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Iran and the Battle of Historical Analogies

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Whether or not the U.S. decides to attack Iran--or whether it supports Israel in a similar attack--boils down to which historical analogy we (or the decision-makers) choose to frame the situation.

Unfortunately, if we go by the current debate, only two analogies matter: the war in Iraq and the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Analogy 1: The Iraq War.

Based off faulty and scant evidence, the Bush administration invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam Hussein, and spent eight more years trying to reestablish order. Skeptics of war with Iran--like myself--point to the horrendous disaster of intelligence that led to war with Iraq and ask, “Again?”

Iran seems eerily similar: the same warnings about “weapons of mass destruction”...the same warnings about Iranian involvement with terrorist organizations...the same warnings about crazed, unreliable, irrational dictators who do not listen to reason (War hawks have repeated this last point going back to the Cold War and the leaders of the U.S.S.R. and China, but don’t worry about that now.)...the same “failure” of the U.N. to handle the country in question...the same worries about how war will affect gas prices or stability in the Middle East.

Except that the differences loom just as large: Iraq was a secular government headed by the religious minority; Iran is a religious theocracy led by the majority. Inspectors could not verify in any way if Iraq had a nuclear or biological or chemical weapons program; the world knows that Iran has a nuclear energy program, just not if Iran has a nuclear weapons program, a crucial distinction. Iraq has 30 million people and is about the size of California; Iran has nearly 80 million people and is about the size of Alaska.

Iran will probably fight the U.S. much harder than Saddam Hussein’s forces, but Iran also has a nuclear program, something Hussein didn’t even have. In other words, the consequences of inaction or action with Iran are higher than they ever were with Iraq.

If America decides to go to war with Iran--with all the terrible consequences that will entail--the analogy of our previous failure in the Middle East doesn’t really matter; it will be a bad decision on its own.

Analogy 2: The appeasement of Adolf Hitler by Neville Chamberlain.

Ah, Chamberlain, the most vilified Briton in the 20th century. The analogy goes--and war hawks make it relatively easily--that appeasing Iran will lead directly to World War III. In the most worrying association with World War II, the end result is not a long bloody war like World War II, but a nuclear holocaust over Israel which will certainly happen--the arguers say--if the world negotiates with Iran.

But I mean, rational debaters in America wouldn’t just casually throw out this accusation against Barack Obama willy-nilly, would they?

I won’t even try to torture out similarities between Iran/Germany and Barack Obama/Chamberlain. Instead, the gaping chasms of differences stand out. Germany spent the years before World War II building up its military and taking territory. Iran’s military cannot, according to Anthony Cordesman and any coherent military observer, conquer any nation around it. Moreover, if Iran attacked Israel, Israeli submarines would fire nuclear weapons back in retaliation, destroying Tehran and countless other cities. America looms over Iran like a thousand Englands facing Germany.

So which analogy should we choose?

Easy. Neither.

I agree with George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Not a quote behaving badly...if you cite Santayana.) But “the past” or its paraphrase “history”, have many more examples than World War II and Iraq. Iraq wasn’t the first time America went to war for bad reasons. Think the Vietnam War, the Spanish-American war, the Mexican-American War, or World War I. Hitler isn’t history’s only appeased dictator, merely history’s current personification of evil.

Instead, the comparisons with Iraq or Chamberlain turn these historical analogies into anecdotes, paralyzing the debate with emotionally charged connections. As I said above, we don’t need historical analogies when it comes to Iran: going to war will be a terrible decision all on its own.

One comment

Should just mention that this article is thematically connected to tomorrow’s post, about WWI and WWII and what we look at when we talk about justifying war.