Learning history's lessons

Posted: Apr 29, 2003 12:00 AM

It’s acceptable to be wrong -- as long as you become famous in the process.
Author and Yale historian Paul Kennedy illustrates this principle. The crowning achievement of his career is the 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he argued the Far East would continue to grow economically, while the United States would see its global position “erode.”

At the time, Kennedy’s thesis was well received. Today it is on life support. China’s economic growth has slowed, and its military remains far behind that of the United States.

Japan was the true focus of Kennedy’s theory -- the cover of the book features a drawing of a man with a Japanese flag climbing to the top of the world as an image of Uncle Sam with an American flag steps down.

But Japan is an economic basket case. It’s in a 10-year long recession. Banks are awash in bad loans. A government-spending spree has built roads and bridges to nowhere, but has not stimulated the economy.

Meanwhile, the United States is stronger than ever. Our economy makes up 25 percent of the world’s output. China depends on us for markets. Our military -- as the recent war in Iraq proved -- is the greatest in history.

In his book, Kennedy frequently referred to the U.S. as a “declining” power. The rest of the world waits in vain for that “decline.”

Why bother with this history of a history professor? Well, Kennedy is in the spotlight because of his piece in the April 20 Washington Post Outlook section. He begins by drawing a false parallel -- comparing the American presence in Iraq today with that of the British invasion of 1917.

“Eighty-six years ago, another powerful invading army had just entered Baghdad… These were folks determined to make the entire Middle East secure and stable -- a blessing to the world, no doubt, but a particular blessing to their own hegemonic nation, and that nation was Great Britain.”

But the construction doesn’t work, because the two nations went into Iraq for such different reasons. The U.S. went there to remove Saddam Hussein, end his weapons of mass destruction program and protect our country from a terrorist threat. American troops will be out of Iraq as quickly as possible. In fact, only a week after the fighting stopped, the Defense Department was considering ways to withdraw from Iraq.

Britain went into Iraq to expand its empire. It installed governments in the Middle East, and stood ready to send troops to support those governments. We went to bring freedom; Britain went to dominate.

Kennedy also writes, “The United States is unchallenged militarily and sees no rival Great Power in sight. Yet it has taken little comfort from this. Since 9/11, it feels less secure and is spending massive amounts on armaments.”

Again, the historical comparison doesn’t work. It wasn’t a Great Power who attacked us on September 11 -- it was a small group of state-supported terrorists. We are doing all we can to eliminate those terrorists, by dismantling the regimes that support them.

Afghanistan was first, then Iraq. The Bush administration has issued stern warnings to North Korea and Syria -- and, since our overwhelming victory in Iraq they seem to be responding.

As for Kennedy’s charge that we’re spending massive amounts on weapons, well, military spending today is about 3.2 percent of gross domestic product. That may seem like a lot, but it is less than half of the 6.8 percent we averaged from 1950-2001. We’re getting much more for less than ever before.

Kennedy closes with Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines about the “White Man’s burden,” and a warning that our government should beware the perils of empire building. Washington, of course, is already well aware of those perils.

As Secretary of State Colin Powell said in January, we have lost many soldiers overseas in the last 100 years and, “have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home…to live our own lives in peace.”

There is a historical parallel here -- but Kennedy missed it. We can’t simply withdraw to our borders and pretend problems elsewhere don’t affect us. That’s the lesson of September 11.

By taking out Saddam Hussein, we’ve already improved Iraq. Soon, Iraqis will govern it and we will leave it for good, as a far better place. And the U.S. will remain what we have been for decades, something that’s without historical precedent: The world’s only empire that didn’t seek territorial conquest, and tried instead to protect itself by improving life for others.