History as guide to policy? Your thoughts?

Reading group colleagues,

I have several questions for you to ponder and respond back to.

The New York Times “Week in Review” had an interesting article by David Kirkpatrick yesterday, Sunday August 26, 2007, in which Kirkpatrick briefly explored the idea of whether history is a reliable guide to policy and decision-making.

The article is a response to President Bush’s statement last week – supporting his policy to remain in Iraq – that the pullout from Vietnam led to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

President Bush sent historians scurrying toward their keyboards last week when he defended the United States occupation of Iraq by arguing that the pullout from Vietnam had led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia.

Kirkpatrick then raises an interesting question – about the role of history.

But Mr. Bush’s statement also revived a perennial question. Whenever a public officials starts to say “the lesson of,” is that a cue to stop listening?

In the article, Kirkpatrick also quotes two professors who say that perhaps the Vietnam War would have not happened had policy-makers considered Thucydides and his description of the failed campaign against Syracuse (note: for those of you just now reading Thucydides, this famous campaign happens later in the war – we aren’t there yet).

They note that Johnson administration officials could have considered Thucydides’ account of the ill-conceived Athenian invasion of Syracuse more than two millennia ago.

Read the article and then consider these questions:

– For those of you who have read Thucydides, do you think that Johnson Administration officials knowledge of and understanding into the “ill-conceived Athenian invasion of Syracuse” could actually have changed Vietnam War policy?

– Kirkpatrick argues (or quotes those who do) that President Kennedy succeeded in the Cuban Missile Crisis by *not* relying on historical precedent to guide his decision-making. Does his argument make sense? Is Kennedy a good counter-example to Bush?

– Can the knowledge of past historical decisions guide us in current decision-making? Does historical analogy work like Bush and the professors suggest? Or, is Kirkpatrick right to raise the question about how policy-makers and historians use history?  Should we use history more as a way to help inform the development of our thinking – instead of a way to justify the results of our thinking?

– For those of you reading “Team of Rivals” (or with knowledge of Lincoln), did Lincoln rely on precedent to justify his Civil War policy – or on his own developed thinking and values (certainly informed by historical knowledge)? Note:  yes, Lincoln, of course, was known for his collaborative thinking – but he did reserve certain fundamental decisions – especially the decision to go to war and the conditions for peace – to himself.

Thoughts? Comments? Let’s see if we can get an online dialogue going across the reading groups about the role of history in policy making – and, more broadly, what lessons we can justifiably learn from history.



P.S. Perhaps Thucydides himself – who ends the book mid-sentence in the middle of chapter 8 – may be giving us his answer with his abrupt ending: that due to the complexity of human behavior and interaction, history cannot tell us what to do – it’s not even clear that we can ever understand all the motivations and actions taken – but, by example, history can certainly inform us about that very complexity and caution us against certain common failures of human nature.

27. August 2007 by Arrian
Categories: Thucydides | Tags: , | 1 comment

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