Walt Post on History

Has some interesting points, on Afghanistan

Yet this sadly turns out to be no universal law: There is no inexorable evolutionary march that replaces our bad, old ideas with smart, new ones. If anything, the story of the last few decades of international relations can just as easily be read as the maddening persistence of dubious thinking. Like crab grass and kudzu, misguided notions are frustratingly resilient, hard to stamp out no matter how much trouble they have caused in the past and no matter how many scholarly studies have undermined their basic claims.

Consider, for example, the infamous “domino theory,” kicking around in one form or another since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 “falling dominoes” speech. During the Vietnam War, plenty of serious people argued that a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would undermine America’s credibility around the world and trigger a wave of pro-Soviet realignments. No significant dominoes fell after U.S. troops withdrew in 1975, however, and it was the Berlin Wall that eventually toppled instead. Various scholars examined the domino theory in detail and found little historical or contemporary evidence to support it.

Although the domino theory seemed to have been dealt a fatal blow in the wake of the Vietnam War, it has re-emerged, phoenix-like, in the current debate over Afghanistan. We are once again being told that if the United States withdraws from Afghanistan before achieving a clear victory, its credibility will be called into question, al Qaeda and Iran will be emboldened, Pakistan could be imperiled, and NATO’s unity and resolve might be fatally compromised. Back in 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Afghanistan an “important test of the credibility of NATO,” and President Barack Obama made the same claim in late 2009 when he announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops there. Obama also justified his decision by claiming that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would spread instability to Pakistan. Despite a dearth of evidence to support these alarmist predictions, it’s almost impossible to quash the fear that a single setback in a strategic backwater will unleash a cascade of falling dominoes.

On the common empiricism arg

For starters, even smart people with good intentions have difficulty learning the right lessons from history because there are relatively few iron laws of foreign policy and the facts about each case are rarely incontrovertible.

And unfortunately, the theories that seek to explain what causes what are relatively crude. When a policy fails, reasonable people often disagree about why success proved elusive. Did the United States lose in Vietnam because the task was inherently too difficult, because it employed the wrong military strategy, or because media coverage undermined support back home? Interpreting an apparent success is no easier: Did violence in Iraq decline in 2007 because of the “surge” of U.S. troops, because al Qaeda affiliates there overplayed their hand, or because ethnic cleansing had created homogeneous neighborhoods that made it harder for Shiites and Sunnis to target each other? The implications for today depend on which of these interpretations you believe, which means that consensus about the “lessons” of these conflicts will be elusive and fragile.

What’s more, even when past failures have discredited a policy, those who want to resurrect it can argue that new knowledge, new technology, or a clever new strategy will allow them to succeed where their predecessors failed. For more than 20 years, for example, a combination of academic economists and influential figures in the finance industry convinced many people that we had overcome the laws of economic gravity — that sophisticated financial models and improved techniques of risk management like financial derivatives allowed governments to relax existing regulations on financial markets. This new knowledge, they argued, permitted a vast expansion of new credit with little risk of financial collapse. They were tragically wrong, of course, but a lot of smart people believed them.

Similarly, the Vietnam War did teach a generation of U.S. leaders to be wary of getting dragged into counterinsurgency wars. That cautious attitude was reflected in the so-called Powell doctrine, which dictated that the United States intervene only when its vital interests were at stake, rely on overwhelming force, and identify a clear exit strategy in advance. Yet after the U.S. military routed the Taliban in 2001, key figures in President George W. Bush’s administration became convinced that the innovative use of special forces, precision munitions, and high-tech information management (together dubbed a “revolution in military affairs”) would enable the United States to overthrow enemy governments quickly and cheaply and avoid lengthy occupations, in sharp contrast to past experience. The caution that inspired the Powell doctrine was cast aside, and the result was the war in Iraq, which dragged on for almost eight years, and the war in Afghanistan, where the United States seems mired in an endless occupation.

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