The high cost of historical ignorance

By Paul S. Ropp

Ignorance of world history should be a crime for politicians. Why? Because historical ignorance has led to some of the worst disasters in American foreign policy. In the 1960s, for example, the US sent 500,000 troops to the small country of Vietnam in order to “contain China” and to maintain the independence and “democracy” of South Vietnam.

In fact, South Vietnam was no democracy, and Vietnam was a proudly nationalistic country that had successfully contained China, quite by itself, for 2000 years. With neighboring Laos and Cambodia, it had fiercely resisted French and Japanese imperialism in modern times. And all three countries retained a profound sense of national pride and a profound hatred for Western or Japanese armies.

Consequently United States troops were widely seen in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as a richer version of the racist and rapacious French and Japanese. Yet American leaders, blindly ignorant of Asian history and Asian nationalism, and fearing the “soft on communism” charge in domestic politics, sent 57,000 young Americans to their early deaths, and killed between one and two million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians, mostly civilians. This death and devastation was a direct result of our profound ignorance of the history and cultures of Asia.

More recently, and more disastrously for the US national interest, George W. Bush felt emboldened by the 9/11 terrorist attacks to launch an invasion of Iraq in 2003, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. With no knowledge and no curiosity about the history of the Middle East, Bush assumed that just because Saddam Hussein was a nasty dictator, American troops would be welcomed in Baghdad, and American-style democracy would be warmly embraced by all parties.

The history of western imperialism in the Middle East is as shameful, and as relevant today, as the history of western imperialism in Asia. After World War I, the British arbitrarily drew the boundaries of Iraq, deliberately combining three hostile groups—Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds—to guarantee a weak and unstable oil-rich country that could be manipulated and dominated by the West.

Because Saddam Hussein brutally imposed Sunni control over the Shi’ites and Kurds, it was clear to all historians that his overthrow would seriously weaken Iraq and unleash lethal tensions pitting revenge-seeking Shi’ites in the south and independence-seeking Kurds in the north against the former Sunni power-holders.

Ignoring the history of Iraq, Bush wildly exaggerated Saddam’s military power, quickly destroyed the country’s modern infrastructure, and then failed to provide even a semblance of law and order, or the massive reconstruction effort so desperately needed following the “shock and awe” of the American assault. The Saddam regime’s sudden collapse proved he was never a serious military threat to American interests. The looting of the Iraqi national museum and the torture photos from Abu-Ghraib Prison became symbols the world over of American ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy.

When no weapons of mass destruction could be found in Iraq, the war rationale was changed to democratization, despite the fact that nothing is less democratic or more subversive of democratic values than a foreign military invasion. The Bush war in Iraq has empowered Iran as many Middle Eastern experts predicted, and has inspired both Iran and North Korea to accelerate, not abandon, their nuclear development. The sectarian tensions and continuing violence in Iraq today are a direct result of the Bush administration’s reckless invasion in 2003.

The Bush war in Iraq has killed some 4000 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis, and seriously wounded over 20,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis. Over 2 million Iraqis, mostly middle class professionals, have fled the war-torn country, and the industrial infrastructure of Iraq has still not been restored to pre-war levels. The financial costs of health care for Iraq war veterans, the interest on the money borrowed to fight the war, and the damage to America’s moral standing in the world will be a burden on the US for generations to come.

Americans like to focus on the future, not on the past. But ignoring the past leaves us blind to the moral, political and financial costs of our past mistakes, and all too likely to repeat those mistakes in the future. Beware of American politicians who combine arrogance and ignorance of world history. They are a greater threat to our national security, prosperity and power than any external enemies.

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