Thursday, October 06, 2005

An Appeal to History!!

Mostly missing from the debate on the war is an informed sense of historical or political theory, a real sense of history. The language of such discourse has truly declined in America,part of a broader educational trend. This is not really news. It has however effected the way we discuss this war. While more and more Americans receive college degrees, their educational value has changed. Once upon a time in America a bachelors degree indicated a breadth of knowledge, and an analytical mindset. Today college education generally indicates a more specialized and technical knowledge. This is not necessarily all bad, but it does have some unfortunate consequences.

What brings this to mind is a running debate I’ve had, via comments on the blog on a liberal military focused website. The individual with whom I’ve been corresponding styles himself “Santayana” as in the historian. George Santayana most famous for predicting those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it. This Santayana has seemingly read a fair bit of history, and feels the US is now in the process of repeating past mistakes.

As another adage goes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My sense is that this Santayana is an autodidact, self taught, and has read whatever history he finds interesting. He has been particularly focused on the US actions in Iran in the 1950s supporting the Pahlevi dynasty over a tenuous democracy. He uses this as a launching point for a condemnation of US foreign policy since then as morally bankrupt, irresponsible and self destructive. He plants the seeds of our current problems in Iraq and the Gulf on the events of the fifties.

While this is in some ways a cogent and accurate analysis, it is ultimately a facile one. Our Santayana willfully ignores the role that balance of power politics, great power politics play, in the decision making of national leaders, including ours. While an American president, in any era may have a range of options, these options are constrained. Other powers will react to any move with their own countermoves.
Lots and lots of Americans, like Santayana, have read historical narratives. This is not the same as reading history.

The real Santayana would never have simply looked at a single narrative thread of events and analyzed them without context. Critical thinking about History has devolved to criticizing Western Civilization. History has now become the story of dead white male oppressors, devoid of context that would enhance understanding. It seems to be a blind spot in the philosophy of the cultural relativist reformers who can rationalize the behavior of everyone but our the West's leaders. These "reformers" have slowly eroded the relevance and meaning of the study of history in America.

This goes hand in hand with a decline in the teaching of civics. It is no longer fashionable, in most school districts, to even imply that citizens have some civic duty to anyone but themselves. And so our political vocabulary has been eroded, and our discourse has become far less articulate.

Political Science is an application of History. For political scientist history is the natural laboratory. We are limited to such a lab, because for the most part we cannot conduct experiments. So political scientists, particularly in the field of International Relations (IR) study history, the source of our knowledge of how states act.

Central to most theories of IR is this idea of Balance of Power. It has many variances and can be an active measure by states, or a natural tendency like water seeking low ground. Either way it indicates a sought after state of equilibrium between nations. Nations and leaders are constrained to balance the power of others.
This occurs on a global level, as in the cold war between the US and the USSR, and on a regional level as in the Persian Gulf where states have sought to stabilize the region, including great powers from the outside.

A true understanding of this theory explains why the US, HAD to become a super power. It explains why the US has to take an interest in the Gulf. Not that we necessarily had back the Shah, or that we had to go to war with Iraq, but reality constrains our options to act or not. Our leaders are not free to ignore the world. The consequences of not taking a particular action are often more immediate then the unseen ones later.

So yes in the 1950s we backed the Shah, against Soviet entrée into the Gulf. The immediate consequences of which were foreseeable. They surely would have been worse than the fall of the Shah in ’79 and the continuing crises since. We supplied Muhajadeen with weapons, money and organizational advice in the ‘80s. The Russians were a nuclear power, threatening the balance of power in the Gulf. We were constrained to act. Not backing the groups that would become the Taliban was not an option.

Machiavelli paraphrased, says the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This truism holds no matter how bad your new friend may be. But the world is not static, it is fluid, much to the chagrin of the uneducated. Hence the Soviet threat disintegrated and the Taliban and America’s natural antagonism was revealed. Yet liberals today love to harp on how we armed Bin Laden, without considering the circumstances. This kind of shoddy thinking goes un-critiqued by the MSM, most of whom are lacking any historical or political depth. By these arguments We should never have allied with the Soviets against the Nazis, since they to became our enemy.

Interestingly my friend Santayana, has never read Machiavelli. That perhaps is what bothers me the most. Here is a man claiming the inheritance of a title, claiming to speak to, for and of the Historical context of America’s policies. But this fellow has never taken a day to read The Prince. A book that with discourses and notes is less than one hundred and fifty pages.

The young man is symptomatic of America's intellect today. Many of us pick and choose what we read, and then claim subject matter expertise. Like Tom Cruise going on about psychiatry, we have surveyed only those works that buttress our prejudices, and then we claim expert knowledge. We go to University, seeking specialized technical knowledge, to enhance our earning power and leave with a narrow band of knowledge and deem ourselves educated. A view, mostly encouraged by the system.

This is no new lament. Harold Bloom and his ilk have been on this for years. But it has reduced the articulateness of our political conversations. Now more than ever we need a sense of history. Not a simple historical narrative that underlines our own ideology, but a broad and analytical reading that highlights the complexities of the world. A reading that provides a context for the actions of the past and guidance for the present.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've noticed the same thing ever since I took up critical thought as a hobby, but I tend to be overly verbose, so what I'm trying to say is that I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thu Oct 06, 06:51:00 PM 2005  

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