Chastened by History?

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By Andrew Sprung

In late 2002, I wrote an unpublished essay tabulating the various historical analogies that had been deployed in the media in efforts to shed light on the pending U.S. invasion of Iraq. I've lost the piece, but the upshot was that basically every U.S. war had been drafted into explanatory service, plus a Roman and (I think) medieval venture or two, plus the Athenians' disastrous Sicilian expedition.(That last, by Simon Schama, struck me as the most outlandish at the time, but it's the one that's recurred to memory repeatedly in the years since. Read it now and weep.)

As our leaders have since learned something of the limits of power, could it be that our commentariat has learned something of the limits of prognostication?  A silly generalization, perhaps. There was no shortage of warnings of the contingency and unpredictability of history in 2002 (some, e.g. Schama's, using historical analogy), and there's no shortage of facile analogy in treatments of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings today.  Nonetheless, arbitrarily or not, in a single day earlier this week (Jan. 31) three instances of admirable humility in attempts to fathom what's happening in Egypt caught my eye. Do they indicate some collective chastening of American consciousness by events over the last near-decade? Who knows? But here they are.

First, Ross Douthat, cutting U.S. presidents of both parties some slack:

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Next, Nick Kristof, on the ground in Cairo, fighting back euphoria in the "festive and exhilarating" air of Tahrir Square:

In the past, the army famously refused President Sadat's order to crack down on bread riots, and maybe they won't crack down this time. But I've seen this kind of scenario unfolding before in Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and the truth is that sometimes troops open fire and sometimes they don't.

And finally, Daniel Larison -- never prone to euphoria, but neither dead to the hope of democracy's spread (in the world at large over time, if not in Egypt or Tunisia tomorrow):

It is the twenty-first century, and most of the world is still governed by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political systems. Notably, of all the "beneficiaries" of so-called color revolutions, the [Economist Intelligence Unit] report classifies just one, Ukraine, as a "flawed democracy," and the rest are "hybrid" regimes [in which parties in power tend to manipulate elections]. While the last thirty years have seen remarkable advances in the spread of democratic government and liberal political culture, it cannot be stressed enough that many of these advances are still fragile and reversible in many places, and they are also very recent developments that everyone has to acknowledge to be historically atypical. That doesn't mean that we should ignore political change, or pretend that democratization always leads to a new form of despotism, but it does mean that we shouldn't ignore the clear lessons of the dangers that come from democratization-as-shock-therapy when they are clearly relevant.

Of course, I can quite rightly be accused of yoking quite disparate bedfellows into my own analogy here -- three writers of very different experience and outlook, deploying Uncertainty Principles to very different purposes.  Guilty as charged.  A blogger's got to have some fun, right?

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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