? What has it taught any of them?

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Daniel B. Larison - 7/10/2007

Thanks for your comment and the welcome. I had been hoping to see Halberstam quote from Kennan's op-ed from 1992 in which he refused to credit any one administration or even U.S. policy as such with the collapse of the USSR, but I suppose the partisanship you mention may be a reason why it didn't appear. Kennan wasn't going to give either party credit. Kennan wrote: "The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of tremendous political upheaval, in another country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish....That [the cold War] itself should now be formally ended is a fit occasion for satisfaction, but also for sober reexamination of the part we took in its origin and in its long continuation. It is not a fit occasion for pretending that the end of it was a great triumph for anyone, and particularly one for which any American political party could properly claim credit." Kennan was a great man, and I think he was substantially right here. One of the great problems with Mr. Bush's foreign policy has been that it has been nourished by this myth-making about "winning" the Cold War (hence the endless refrains, "just like Reagan against the Soviet Union, President Bush has said, etc."). Certainly, if you think Washington could force world-historical change with such efficacy, rather than being party to a series of fortunate events, you might believe that it is simply a matter of "will" to do it again in the Near East. I had hoped Halberstam would have drawn out more of this.

Incidentally, John Lukacs' new book on Kennan (from which the op-ed quote is taken--p. 181) is well worth reading for a fuller sense of Kennan than as the author of 'X'. I have a review of it in the pipeline awaiting publication.

Daniel B. Larison - 7/10/2007

Certainly, in her area of study I grant that Rice has real credentials. It is her odd habit of using the long run of history to evade responsibility for her own policy decisions that I wanted to draw attention to. During the war in Lebanon, she offered us the very above-it-all remark about the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." She has also offered us some howlers (no pun intended) about the similarities between the early insurgency and the "Werewolves" of Germany, which ought to have embarrassed a proper student of history too much to utter them in public.

Grant W Jones - 7/10/2007

Condoleezza Rice's essay "The Making of Soviet Strategy" appears in "Makers of Modern Strategy" edited by Peter Paret. She has some stellar company in that volume.

That said, she should have stuck to Cold War politics and left the suppression of Islamic Jihad to someone with a clue, as should her boss.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/10/2007

(and welcome to Cliopatria; I think I failed to show up for your inaugural post)

One interesting aspect of Halberstam's article is the ongoing partisanship involved in the popular/historical discourse on the cold war: generally we assume that partisanship dies down and evaluations get more evidence-based and nuanced as time goes by, but that doesn't seem to be happening in US history anymore; in fact it seems to me that the partisan divide is extending further and further into the past, establishing a manichean historiography as normative.