The resort to historical analogies is neither sinful nor stupid intrinsically. It’s human. As the excellent Vietnam historian Fredrik Logevall said in a January lecture:
There is a deep-seated human desire, an assumption, to believe that if a thing brought … disaster in the past, it’s also going to bring disaster the next time around. Public decisions in contemporary politics … necessarily imply a guess about the future derived from the experience of the past.
Who wants to guess blindly? Surely it’s far better to guess knowledgeably. This is not automatically a fool’s errand. In Logevall’s words, “History repeats itself enough to make at least some historical generalizations possible.” And thus we find ourselves in the thick of analogy wars, which are, at least, convenient, like all stereotypes. They help us think we are not utterly lost.
The debate about the July 14 Iran agreement (which should not be called a U.S.-Iran agreement, since it is a U.S.-Iran-U.K.-France-Germany-Russia-China agreement) is really a debate about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Realistically, it cannot be a debate about the text of the agreement, since I daresay virtually no commentators on the agreement have understood it in detail, or even read it all the way through, and many of us (I do not exempt myself) were already inclined to judgments about it before the text even materialized. Reader, I have tried to read this text—or even to sample more than a few of its 159 pages. It is mind-numbingly tedious. President Barack Obama has delivered a strong defense of it in far fewer, more sculpted words. Others have criticized one or another aspect, charging that its inspection regime is inadequate and pointing out, accurately, that the agreement will not last forever.
The argument about the deal is really argument about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The dominant Israeli view is essentialist. On this view, the 1979 revolution established a Shi’a theocracy that adheres once and for all to a apocalyptic worldview. America is its Great Satan, Israel its Little Satan. America, in the view of the unlamented ex-President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is eternally committed to prevent the emergence of a “Hidden Imam.” To defeat Satans Great and Little, all means are legitimate. Moreover, Iran is on the march to acquiring all manner of those means. The Iranian regime is not only a theocracy but also an imperialist power. Give it an inch and it takes a mile. Cut off the sanctions and Iran will invest yet more in Hezbollah’s rockets. All political differences in Tehran are cosmetic. Rouhani is Ahmadinejad with a human face. Did not Ayatollah Khamenei himself used the word “essential,” just before the deal was announced, to characterize the conflict with America? “Do you think our battle with estekbar [arrogance] will ever rest?” an Iranian student asked him. “This is an essence of the revolution. It’s one of our principal tasks,” replied the ayatollah, who promptly made it clear that by “arrogance,” he meant “America.” Accordingly, in this interpretation, the nuclear deal is a fraud—it is either a cover for continuing efforts to develop nuclear bombs or a way to channel new funds to terrorist groups like Hezbollah, or both.
The contrary view, Obama’s, is reformist. On this view, the Iranian regime exists in a malleable world. It is not an afterthought add-on to the Axis powers of World War II. (George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum came up with the phrase “axis of hatred,” precursor to “axis of evil,” after leafing through FDR’s “day of infamy” speech.) At the time of Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, as Faraz Fassihi reminds us, the Iranian regime was cooperating with the United States against the Taliban. Although the ayatollah is in charge, politics remain. There are, deplorably, imprisoned journalists, tortured prisoners, persecuted Baha’is—and there are elections. There are mobilizations and counter-mobilizations. Factions rise and fall.
In Obama’s view, although the nuclear agreement is strictly a nuclear agreement—defensible in its own terms, as an important measure against nuclear proliferation—and contains nothing in its text about Iran as either a supporter of terrorism or a dictatorship, there is also a subtext about the political future. For Obama is mindful of Iran’s aggressions. On these, he said on July 14:
We share the concerns expressed by many of our friends in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf states, about Iran’s support for terrorism and its use of proxies to destabilize the region. But that is precisely why we are taking this step—because an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon would be far more destabilizing and far more dangerous to our friends and to the world. Meanwhile, we will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its human rights violations. We will continue our unprecedented efforts to strengthen Israel’s security.
Plainly Obama believes that nuclear containment, given years to flourish, gives promise of undermining Iran’s theocracy as well as its imperial overreach. If Iran tries to “break out,” not only the United States but the other great powers will line up to stop it, and the odds of stopping it will be no worse than at present. As Obama said on July 14:
If, in a worst-case scenario, Iran violates the deal, the same options that are available to me today will be available to any U.S. president in the future. And I have no doubt that 10 or 15 years from now, the person who holds this office will be in a far stronger position with Iran further away from a weapon and with the inspections and transparency that allow us to monitor the Iranian program.
Obama’s theory is anti-essentialist. It is, in fact, empiricist: “We must continue to test whether or not this region, which has known so much suffering, so much bloodshed, can move in a different direction.” Obama doesn’t pretend to know the outer limits of reform possibility. But he believes that in the mid to long run, the regime will become, to some unknowable degree, less dictatorial, less paranoid, and less dangerous to Israel, as well as to the United States.
Meanwhile, the rescinding of sanctions will promote Iran’s economic integration, which during the 10 to 15 years envisioned in the agreement will strengthen the hands of reformers. True, the deal has nothing to say about human rights. Obama’s guess is that the nuclear deal weakens the most paranoid and brutal elements of the regime and, over time, restrains Iran as an imperial player in the region. This is not a sure thing. But what it is not is appeasement.
Looming over the Iran nuclear debate is not only the “suffocating power” of the Munich analogue but an analogy fight with roots in the Cold War.
