Political leaders have long relied on historical analogies to frame, explain, and justify important policy choices. The current administration is no exception when discussing its policy toward Iraq—the most recent instance occurring when Tony Snow described keeping US forces in Iraq “as we have in South Korea.” Indeed, Iraq has been a war full of analogies: Bush’s father analogized Saddam Hussien to Hitler in the first Gulf War, Rumsfeld wanted to rebuild Iraq like Germany after World War II, the insurgents in Iraq created another Vietnam, though the US did not want to leave like Vietnam, with Baghdad well on its way to becoming a new Beirut, and now it looks like the US will remain, as we have in Korea.
Analogies are more than just passing references to history. Analogies are caricatures of key moments seared into the country’s collective memory, commonplaces that evoke a particular emotion, triumph, or failure. The specific details of the historical moment in question are less important than the memory it evokes. At Munich, appeasement failed and subsequent Munichs are avoided by leaders invoking the analogy and standing strong against aggressive dictators.
Leaders use analogies because they offer a powerful tool to legitimize policy options. Analogies frame the discussion by identifying the key issues at stake. Historical commonplaces are known for one key moment. Beirut is a once proud city in the chaos of an intractable civil war. Invoking Beirut brings the discussion to civil war and sectarian strife. German reconstruction successfully created a thriving democracy out of a former enemy, focusing the discussion on democratic success. Analogies explain policy by laying out a simple story of how a process works. Each historical moment has a caption, and that widely recited caption gives a logical progression of how a goal can be achieved. Robust deterrence contained the Soviet Union and brought about its downfall. Analogies justify by drawing on widely shared collective judgments on historical events. The unfamiliar situation of the present can be read through a well-understood template on which society’s collective judgment has already been rendered. Everyone “knows” Vietnam was a failure, so avoiding another Vietnam in Iraq is to avoid national humiliation.
When Snow invoked the Korea analogy, he was attempting to legitimize the Administration’s current policy in the face of substantial criticism. Korea frames the policy as a discussion of long term engagement with a partner country in the face of a mutual threat. Korea explains the policy: just as a robust but isolated US presence deters further aggression from North Korea, allowing South Korea to thrive, so too would a sustained US presence in Iraq help ward of future threats from terrorism in the Middle East. Finally, Korea justifies the policy as a successful, sustainable, and affordable price to pay to realize a key national interest.
The problem, as political scientists who study the use of analogies readily point out, is that analogies are a particularly bad way to make decisions and lead to highly flawed policy choices, usually with disastrous outcomes. Analogies are caricatures of history, not history itself, and as a result, this selective memory leaves out the messy, complicated, and contingent details that produced the relevant outcome. The strained comparison between past and present glosses over significant differences between wars and important historical details that are, in fact, essential factors of success or failure. Iraq is neither Germany nor Vietnam nor Korea, and treating it as such is sure-fire recipe for disaster. Trying to win the last war is no way to win the current one.
Quibbling over the accuracy of a historical comparison—Korea, Vietnam, Germany—misses the larger significance these analogies the contemporary policy debate. As historical commonplaces, analogies are rhetorical tools to define a debate and legitimate its resolution. Despite overwhelming public opinion to the contrary—61% of Americans say the war is not worth fighting and 55% want to reduce US forces in Iraq—the Bush Administration has made a clear decision to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq for the long haul. Deploying the Korea analogy narrows the debate. Discussion moves away from what kind of progress the troops in Iraq are actually able to make and what future outcomes are even possible to hollow choice of Korea or Vietnam. If the administration can shift the debate to a question of what a sustained US presence in Iraq looks like by using the Korea analogy, it will make the point that such a presence is acceptable to the American public. In doing so, it will gloss over the tremendous gap between Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and the Green Zone in Baghdad, and side-step the fundamental question of what now constitutes success in Iraq and what compromises we must accept to approach it. Korea is not a model for the future of the US in Iraq, it’s a justification for a policy that the Bush Administration would rather obfuscate with history than discuss and defend in the present.