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“Learning” the “Lessons” of the 1930s Forever

Justin Logan reads Bret Stephens’ America in Retreatbecause his editor is cruel so that the rest of us don’t have to:

America in Retreat—the new book from the Journal’s chief foreign affairs writer, Bret Stephens—shows perhaps even less introspection than Pravda did. In one interview promoting the book, Stephens reports “having thought very seriously about my support for the Iraq War, and I’ve concluded it was still worth supporting.” Even Pravda‘s editorial line changed over time.

It will not come as a shock to anyone that Stephens’ book is just as bad as the columns and essays he has devoted to the same theme. There are the usual dead-ender arguments defending the Iraq war and unfounded warnings about a “new isolationism.” This is what almost all of his commentary on foreign policy can be reduced to, so I guess we can give him a few points for consistency. Stephens also liberally abuses historical analogies. Logan comments:

While Stephens concedes that “analogies to the 1930s, or any other period in history, “have their limitations and need to be made with humility and care,” he does not take his own advice, pushing the Hitler/Nazi/Chamberlain/Munich/America First Committee buttons over 20 times. Stephens repeatedly suggests that if we fail to adopt his preferred strategy, some new equivalent of the Third Reich and/or Imperial Japan will emerge, although he does not precisely identify who the candidates for these roles might be. Repeatedly invoking the Nazis in this way hardly qualifies as humble or careful.

Historical analogies do need to be made with humility and care, which is why they are so dangerous in the hands of a committed ideologue interested primarily in scoring points against contemporary opponents. Stephens seems to think that if he likens our time with the 1930s often enough that he wins the argument by default. It’s as if he imagines that calling policies he doesn’t like “isolationist” often enough will make it so. But what would we expect from someone whose first instinct was to describe the interim agreement with Iran last year as “worse than Munich”? Hard-liners such as Stephens don’t just abuse historical analogies–they are trapped by them and to a large degree they also become dependent on them. Logan asks the rhetorical question, “Can neocons learn?” The answer appears to be that they learn just one thing–the supposed lessons of the 1930s–and can’t or won’t ever learn anything else.

So it is no wonder that Stephens frequently doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Logan notes that he doesn’t understand what relative decline means or how it is measured, which is typical of those that insist that “decline is a choice.” According to Logan, Stephens makes assertions with no evidence to back them up, which is consistent with the arguments he makes in his columns. Then again, we don’t really expect to find much evidence in an ideological polemic, do we?

Logan also comments on Stephens’ crazy “broken windows” foreign policy approach:

Stephens endorses the United States’ role as world policeman, but expands the metaphor by making the police into judge, jury, and executioner. Washington, Stephens writes, needs to “walk the beat, reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.” Even with the pretense of oversight and due process, our own cops manage to choke a guy to death every now and then. Imagine if the cops themselves were tasked with “punishing the wicked.” What are we, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice?

Of course, the so-called “world policeman” role is just the pretext for giving the U.S. license to do whatever it wants to other states, and that’s why Stephens supports it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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