Robert Berdahl is Chancellor of the University of California - Berkeley. He is also Professor of History in a department which is ranked as the #3 History Dept. in the United States.
Chancellor Berdahl, in his role as an historian, wrote the following op-ed, which appeared in Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle.
Questioning the Motives for WarThe reader will find in the op-ed plenty of lessons in the abuse of history, but none of them emanate from the Bush administration.
Iraq and the lessons of history
The historical references made by the Bush administration in support of a war with Iraq offer some lessons in the use and abuse of history.
Members of the administration have made repeated references to the appeasement by England and France prior to 1939, ignoring the fact that appeasement involved allowing Hitler to occupy Austria, the Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia. The lesson of the 1930s is the importance of collective action to resist aggression, a lesson employed by America and its allies during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. There is no historical analog from the 1930s, however, that would call for an invasion of Iraq in the absence of any act of aggression by Iraq.
The analogy between the UN Security Council's failure to enforce its own resolutions against Iraq with the League of Nations' failures of the 1930s is spot on. It was the failure of the League in 1935 and 1936 to confront Italy's invasion of Abyssinia and Hitler's rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles that encouraged Hitler to go on to occupy the Rhineland, for starters. Like Hitler in 1935, Saddam has armed himself in violation of his treaty obligations. And the UN today has less of an excuse for inaction than the League had in the 1930s. The 1935 Hitler merely announced his intentions to expand his Reich. Saddam already has a substantial track record of aggression, including the invasions of Iran and Kuwait, and the horrendous abuse of Iraqi civilians. To deal with him as if none of this happened and under the assumption that he will not engage in future aggression would be the height of foolishness.
The lesson for me is that, yes, "collective action" is essential for resisting aggression, but only when implemented through a collective of the willing and not through an ineffectual league of unwilling nations.
A historical reference not mentioned by the Bush administration that we might wish to consider now is 1914. After terrorists assassinated the Archduke of Austria and his wife, Austria demanded the right to punish anti-Austrian terrorists in Serbia. Although Serbia acceded to most of the demands, Austria declared war anyway, thereby drawing all of Europe into World War I.It's hard to see the relevance of World War I Europe to the current war. The assassination of the Archduke may have been the proximate act of violence prior to the outbreak of all out war, but the longstanding rivalry between France and Germany was building toward war for decades. [Go back and reread the first part of the Guns of August] How does the analogy of the great power machinations of 1914 map onto today's world? Berdahl doesn't say.
A war that was to be quick and easy lasted four years, claimed 9 million lives, and defined the fault-lines of European conflict for the rest of the century.The first few days of World War I saw Germans plundering the Belgian countryside and committing atrocities against civilians. The first few days of the liberation of Iraq show Iraqi civilians embracing the American liberators. And the fault lines of World War I were not the fault lines for the rest of the century. The fault lines of European conflict during World War I were (basically) drawn between France, England and Russia on one side and Germany, Austria and Turkey on the other. After World War II the fault lines were Western Europe and Turkey vs. Russia
The repercussions of an American invasion of Iraq are liable to be worldwide and last for many years.Of course there will be repercussions. That's the whole point.
Another historical fact absent from the administration's history lesson is the fact that the CIA helped Saddam Hussein's Baath Party seize the government in 1963, after which Saddam Hussein joined in perpetrating the bloodbath that followed. Also ignored is the manner in which Saddam Hussein was supported and armed by the United States during the 1980s.To the extent that the United States had anything more to do with helping Saddam than did, say, France, Germany and Russia, it's our responsibility to fix whatever problem we might have mistakenly exacerbated. That's what we're doing. Why aren't those other countries that helped Saddam doing anything to fix the mess they helped create?
Members of the administration have repeatedly quoted Santayana's famous admonition, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The question is, what is relevant history and how do we learn from it?Yes, all civilizations eventually collapse, including dictatorships. And "In the long run," as Keynes said, "we're all dead". Any dictatorship that deserves to collapse, deserves to collapse quickly and it will collapse more quickly with outside pressure.
We learn not by seeking events that seem to parallel those in our own time, but by examining the long sweep of history, by studying how oppressive regimes, in fact, ultimately change without the necessity of war to overthrow them. Dictatorships, when contained, eventually collapse.
This certainly is a lesson of the history of the 20th century. We did not go to war to prevent Stalin or Mao, also dictators responsible for the deaths of millions of their own people, from developing weapons of mass destruction. We contained them. The Soviet Union ultimately imploded and China today is a major trading partner of the United States.Containment was more apropos during the Cold War for a couple of reasons that do not apply to Iraq and the rest of the Arab world: first, the USSR and China were too large and powerful to confront directly. We probably should have prevented both countries from obtaining nuclear weapons had we been able to. But we didn't do it in time. Second, both countries had the good sense not to blow up US embassies or to fly airplanes into US office buildings. The various Arab and Islamic psychopathologies show less willingness to restrain themselves from attacking us than the USSR did. The opportunity to prevent the long-term threats from growing out of control is now, before they acquire the means to deter us from effective self-defense.
History teaches that international affairs are complex and rarely yield to black-and-white divisions of good and evil.If the Soviet Union, the Third Reich and Ba'athist Iraq are not as close as human beings get to perpetrating evil, then what is?
And we learn that justice is ultimately served by adherence to the rule of law and not by states that arbitrarily grant themselves the right to stand above or outside of the established practices of international law.If only there were a deus ex machina to enforce "international law". But there never has been and there never will be. And the lesson, again, from the failure of the League of Nations in the 1930s, and the failure of the UN to deter, say, the Soviet Union and Arab aggression during the Cold War is that "international law" is hardly a deterrent to those who need to be deterred.
The extension of democracy in the world has not come from the barrel of a gun, but from the extension of the rule of law.Now forgive me, Professor, because I was a simple math major in college, not a history major. So I'm not current on all the fundamental principles of modern historical scholarship, such as "the long sweep of history". And it might be that sophisticated historians no longer bother with petty details such as names, dates and causal relationships. But here's a question that I've been pondering lately on the subject of gun barrels vs. the "extension of the rule of law". You might be able to help me answer it:
Did the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787 lead to the military defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 and the subsequent withdrawal of British forces from the Thirteen Colonies, or was it the other way around?
In the 20th century, we have learned that the determination of people to control their own destiny is ultimately stronger than the empires that have dominated them.Absolutely, and oppressed people (like Iraqis) appreciate outside help (like ours) to overthrow those who dominate them.
Jonathan Schell has splendidly summarized this lesson in the March issue of Harper's magazine: "If force remained the essence of power and the final arbiter in politics, then the British today would rule India, the United States would preside over South Vietnam, the apartheid regime would survive in South Africa, the Communist Party would rule over the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union would rule over Eastern Europe. That none of these things is the case testifies to the capacity of cooperative power to defeat superior force."Splendid indeed, but wrong. I'm not quite sure what Schell means by "cooperative power", but force alone is not a sufficient condition to retain power. The willingness to apply force is also required. And what characterizes the situations in the quote above is not so much the presence of force, but the loss of the willingness to apply force. Since Saddam appears to retain the willingness to apply force [or at least he did a few days ago], countervailing force is required to defeat him.
The lesson of history is that we cannot make ourselves safe or secure by reliance on military superiority alone, as the Bush Doctrine presumes, but by aligning ourselves with the hopes of people everywhere for peace, economic justice, the rule of law and freedom from oppression.Yes, but contrary to what the Chancellor implies, that is precisely what we are doing. Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at March 22, 2003 08:00 AM