Max Boot and the Abuse of Historical Analogy

Let it never be said that if there’s an opportunity to make a hackneyed historical analogy that Max Boot will not take it.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Boot, a senior fellow at the Council Foreign Relations, asserts:

Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s?… The answer to the riddle—why did the West slumber?—becomes easier to grasp if we think about present-day relations with Iran.

Before providing the answer though, Boot runs through the usual laundry list of Iranian perfidy—from the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 to the alleged Quds Force plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States that was revealed this October.  One need not share Boot’s Manichean worldview to acknowledge that Iran is not a “good guy” in the international arena, and Iran is surely guilty of at least 99 percent of the transgressions Boot cites.  But does this mean Iran is a unique evil on the level of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia and will continue to unleash its malevolence on the world if the West ignore it the same way it did Hitler in the 1930s?

That’s hard to imagine given the innumerable differences between Iran and the combatants in World War II.  Nazi Germany was an industrialized nation with a large population situated in the heart of Europe.  Soviet Russia spanned eleven time zones and had the largest conventional military on the planet.  For its part, Iran is forced to use proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas to project power in the Middle East because it does not have ability to build the type of military machine that could challenge its regional adversaries let alone the advanced militaries of the West.  Fear that Iran will become more aggressive if and when it obtains a nuclear weapon are understandable but similar fears of the Soviet Union did not cause preventive attacks because it was understood the aftermath of such an was more costly than containing the threat should it emerge.

Boot claims the only “credible option” against Iran’s nuclear program is a bombing campaign, but even he admits that such a measure would only delay such an inevitability—and likely make the mullahs more determined to obtain a deterrent to a repeated attack.   The answer to his “riddle” is an implicit assumption by Western policymakers that war today is too costly.   He is likely right in that analysis—as are today’s policymakers correct in making the assumption and Boot himself demonstrates why.  According to him, forgoing preventive war was the “right decision to make with Stalin's Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler's Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.”  The United States was able to adopt a containment strategy that boxed Moscow in for over forty years and eventually led to the Soviet superpower’s internal collapse.  Nowhere does Boot explain why Iran—a country exponentially smaller, with an antiquated military, and a fractured leadership—is impervious to a similar strategy when it worked against a conventionally superior opponent that actually possessed nuclear weapons, as opposed to a program that may, at some unknown point, produce them.

Beyond just the utter containability of the Iranian threat, there are two notable examples missing from Boot’s analogical threats that are telling:  China circa 1964 and Iraq circa 2003.  Why is Iran’s nuclear program not analogous to China’s?  In what way is a military operation against Iran not analogous to the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

China tested its first nuclear weapon in October 1964 and preventive war was certainly an option considered by both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  At the time, China was a rogue state on a level Iran could only imagine—exporting Communist revolution to the Third World, starting a border war with India, and asserting that it could lose 300 million Chinese citizens in a nuclear war and still go on functioning as a society.  China had also fought an actual land war with the United States in Korea that cost tens of thousands of American servicemen their lives just over a decade prior.  Still, policymakers rightly concluded that results of such an operation were more costly than deterring Beijing over the long run.  In some sense, it might be possible to say that China should have been attacked at that point given its current military and economic rise, but its much more difficult to make a case for immediate military action if the example is a state that, nearly fifty years after obtaining a nuclear weapon, is still at least another two to three decades away from becoming anything resembling a peer competitor.  And it might be difficult for Boot to have justified such an action in hindsight considering China is Washington’s largest creditor and all those “jodhpurs and pith helmets” he wants need to be paid for somehow.
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It’s understandable why Boot might want to avoid discussion of the case where the United States did take preventive action against a potential threat considering he was one of the leading advocates for the invasion of Iraq.  In Boot’s case, it should be noted that he did call for a larger troop presence to pacify the country than others, but Iraq is still the prime example of why policymakers exert the caution they do when considering preventive war.  As with Iran currently, Iraq was portrayed as an undeterrable threat on the brink of possessing weapons of mass destruction with which it would blackmail the West or pass along to terrorists to use covertly.  As with Iran, the threat turned out to be less-than-imminent, but the aftermath was eight years of war that have wreaked havoc on the U.S. military and Iraqi society.  Iraq demonstrated why an initial attack is not the end of the story, and why anyone selling aerial bombardment as the solution to the Iranian nuclear program should not be taken seriously.  Iran is both geographically larger and more populous than Iraq.  Its nuclear program is dispersed and hidden.  Given the recent examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, does Boot really believe that such an operation is less costly than containing and deterring a threat of minor proportions compared to that of the Soviet Union—threat that he admits the United States was correct in not attacking preventively?

Would an earlier version of containment worked against Nazi Germany?  It might be impossible to know, but where is the evidence that anyone is ignoring Iran—the subject of continued international isolation and innumerable economic and political sanctions, not to mention covert actions such as the Stuxnet virus and the suspected assassination of several its nuclear scientists.  Such strategies are not as viscerally satisfying as a large-scale bombing campaign, taking time to work—as demonstrated by the forty-plus years from George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” to the fall of the Berlin Wall—and requiring considerable patience.  That might not come easy for armchair warriors and laptop bombardiers like Max Boot.

Of course, Boot raising the spectre of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia in discussions of Iran is not meant in any sense to provide an accurate analytical analogy—nor is the invocation of al Qaeda in this case—but is instead a means to connect the clerical regime in Tehran, a bad lot on its own, to a unique historical evil that must be stopped at any cost.  In some sense Boot deserves credit for not shoehorning the words “Munich” and “1938” into his argument.  But Iran is not Nazi Germany, it is not the Soviet Union, and it is not al Qaeda.  Iran is a relatively weak state that is ultimately both deterrable and containable, and, in the wake of the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan—both championed and cheered on by Max Boot—preventive war against Iran is the last option Western policymakers should be considering at this point.

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