Can too much restraint endanger peace?

The United States is on the verge of war. A rogue nation on the other side of the globe increasingly seems a menace – it has stubbornly stocked its arsenals, strengthened its military, and even invaded neighboring countries. Serious economic sanctions have been enforced, to little effect. But resistance to US military intervention remains high among both Americans and international allies.

That scenario may sound familiar. But the rogue nation in question is 1940s Japan, after its invasion of China and just before the Pearl Harbor attack.

It's one of several historical examples that Donald Kagan, professor of classics and history at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., calls on when he examines historical parallels to the current tensions with Iraq.

"If you look at how nations like ours get into war," Professor Kagan says, "there's an incredible pattern that takes place. You start out with the assumption that you're absolutely secure and have nothing to worry about. Countries like ours love then to disarm and stop thinking about these problems. But meanwhile, our interests are enormously broad."

Kagan has been looking at such patterns for some time. His 1995 book, "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace," reviewed the buildups to a number of conflicts – including World War I, World War II, the Peloponnesian War, and the Second Punic War. Understanding of the causes of war in the past, Kagan hopes, might help to avoid repeating them in the future.

To that end, notes Kagan, some examples are more useful than others. Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, for instance, had much in common with America today: "They are both commercial states, they are popular governments, they have worldwide interests, and [there is] a strong element in their culture that says war is not only evil but is something that really can be avoided by avoiding involvement."

But less obvious comparisons are also relevant, Kagan says. Pericles, the 5th-century BC Athenian statesman, may have lacked the pacifist streak of many leaders today, but he tried everything he could to prevent the Peloponnesian War, since it threatened the prosperity of ancient Athens.

Like Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, Kagan believes that "honor, fear, and interest" are always the prime motives for war. The key, he says, is ferreting out the particular roles each played in the origins of individual conflicts.

As in other times when the threat of war looms over foreign-policy decisions, history emerges from the shadows. Critics of Congress's recent resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq, for instance, compared it to 1964's Gulf of Tonkin resolution – essentially a congressional green light for the Vietnam War, passed on the basis of evidence that turned out to be false.

Kagan, on the other hand, uses history to support the resolution, pointing to instances such as World War I and World War II, when earlier action by the US and other nations could arguably have prevented war.

In a recent phone interview, he discussed these and other historical buildups to war – and what lessons they hold for the present.

On America's tendency to ignore threats:

One of my favorite examples is when, prior to the Korean War, Secretary of State [Dean] Acheson made a famous speech in which he laid out a perimeter of states in East Asia that were important to us, that we were going to defend – and he left out Korea. And months later they invaded. And the minute they invaded he realized, my God, we can't let that happen....

We don't recognize ... that we have interests we can't run away from. We don't recognize that requires that we have the military force, ideally, to deter anybody from doing anything that would cause us to go to war.

So we trap the poor imbecile, our opponent, into thinking we're not going to do anything. That's our classic way of getting into war. And that's exactly how we got into the Gulf War.

It never occurred to us there would be a problem with Saddam. We backed him because we were worried about the Iranians. And then when he was beginning to look scary and people were warning us about him, our position was, we don't want to give this guy any grief. Our ambassador continued to stroke him.

My son has this wonderful analogy. In [the 1944 movie] "To Have or Have Not," Bacall and Bogie are in this scene together up in the hotel room. And at one point she says, "I know, Steve. You don't give a hoop what I do. But when I do it, you get mad." There it is.

On the importance of coalitions:

It's always better to act in coalition with other states that share your views. It's better materially, but it's also very much better spiritually. We should always aim for that. However, we can't thoroughly control that. There's no way to conduct your foreign policy based on gaining the friendliness of other states.

This action [with Iraq] in one way or another is typical of what happened all through the cold war. Time and again, our allies dragged their feet and were frightened by things that we did or wanted to do. And the only way things worked was when we listened to them, I hope courteously, and then went ahead and said OK, we hear you, but now this is what we feel we have to do; we welcome your help if you feel you can give it to us. And they usually did.

Imagine the situation in the '30s: The United States is not what it was, but [suppose] it has the power and has the will to see to it that Hitler doesn't conquer Europe. Boy, we would have run into a lot of trouble from the British and French governments, which were so decadent and so appeasement-minded. And yet that would have been the thing to do.

On the possibility of successful regime change:

It is instructive to look to the fate of Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan after World War II. It took, first of all, an occupation and the clear demonstration that they'd been defeated. That's a very important first step to [implementing] change in an ugly regime.

Then it took the United States fundamentally insisting that there should be democratic regimes in their place.... It seems to me some such outcome is possible [with Iraq]. But it will require the same kind of serious commitment.

On the United States using too much restraint:

Over and over again [the US has erred on the side of restraint.] There's a case to be made that we were late in World War I – that the world would have been a better place if we had come in the first time they started sinking our ships. Then World War II is a classic. Korea is another classic. Iraq is another case where we did that. I think we could have avoided war in every one of those cases.

On how to preserve peace:

Peace does not keep itself. That simple truth has not been digested by most people. They think of peace as kind of a negative thing – if you don't make war, you have peace. Wrong.

War is one of your most common experiences in the history of human beings. Periods of extended peace are very rare. They happen when the states with the greatest interest in peace also have the preponderant power, and the willingness to use it to preserve peace.

That means you have to be just as active and just as involved and just as willing to make sacrifices in peacetime as you are in war.

• Send e-mail comments to paulsona@csps.com

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