Libya and the Facile Misuse of History

AUSTIN, Texas — As Western governments wrestle with debates over whether to intervene in Libya—and if so, how—all sides frequently resort to a favorite debating point — the historical analogy.  Opponents of military intervention invoke the grim prospects of “another Iraq” or “another Somalia” as cautionary notes against Western force being initiated in a troubled Muslim country.  Proponents of intervention also have several analogies at their disposal — a failure to do so risks “another Rwanda,” “another Bosnia,” or “another Darfur,” all chilling reminders of how Western inaction permitted the slaughter of innocents on a vast scale.

Any one of those analogies provides an evocative image that implicitly makes a case for the position being advocated.  Each also elicits powerful yet conflicting memories, whether revulsion at past inaction or chagrin at past incompetence.  Yet in the current crucible that is Libya, not all of these analogies – and perhaps none of them – can be correct.  Each case may have certain similarities, but a proper use of history means noting the dissimilarities as well.  Rwanda broke along tribal lines, both Balkan interventions were in response to violence among ethnic-religious groups and self-determination movements, Iraq entailed a wholesale ground invasion without the active involvement of indigenous rebel forces, the Somalia mission evolved from the protection of humanitarian food delivery to hunting warlords, and so on.

One conceptual problem with the use of analogies is the implicit assumption that history has predictive power — just because in a past instance events turned out a particular way, similar future events will turn out that same way.  To those who resort too easily to such analogies, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., memorably cautioned that “those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Writing amidst fears that a nuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Union would be “inevitable” during the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr offered an insight less acerbic but just as trenchant as Schlesinger’s: “Many of the historical miscalculations are due to mistaken analogies.  History is fruitful with recurrences and therefore with analogies.  If it were not so, no ‘lessons’ could be learned from history.  But since history also elaborates endless dramatic variations, none of the analogies are exact enough to become the basis for prediction.”

In our implicit demands that it help predict the future, we ask too much of history, and fail to see its “endless dramatic variations.”  Yet history’s lack of prediction does not mean that it lacks any insight, or even foresight.  History can provide much in the way of guidance as long as we understand it as an intellectual discipline rather than an easy validator of our own preconceptions. It can help us question our own assumptions, and remind us of the art of the possible as well as the persistence of surprise.  It can caution us against the folly of simplistic action yet also urge us to condemn inaction.  It can expand our perspectives to be mindful of the interconnectedness and the second- and third-order consequences of our choices.  It chastens our hubris even as it maintains our hope.  Edmund Burke observed that history offers its wisdom when it is used “as habit, not as precept.”  In other words, a knowledge of history can contribute to the habits of historical consciousness, including virtues of statecraft such as prudence, insight, humility, and yes, audacity.

All well and good for a graduate seminar, one might say, but what does this mean for the policymaker now wrestling with the vexing Libya question?  History will not offer a simple answer but, properly employed, it can offer to the policymaker a set of questions to ask and an expanded range of options to consider.  In other words, it provides a body of evidence from multiple episodes in the past, from America’s conflict with Barbary pirates over two centuries ago, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968; to Lebanon in 1983, Panama in 1989, and Rwanda in 1994; and the Balkans, Sierra Leone, and Iraq in any number of years.  Moreover, history can offer insight into something as particular as Muammar Gaddafi’s possible response to outside intervention by examining his behavior in previous episodes, such as America’s bombing attack in 1986 or the relinquishment of his WMD program in 2003.  History also provides a record of the possible.  While the fact that something happened in the past does not mean that it will happen in the future, it does show that it can happen in the future.  History understood in this way can expand our imaginations about possible outcomes.  Finally, history can remind us that each situation is unique.  In other words, Libya today is not a simple repeat of any of the oft-cited precedents – it is rather Libya, in 2011.  And whatever the outcome, it will soon enough become an analogy of its own.

William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin and a Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund.