World / October 13, 2023

The Limits of Historical Analogy

The rush to call last week’s attack “Israel’s 9/11” brings the worst failings of American foreign policy to the surface.

Chris Lehmann

George W. Bush at the Israeli Presidential Conference in 2008, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

(Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo)

Those who do not learn to resist historical analogies are condemned to repeat them—even if all the relevant coordinates get reversed in the process. Since Hamas’s terror attack on Israel last weekend, a rising chorus of American pundits has declared the assault “Israel’s 9/11,” noting that the proportion of Israelis killed in the attacks measured against the country’s overall population was actually greater than the same ratio of US fatalities in the 2001 massacres at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Beyond that superficial similarity, of course, there are vast differences between the two traumatic events. The United States was not directly occupying Al Qaeda’s operational base, or expanding its population to encroach on Al Qaeda holdings. No American president had promoted state support of the terrorist group, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu infamously did in the case of Hamas, as part of his epically misguided divide-and-conquer strategy in the Occupied Territories. And for all the horrifying bloodshed on both sides of the conflict, it seems not to be in the cards that Israel will gin up a fictitious rationale for invading another regional power that had nothing to do with the attack.

But perhaps the most head-spinning factor in the rash of 9/11 analogies that greeted the Hamas attacks is that American commentators in the actual aftermath of 9/11 rushed to endorse the obverse claim: that the United States had to emulate Israel, posthaste. After a luxurious recess from the main theaters of action in the clash of civilizations, a sheltered American political status quo was now getting a grim and bracing dose of realpolitik, courtesy of the fraught state of things in the Middle East. The week of the 9/11 attacks, my then-wife and I attended a reception for the Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi at the home of then–New Republic Editor Peter Beinart. In his introductory remarks, TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier debuted what would become a common refrain among neoconservative policy savants: “We are all Israelis now.” 

As with many other pronouncements from that particular oracle, there was more than a little gloating and respectable-opinion policing in this world-weary affirmation. After much covert and arm’s-length choreographing of regional alliances and balances of power, Wieseltier seemed to be suggesting, America was going to get a firsthand, immersive dose of the challenges of upholding Western democratic values in a hostile world of Islamic fundamentalism and armed terrorist revolt. The demands of this mission would produce a sadder, wiser American security state, but also a more muscular and nimble project of global democratic reform through intervention, once the country grasped its new appointed role on the world stage. Wieseltier endorsed this sweeping vision just days later, when he joined with 40 other neocon eminences at the Project for a New American Century to dispatch a letter to President George W. Bush announcing that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.” Soon a whole sorry chorus of allegedly wised-up liberal intellectuals took up the same delusional, dismal refrain.

In stunningly short order, as the late historian Tony Judt keenly observed at the time, “Bush’s Middle Eastern policy now tracks so closely to the Israeli precedent that it is very difficult to see daylight between the two”—and “this surreal turn of events…helps explain the confusion and silence of American liberal thinking on the subject…. Historically, liberals have been unsympathetic to ‘wars of choice’ when undertaken or proposed by their own government. War, in the liberal imagination (and not only the liberal one), is a last resort, not a first option. But the United States now has an Israeli-style foreign policy and America’s liberal intellectuals overwhelmingly support it.”

The Israeli imprint of this strain of thinking was readily detected in the moral and intellectual evasions of these “useful idiots” who clamored to support Bush’s policies, Judt wrote. “The willingness of so many American pundits and commentators and essayists to roll over for Bush’s doctrine of preventive war; to abstain from criticising the disproportionate use of air power on civilian targets in both Iraq and Lebanon; and to stay coyly silent in the face of Condoleezza Rice’s enthusiasm for the bloody ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’ makes more sense when one recalls their backing for Israel: a country which for fifty years has rested its entire national strategy on preventive wars, disproportionate retaliation, and efforts to redesign the map of the whole Middle East.”

This liberal abdication produced a grievous, pointless mass sacrifice of human life, which continues to afflict the Middle East more than two decades later. A recent assessment of the regional body count from this historic lurch into imperial American folly, via Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, finds that indirect deaths (stemming from factors such as disease, infrastructure collapse, and food insecurity) number somewhere between 3.6 and 3.8 million. That brings the overall tally of war fatalities up to the range of 4.5 to 4.7 million. 

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This all bears revisiting at a moment like this, as a chillingly parallel mass pundit amnesia has descended on a corps of commentators dementedly determined to impress the woeful legacy of post-9/11 thinking in America on an Israeli state traumatized by the Hamas attacks. We’re now seeing, as we did then, a rush to identify a left-wing “fifth column” of terror sympathizers cheering on the downfall of Israel and America alike, proceeding along nearly identical methodological lines—namely, finding unhinged statements from fringe and amoral characters and making them cognate with an entire movement’s position. We’re also seeing a resurgence of glib equations of Middle Eastern extremism with a genocidal will-to-power: “Islamofascism” and Wahabbaism then, Hamas’s charter and the Gaza resistance now.

Today, as in the aftermath of 9/11, the specter of genuine terrorist evil has become a rallying cry for the West to take up its seemingly perpetually dormant crusade for moral clarity. (In one of the many facets of the post-9/11 moral mobilization that has aged poorly, the go-to source for moral clarity sermons was Rudy Giuliani.)  Now, as then, American political leaders are demanding an absolutist military response to once more induce the birth pangs of a new Middle East. On this latter point, Israel is already obliging, with devastating bombing raids on civilian targets, prompting a panicked exodus of some 265,000 Gazan refugees into Egypt, under the rationale that all Gazans are “human animals,” per Israel’s defense minister. You can even pick up a distinct whiff of phony “freedom fries”–style outrage in the right’s attacks on Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib for displaying a Palestinian flag outside her congressional office. 

Some important disclaimers should be noted here. There’s no cause to endorse a sweeping historical analogy between the responses to the Hamas attacks and the Al Qaeda ones, either; one bad historical parallel neither justifies another nor cancels out its rival formulation. Events are moving fast in Israel and Gaza right now—but that’s precisely the reason we should refrain from adapting the ready-made rhetoric and swaggering pontifications of the last generation’s disastrous American foray into the Middle East. Nor should the chaos and hubris kicked up in American centers of power after 9/11 serve in any way to downplay or diminish the true humanitarian horror of the Hamas attacks: Innocent civilians should never be marked for elimination by any political group, military force, or set of state actors—especially when they’re children.

Most of all, though, we should note some actual lessons of the 9/11 political moment. For starters, back when I was listening to Leon Wieseltier wax elegiac in Peter Beinart’s apartment, I could never have predicted that Beinart would become a principled and forceful critic of Israel’s apartheid regime. (It also would never have occurred to me that I would one day have Beinart’s job, but that’s very much an absurdist footnote here.) Nor could I begin to imagine a latter-day GOP that would prove so deeply inhospitable to Iraq war champions like David Frum, Max Boot, and Bill Kristol—albeit not on strict geopolitical grounds. I guess I might have supposed that Wieseltier would continue inveighing against betrayals of the liberal realist spirit in a journal of his own.

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In other words, irony and humility are far more potent watchwords in moments of global crisis than preventive war, self-dealing “democracy promotion,” or forever loose and misleading talk of fifth columns. Here again, the proper cautionary sendoff comes from Tony Judt:

The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace—their own above all.

How’s that for moral clarity?

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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