The late historian Barbara Tuchman was an accomplished writer, but her reputation rests more properly on her insights. Her seminal work, August 1914 , was so filled with them that few historians can write of the war to end all wars without mentioning it. Its silver binding stands glimmering, even now, on the shelves of every Tuchman wannabe whose dream it is to write about the past. But August 1914 , while influential, is not Tuchman s greatest book: that accolade is reserved for Stilwell and the American Experience in China – her tale of American General Joseph Stilwell s World War II relationship with Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Tuchman s tale is not about China, not really: it s about America. Released the year before Richard Nixon announced he would visit Beijing, the between-the-lines subtext of Stilwell is America s jaw-dropping support for the self-seeking and unscrupulous Chiang, a Chinese Vito Corleone and one of the twentieth century s prized narcissists. What was so shocking about our support for Chiang is that we knew better: Chiang refused to fight the Japanese, pocketed large amounts of the money we gave his army, and spent his time conspiring against his colleagues. Stilwell described him as a curse on the Chinese people. Never mind. Five successive American presidents extolled him as a defender of freedom and the future of China .
Any Taipei cabbie could have told us otherwise. Tuchman s conclusion? Between policy-makers in the capital and realities in the field lies an eternal gap whitened by the bones of failed and futile efforts.
Chiang and America were perfectly matched. Neither would do what was in their interest. This lesson was learned by British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the self-effacing former social worker ( a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about, Churchill said about him), after he normalized relations with Communist China in 1950. The move angered Harry Truman, who lectured Attlee that China was a satellite of the Soviet Union and would always remain so. Attlee lectured back. Was it wise, he wondered, to follow a policy which without being effective against China leaves her with Russia as her only friend? Good question, that, to which Truman had no answer. Except to say, predictably, that America had allies and would stick by them: what historian John Lewis Gaddis called the pursuit of credibility for its own sake .
Is it wise to follow a policy that, without being effective against Hezbollah, leaves Iran as her only friend? Gordon Brown might not be cut from the same cloth as Clement Attlee – who was the most effective English politician of the last century (barring, of course, the sainted, weaned-from-American-milk, Winston Churchill)–but his decision to open a dialogue with Hezbollah to encourage them to move away from violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics has not led to his political demise. Or destroyed his credibility . While a senior state department official whined that Brown s action had blindsided the US, anyone who is even vaguely literate knows that senior British parliamentarians have been talking with Hezbollah (and, gasp, Hamas) officials for the last several years.
That the United States will follow the path blazed by the mother country is not in doubt: we won t. We have our allies – Generalissimo Geagea and the Mayor of the Muqata – and we will stick by them. Then too, the whitened bones of this history remain strikingly painful and retain their tragic immediacy. America blames Hezbollah for the deaths of 241 Marines deployed in a failed and futile effort in Beirut in 1983. The truth of this claim, still much in doubt, is not as important as its perception: it is simple enough for a national leader to face an adversary across a table, another entirely to then justify it to those he commands. I wouldn t want to be him.
Yet for a nation that consorts with newly awakened Iraqi insurgents , that speaks reasonably of the transformed Taliban, that rethinks its relations with the gangsters of Rangoon, the refusal to talk to movements that actually sit in parliaments (or in Israeli jails, as it were) seems almost perverse. In the face of this it is nearly impossible to take issue with those cynics who claim that this administration s policies are best captured in this simple phrase – the more desperate we get, the more moderate our adversaries become.
Can we talk to Iran, but not to its ally? Will we shake hands with Avigdor Lieberman, but not with Khalid Meshaal? Barbara Tuchman offers this final, predictive, judgment. To halt the momentum of an accepted idea, to reexamine assumptions, is a disturbing process and requires more courage than governments can generally summon.
This will take courage.
Mark Perry is a director of the Washington and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum and the author of Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.