Last week, as part of The Atlantic’s discussion of the 15th anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, I wrote a post called “The Inevitability of Ignorance.” Its main point was about the necessity, and the impossibility, of trying to “learn” from successes and failures in the past.
Everyone has heard the Santayana chestnut/homily/warning about “those who cannot remember the past….” But even the most earnest efforts to apply yesterday’s lessons can cause missteps across tomorrow’s terrain, with its inevitable surprises and differences.
Is this frustrating and contradictory? Yes, but in that it is like most other important challenges in statecraft and in life. (For instance: Should the United States be “idealistic” in its approach to the world? Yes. Must it also be self-interested and practical-minded? Also yes. The goal is to manage the tradeoffs, with the needle pushed as far as possible in the idealistic direction. As one of our presidents said about this contradiction more than 40 years ago*:
We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect—a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused.
I understand fully the limits of moral suasion…. But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”
As a tool in managing this contradiction, I also mentioned the insightful book by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, which is about the difficulty and utility of looking for historic patterns and clues.
Now, several readers weigh in—on the specific failures born of amnesia I mentioned, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and on the larger struggle to “learn” from the past only to the right degree.