NEW JERSEY, US: Every day, we are bombarded by politicians and pundits with a list of political analogies: Operation Iraqi Freedom is the next Vietnam or the war on terror is a modern Cold War . Analogies are invaluable to the human experience. They make us better aware of the world and help us learn from past mistakes.
In the realm of politics, however, analogies are imperfect and can lead to a distortion of reality in a frustratingly complicated world.
While analogies have always been used in political rhetoric, there has been an arguable increase in the use of historical analogies. Perhaps experiencing two world wars and countless small ones in less than 100 years makes us dependent on historical analogies more than ever to make tough decisions and endure crises. For instance, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks American politicians looked to the past – to Pearl Harbor – as reassurance that the United States would win the oncoming struggle.
Beyond this single analogy we see politicians and diplomats constructing and shaping fallacious historical truths to garner support for policy decisions. In his book, “The Muqqadimah (The Introducation), 14th century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun warned of such abuses. He wrote that relying on analogies fails to acknowledge changes over time and can cause men to fall into an abyss of error through their own forgetfulness and negligence.
World War II provides politicians with generous fodder for historical analogies. Prior to WWII there was still much hope amongst politicians and the general public that peace could be maintained permanently. Yet, the failed attempt by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin – who, feeling that the harsh sanctions imposed on Germany were unfair and seeking to keep peace, allowed Adolf Hitler to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia under the Sept. 29, 1938 Munich Agreement signed by Germany, France, Britain and Italy – created a new analogy.
In a recent Newsweek article, The mythology of Munich , author Even Thomas writes about the resulting political idiom – that giving in to aggression invites more aggression, arguing, In modern American history, no metaphor has been more used – or abused – than Munich .
For example, prior to the first Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush compared Saddam Hussein s invasion of Kuwait with Axis aggressions as a means of quelling the proponents of non-violent solutions. And later in 2003, the George W. Bush administration was able to drum up support for another Iraq War by drawing parallels between Saddam Hussein s containment and the appeasement of Adolf Hitler.
And the parallels do not stop there. One need only browse major speeches to find terms that bring to mind WWII threats and enemies: the Axis of Evil and Islamo- facism to name a few.
Ultimately, modern leaders must be responsible for and critical of historical analogies. Attempts must be made not to draw loose parallels where none exist. American historian Arthur Schlesinger states, [we must] not treat history as an enormous grab bag with a prize for everybody to rationalize every policy proposal.
Drazen Pehar, former chief of staff to the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, explains that the most responsible use of analogies is to keep them ambiguous: All we have to do is to loosen the link between a source of historical metaphor and its target . Simplifying complex situations down to one common denominator both creates the risk of oversimplifying a unique set of circumstances – with unforeseen ripple effects – and removes any potential for creative solutions.
For example, by identifying Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and drawing historical parallels with past fascist powers, the United States greatly diminishes policy options for peace.
Simply stated, we must leave elbow room for interpretation. Otherwise we may make a comparison between two inappropriate events, risking a fall into the abyss of error.
Stephen Coulthart is a graduate student studying diplomacy and international affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall in New Jersey. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).