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January 07, 2012

Memory and Perspective: Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Iraq

We have written before of the importance of memory, relying on "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" as a shibboleth.

Today we would like to expand the discussion of memory as essential to progress, and start off with American pragmatist George Santayana's "The One who does not remember history is bound to live through it again", shown as an inscription at Auschwitz.

First, we highly recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in the Atlantic, Why do so few blacks study the civil war?

In my opinion it's a landmark document. It's a pleasure to see a good person's oeuvre distilled into a single work that has the potential to change the culture.
Coates establishes slavery, explicit in the South but also exploited by the North, as the cause of the Civil War, and repositions the conflict as possibly the consummation of the Revolutionary War rather than it's current place as the war that white people all feel bad about.

Second, we suggest Robert Wright's "Ron Paul Vindicated (Unfortunately):
A week ago Ron Paul tried to convey how the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran--which may soon include an embargo on its oil--look from an Iranian point of view: It's as if China were to blockade the Gulf of Mexico, he said--"an act of war".

This is sheer conjecture; Ron Paul is no expert on Iran. But now someone who does have relevant credentials has weighed in, and the picture he paints is disturbingly reminiscent of the one Paul painted. It suggests we may be closer to war than most people realize.

That piece leads to Vali Nasr's article in Bloomberg, "Hard-line U.S. Policy Tips Iran Toward Belligerence".
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. are so high, a conflagration could be tripped off without either country intending it. This latest spiral of hostility began after the U.S. and its European allies responded to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report on Iran’s nuclear activities by imposing and threatening additional, tougher sanctions. New U.S. measures may drastically cut Iran’s oil revenue.

To escape this self-defeating outcome, the Western powers should imagine how the situation looks from Tehran.

Robert Wright picks up on Vali Nasr's suggestion, and imagines how it looks from Tehran:
Iran's nuclear scientists have recently evinced a tendency to get assassinated, and a mysterious explosion at a military facility happened to kill the general in charge of Iran's missile program. These things were almost certainly done by Israel, possibly with American support. If you were Iranian, would you consider assassinations on your soil grounds for attacking the suspected perpetrators?

Underlying our Iran strategy is the assumption that if we keep ratcheting up the pressure, the regime will eventually say uncle. A problem with this premise is that throughout human history rulers have shown an aversion to being seen by their people as surrendering. Indeed, when you face dissent, as the Iranian regime does, there's actually a certain appeal to confronting an external threat, since confrontation tends to consolidate domestic support. As Nasr puts it, "the ruling clerics are responding with shows of strength to boost solidarity at home."

This doesn't mean Iran's rulers haven't wanted to make a deal. But it does mean the deal would have to leave these rulers with a domestically plausible claim to have benefited from it, and it also means these leaders can't afford to be seen begging for the deal. When President Ahmadinejad visited New York last year, he gave reporters unmistakable signals that he wanted to negotiate, but the Obama administration chose to ignore them. After Ahmadinejad "went home empty handed," reports Nasr, power increasingly shifted to Iranians who argued for confrontation over diplomacy.

Even so, Iran's foreign minister made another appeal to re-open talks only days ago, suggesting that they be held in Turkey. But, as the New York Times reported, western nations interpreted this overture "as an effort by Iran to buy time to continue its program." Got that? If Iranians refuse to negotiate it means they don't want a deal, and if they ask to negotiate it means they don't want a deal.

Nasr says the tightening of the screws is making Iran increasingly determined to get nuclear weapons--not to start a war, but to prevent one. Having seen what happened to Muammar Qaddafi, says Nasr, Iran's leaders worry that foreign powers would "feel safe enough to interfere in the affairs of a non-nuclear-armed state."

And so we go back to Santayana, remembering that while the Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor was precipitated by many things, the final straw that moved plans into action was the US freezing all Japanese assets and Roosevelt's imposition of an oil embargo in July 1941. Which is pretty much what we're doing with Iran right now.

This is how a Japanese pilot saw Pearl Harbor in December 1941:

We can try to see their side first, and work for our goals within that understanding, or maybe we can eventually see what it looks like to them from their combat cameras.


MH said...

I find this analogy a strange, or at least too stretched to be meaningful. There was very little "blundering" into war. Japan was fighting a very large war, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, which was even by that point one of the most deadly events in human history. They had just invaded Indochina, expanding the war again. There was no question of Japanese leaders fearing being seen as surrendering. They feared not being able to continue a war that resulted in 20 million deaths. There was also no blunder from the other side. The U.S. sold oil to Japan well past the point where anyone expected that war could be stopped from spreading in an attempt to put off the war for a bit. The speed of Japan's attack was a surprise, but that the embargo was starting a war was not.

Vannevar said...

So the US understood that the embargo on the Japanese would result in war, the US did it knowing that war would result, but we were just surprised at Japan's timing when they attacked six months later?

I guess my (feeble, inarticulate) point is that we're repeating the same moves (freezing assets, energy embargo) with Iraq that led to war with Japan. So... we must mean to provoke war with Iraq? Because repeating the same pattern and expecting something different would be crazy.

Do we expect Iraq to look at N.Korea and Libya and not see the regime-preserving value of nukes?

I think we're about to prove Santayana's aphorism. It'll kill / maim a lot of our youngsters, and - in many ways - we're starting it. Just an opinion.

My compliments, MH, as always. (and I invite you to have the last word) Cheers, V.

MH said...

I understand the concern about pushing Iran into something it might not do otherwise (though I'm not unconcerned about what Iran might do on its own). However, the cases are very different and by comparing U.S./Iran relations in 2012 to U.S./Japan relations in 1941, you are arguing against your thesis. The lesson of 1941 is "assume the other side really wants a war and act accordingly." Japan at that time was one of the most militant and militarily aggressive societies in the modern era. The Japanese leaders were afraid of being seen to surrender, that's true. The last pre-war civilian leader of Japan was shot to death in 1932 by a combined army-navy conspiracy whose members were never punished beyond a slap on the wrist. The pressure from within was so great that the actions of other nations mattered little except in so far as they could direct Japan to attack somewhere else by looking stronger than those around them.

So the US understood that the embargo on the Japanese would result in war, the US did it knowing that war would result, but we were just surprised at Japan's timing when they attacked six months later?

I was unclear. The U.S. understood that war with Japan was likely enough that selling them oil was arming the enemy. The U.S. had started drafting troops nearly a full year before the full embargo. In 1941, we added nearly 2 million men to the military. Lend-Lease started before the embargo and the U.S. publicly committed to arming Germany and Japan's enemies. (Wanting to send oil to Britain was another reason for not sending it to Japan.) The U.S. knew that Japan was very angry, but I believe the consensus was that Japan wouldn't start a war with the United States. Instead, it was expected that once the U.S. was at war with Hitler, the Tripartite Pact would bring Japan to attack the U.S. War with Hitler was expected to come shortly.

While it is true that other restrictions started before all of this, those restrictions were limited to military goods (or at least goods with few civilian uses) and it is my belief that the U.S. would have been morally culpable if it hadn't taken at least some of them. The invasion of China was very brutal and U.S. leaders have been harshly criticized for selling military goods to countries with better records on human rights.

Also, the type of restriction is very different. The U.S. was refraining from selling domestically produced oil to Japan. In Iran, the U.S. is threatening to stop them from selling their oil to others. The moral case for not selling your own exports surely requires a lower bar than trying to stop somebody else from selling theirs.

Do we expect Iraq to look at N.Korea and Libya and not see the regime-preserving value of nukes?

That is indeed the crux of the issue right there. A very real concern to my mind.

There is of course no need to give me last word. History is open to many interpretations.

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