The analogue wars that now engulf us are better understood in relation to Stalin than Hitler. Is the deal Yalta? The Yalta agreement gave the Soviets carte blanche in Eastern and Central Europe—true. Decades of oppression ensued—true. But what was the alternative to Yalta? When Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill met there, Roosevelt was well aware that the Red Army had conquered those miserable lands from the defeated Germans. As Susan Butler argues in her meticulous history Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt was quite canny in playing on Stalin’s vanity to get wartime results. His prime imperatives at Yalta were twofold: to prompt Stalin into going to war soon against Japan, and to make sure that the United Nations would get a firm footing. He was not expecting to die before the next allied meeting, at Potsdam, had a chance to deal with other imperatives. No wonder no less an anti-Communist than ex-President Herbert Hoover said, “Yalta will offer a great hope to the world.” Today, defenders of the Iran agreement ask the question that was, and is, rightly asked about Yalta: What is the alternative? and it is not rhetorical. To believe that a continuation of the sanctions regime will accomplish what years of sanctions have not accomplished is implausible.
Hitler is dead and so is Stalin. For four decades, the United States faced off against a nuclear-armed USSR without head-to-head war. During four of those years, the USSR was ruled by a paranoid dictator who was responsible for tens of millions of murders. He was contained. So was Mao, who was responsible for an equivalent number of murders and deaths by avoidable famine. In 1972, when it suited him to reconstruct the world order, Richard M. Nixon, who rose to power at a time when the winning rhetorical question in American politics was “Who lost China?” visited Beijing to establish relations with the greatest mass murderer alive.
The divide over the mutability of the Iran regime recapitulates the Cold War division between those who thought “the Sino-Soviet bloc” was an unyielding monolith and those who saw possibilities for evolution, mindful that Stalin had renounced aid to the Chinese Communists and (as Susan Butler reports) called the Maoists “margarine Communists.” A similar essentialism was clamped onto the USSR itself. First came the question whether Stalinism was an eternal template for Soviet power and whether Nikita Khrushchev was a real reformer. During the decade after Stalin’s death, there was plenty to be said about Khrushchev as a chip off the old block. He denounced some elements of Stalinism but by no means all. He did, however, proclaim “peaceful coexistence” with the West.
In the détente phase, from the late 1960s through the 1970s and ’80s, American hard-liners persisted in believing that the USSR was on the brink of, or had already achieved, nuclear superiority. The Soviets were liars and cheats. Just as Kim il-sung had marched into South Korea and Khrushchev had marched into Budapest, Leonid Brezhnev marched into Prague. Given these aggressions, were arms-control treaties anything more than fig leaves?
In the case of the USSR, the answers are clear. Khrushchev was not Stalin. Arms-control treaties, starting with the limited test ban of 1963, helped normalize U.S.-USSR relations. They made the world safer. Later, in a way contemplated by few at the time, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 encouraged the dissidents of East Europe to mobilize to replace the Communists in what were to be, for 14 more years, satellite countries, but also opened the door for Mikhail Gorbachev. “If [the Helsinki agreement] fails,” said Gerald Ford on the eve of his departure for Helsinki in 1975, “Europe will be no worse off than it is now. If even a part of it succeeds, the lot the people in Eastern Europe will be that much better, and the cause of freedom will advance at least that far.” This did not go over so well in the United States.
But Israel under Netanyahu has been retreating into the sullen belligerence of the paranoid. It seems largely frozen in place. “Even paranoids have real enemies,” as Delmore Schwartz unforgettably said, but not all their enemies are “existential” threats. Reversion to a ghetto mentality is unsurprising to a people for whose ancestors, after all, the word was devised in the 16th century. Essentialists tend to hold on to their essentially paranoid structure of thought until the last gritted teeth are ground flat. As late as 1989, many Western essentialists thought Gorbachev was a trickster—Yuri Andropov with a wine-colored birthmark.
True, the present nuclear agreement contains no human rights provisions. Neither did the arms-control treaties negotiated by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon. (Gerald Ford was the great exception here, with the Helsinki endorsement of those rights—which so-called realists like Henry Kissinger, himself no fan of human rights in Chile, thought empty.) The Islamic Republic of Iran has not heralded “peaceful coexistence.” Ground-breaking will not soon begin for an Israeli embassy in Tehran, nor will the old American one be letting contracts for a reopening.
But a clear vision of the Middle Eastern future gets fogged when offhand analogies substitute for thoughtful appraisals. It was in a failed attempt to scotch such brainless analogies that, in 1951, the political theorist Leo Strauss, no left-winger, coined the phrase “reductio ad Hitlerum.”
One can understand why Israelis would be sensitive on the point. Analogies serve psychological needs. Without analogies, we limited humans plunge through a patternless history. There’s nothing to be learned. It’s just one damn thing after another. Analogies compounded by fear are especially compelling and especially tenacious, none more than the Munich analogy, which is composed of ashes. Even if overwrought in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, it made psychological sense when so many Israelis were but a few years away from the Zyklon-B. “Hitler never died,” Bernard Avishai was told as a child, “but swam to Egypt and became nasser,” wetter in German. Had not Arab armies tried to throttle the Jewish state in its cradle?
But Hitler, whose hatred of the Jews and ambitions for conquest were transparent and fundamental long before he assumed power, did die. To view Nazi Germany as a repeatable terror is, in its own way, to deny the unique horrors he perpetrated—against a stateless, unarmed people, not a state that is, though small and vulnerable to rocket attacks, the strongest military power in its region, and one armed, like it or not, with nuclear weapons.
There is a lot of history left to happen. But it is history—not doom, not Holocaust II, not the endless, helpless repeat of a nightmare.
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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.