Shadow Government

How to construct an inaccurate historical analogy

In a recent FP article, Francis Gavin and James Steinberg observed that historical analogies can prove an unreliable guide to present-day policy decisions, specifically with regard to the momentous decision facing the United States and its allies regarding whether to strike Iran. As if to prove Gavin and Steinberg's point, Fareed Zakaria seeks in a Washington Post column to marshal two historical analogies in defense of his view that Israel should not attack Iran, but rather should seek to "contain" a nuclear-armed Iran if necessary. In doing so, Zakaria provides little insight into the difficult decisions facing Israeli or American leaders, but instead provides an instructive example of the fallacies that Gavin and Steinberg warn against.

Zakaria's first error is to cherry-pick historical analogies which fit what is presumably a preconceived conclusion -- that attacking Iran would be a strategic error. To support his view, he cites Germany's ill-fated decision to invade France in 1914, and the United States' decision not to attack the USSR in the late 1940s.

There are two problems with this sort of cherry-picking. First, Zakaria chooses only those historical cases which support the case for non-intervention, and ignores other possible analogies which might undermine his view. Just as critics of a strike like Zakaria could point to the cases he mentions or others to demonstrate how an attack could fail or non-intervention could succeed, advocates of a strike can cite the failure to confront mounting German militarism in the 1930s to highlight the risks of passivity, or cases of successful military interventions to illustrate the benefits of action.

Second, as with most broad historical analogies, both of the events cited by Zakaria are problematic as comparisons to the current tensions between Israel and Iran. Indeed, they must be shoe-horned into service to Zakaria's thesis. For example, Zakaria focuses on one factor which contributed to the outbreak of World War I -- German concerns about Russian armaments and mobilization capacity -- and excludes the many other circumstances which precipitated that conflict. And in citing the success of the decision to maintain a policy of "containment" (which was adopted prior to Moscow's development of nuclear weapons) toward the USSR rather than go to war, he fails to mention that this success came at considerable cost -- the domination of Eastern Europe for decades by the Soviets, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and several major and countless minor wars.

Zakaria's second error is to commit, as many who employ analogies do, the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- that is, to assume that because an outcome followed a decision, it was caused by that decision. It is difficult to know even in retrospect whether the course of events depended on a particular decision or were in fact independent of it. Historians may wonder whether any decision by the major powers in the summer of 1914 could have averted a war in Europe, just as present-day policymakers are concerned that the Middle East will be more conflict-prone in the future regardless of Israel's decision regarding Iran.

Also problematic is the question of counterfactuals -- that is, whether different decisions would have produced outcomes better or worse than those which actually occurred. Historians argue vehemently over such issues, whereas partisan policy analysts have the cynical tendency to argue that anything that went well did so because of decisions their party or leader made, and that things that went poorly were either fated to do so or were someone else's fault. In reality, policymaking is a world of maddening ambiguity, in which not only outcomes but even facts tend to be uncertain.

Policymakers can -- indeed, must -- learn from history, but not by employing facile analogies in the service of preordained conclusions. History can help us understand problems and put them in their proper context; it can offer up novel solutions or shed new light on a dilemma; and it can warn us of the pitfalls that attend any decision and perhaps teach us how to avoid them. Learning from history is a tricky business -- in studying history, a policymaker must take lessons from one context and determine how and whether they apply to a different situation and a different era. Not only do different historical cases frequently suggest contradictory conclusions, but even individual cases -- for example U.S. arming of Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s or the U.S. rapprochement with Muammar Qaddafi in the 2000s -- can offer multiple lessons which pull one in different directions.

As Gavin and Steinberg assert, in the end history cannot tell us what to do. Resolving thorny policy problems requires not just historical analysis, but also regional and strategic expertise, personal experience, and sound judgment. But above all, it requires the courage and conviction to choose, amid great uncertainty, among risky options. This is the essence of policymaking.

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Shadow Government

If you want diplomacy to work with Iran, you can't ease up the pressure

Dennis Ross has made an interesting appeal for talks with Iran. He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran's cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain. Since there is evidence that the Iranians are experiencing the kind of pain the strategy called for, Ross says it is worth testing whether this has adjusted Iran's cost-benefit calculation enough to make a deal possible.

Ross is clear-eyed about the modest prospects for success. Given the costs of the alternatives, I find Ross pretty compelling. But he buries the weak link in the strategy inside these two sentences: "Of course, Iran's government might try to draw out talks while pursuing their nuclear program. But if that is their strategy, they will face even more onerous pressures, when a planned European boycott of their oil begins on July 1."

As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face. It involves offering negotiations, but then insisting that the sanctions be lifted as a show of good faith or as a way of creating conducive conditions for fruitful talks or simply as a precondition for getting the Iranians to the table. The Iranians have been fairly adept at making it look like it was Western pressure that was hobbling diplomacy, thus creating pressure on our side to ease the sanctions. Even when the United States has stood firm, sometimes our allies and partners have wobbled. By and large, the Iranians have been more effective at using the prospects of negotiations to improve their chances of wiggling out of sanctions than our side has been at using the sanctions to improve the prospects for negotiations. And while the dynamic plays itself out, Iran has kept marching toward the nuclear threshold.

So I would endorse Ross's call for yet another round of negotiations, but only with certain provisos which are prerequisites for the strategy to succeed:

  • All current sanctions must be maintained at the current level of pressure throughout, until a deal is struck that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
  • All planned new sanctions must be imposed, as scheduled, unless and until the deal is struck and implemented.
  • "Signs of progress" and other lesser concessions by the Iranian side should be met with comparable rhetorical gestures and perhaps other sweeteners (e.g., an exchange of midlevel diplomatic visits), but not with an easing of the sanctions pressure.

A friend closer to the action than I am tells me it is "inconceivable" that a new diplomatic push would not undermine sanctions pressure. If he is right, it is also nearly inconceivable that diplomacy would work. But, as they say in the business, this is an empirical question. We can find out.

If the Obama team can pull off this delicate diplomatic maneuver -- negotiating with Iran without simultaneously undermining our negotiating leverage over Iran -- that would be quite an accomplishment. Even then, it might not be enough to secure a deal. And it still leaves an exceptionally complex part of the problem underdeveloped, for I have buried another weak link of this strategy in my description of the deal: "…will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

But, as Ross suggests, it is the only way diplomacy stands a chance of succeeding. And this part will be fairly easy to monitor. If we ease up our pressure while negotiating, we will know that the negotiations are probably doomed.

People who believe negotiations will fail and believe that the military option is the only remaining recourse should not oppose one last diplomatic push. The political predicate for the military option is a consensus that all reasonable nonmilitary options have been tried and found wanting. It is unlikely President Obama would believe that predicate was met without another test of the diplomatic waters.

There is yet one other weak link in the strategy. If there is a genuine window of opportunity after which the military option is pointless -- as claimed by the Israelis in the "zone of immunity" -- and if negotiations are strung out beyond the closing of that window, that would dramatically increase the costs of pursuing another round of diplomacy. I do not know enough about the operational details to adjudicate this. Perhaps no one, not even the Israelis and the Iranians themselves, know for sure. But if I am right about the political predicate for military action, then the hawks should be the ones pushing most urgently for diplomacy, albeit on a very short deadline.

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