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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?
What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
Men and women achieve historical perspective by making analogies. The old tag that we “remember the future and invent the past” suggests the hazards of this procedure; it admonishes us not to forget that the lessons of history are all too likely to be a series of projected misunderstandings. Anyone seeking those lessons runs the danger of being capriciously selective, self-serving, and sentimental. It is also easy to see the future as nothing more than mindless repetitions of the past; a Superman comic of my boyhood featured jet cars that looked wonderfully like levitating, betail-finned Cadillacs of the time. In fact, the futures we “remember” are unlikely to resemble much the one we are actually stumbling toward. Still, analogy is all we have, and when we find ourselves in urgent national difficulties, historical analogies proliferate.
The Kuwait crisis has been especially productive of such analogies, most of them to the diplomatic history of the 1930s. The Munich analogy—recalling the Allies’ appeasement of Germany over its demands on Czechoslovakia in 1938—has been cited again and again, and this is understandable: Saddam Hussein’s sequence of actions has been eerily evocative of Hitler’s, and the unprecedented unity he has evoked in the council of nations is a testament to the power of the Munich analogy for the last generation that genuinely remembers the 1930s and that now rules the industrial societies of the West.
The parallels are impressive: first the assertion of a provocation, not completely unreasonable to some in the audience (the supposed plight of the Sudeten Germans/Kuwait’s cheating on OPEC oil quotas), then the limited demand (the cession of the Sudetenland/strict adherence to quotas and a new benchmark price), then the abandonment of the small nation by its allies (in this case the Saudis and Gulf Cooperation Council forsaking Kuwait as the British and French did Czechoslovakia), the concessions, the apparent resolution of the crisis through appeasement, the solemn vows, the arrant lies, and finally the brutal, outrageous conquest.
The analogy works at least through the establishment of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the 1939 pact negotiated between Germany and the Soviet Union by Ribbentrop and Molotov. If we go to war to defend a feudal, authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia, the analogy will still be working: The Allies finally fought for the sovereignty of fascistoid Poland, not for the democratic Czechs. The Kuwaiti Emir scarcely deserves the comparison with the Czechs, but he did preside over what was by local standards an uncharacteristically humane and tolerant regime.
The unprecedented vigor of the response is a tribute to the vitality of the Munich analogy, which seemed to have been destroyed by systematic overuse: Civil wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, Argentine aggression in the Falklands, even the loss of elections by American protégés in the Dominican Republic and Chile could summon up that infinitely elastic analogy. But if the analogy had become stale with too-broad application, it certainly did again become riveting when a situation finally arose that it more or less fit. But it is important to remember, though, that there are limits to the utility of this—or any—analogy. In the case of Munich, we have reached, if not exceeded, them. Despite various assertions to the contrary, Saddam Hussein does not seem to be our decade’s equivalent of Adolf Hitler. This is not a matter of fine ethical distinctions. The fact that Hussein prefers to gas his victims outdoors is not morally significant; what is significant is a nonmoral criterion—that of scale.
Hussein’s sequence of actions has been evocative of Hitler’s in 1939—but there are limits to the utility of any analogy.
Regimes that commit their cruelties within their own borders, that are disastrous only for their own subjects, attract a less-memorable odium than those that export misery to foreigners. The law of nations, alas, in effect defines sovereignty as the right to treat one’s own nationals with virtually whatever barbarity one likes. Political, diplomatic, and military historians, along with various tribes of social scientists, begin to take an interest when such regimes attempt to inflict miseries on foreigners. Hitler did not emerge as a subject in world history until he became a threat to non-Germans, when he was able to take advantage of a narrow window between the accumulation of German military power and the potential power of his adversaries. The exploitation of this opportunity, plus a lot of luck, yielded the cheap conquest of France and Poland—that is to say, the conquest of the richer half of the richest continent in the world.