Ignorance of History, and Its Price

DALLAS, TX - JULY 10:  Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a immigration naturalization ceremony held at the G
DALLAS, TX - JULY 10: Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a immigration naturalization ceremony held at the George W. Bush Presidential Center on July 10, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. Bush delivered keynote remarks during the naturalization ceremony, where 20 candidates took the oath of allegiance and became American citizens. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it," is usually attributed to George Santayana. Harry Truman's version was: "The only new thing in the world is the history we have not learned." And, in the House of Commons in 1935, Winston Churchill observed: "...that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong-these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history."

All this is brought to mind by the recent book Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson, a startling narrative of the events of the World War I in the Middle East that produced political chickens now coming to roost a hundred years later. It is a tragic tale of late colonial overreach by Britain and France, the worst kind of treachery, deceit, and diplomatic betrayal, and fateful political decisions based on misinformation, wishful thinking, and almost total ignorance of Arab culture and history.

All of it now rests on America's doorstep, a nation late to enter the World War I jungle of old 19th century European intrigue and guided only by a dreamy Wilsonian idealistic hope for the end of bloodshed and a liberated world safe for democracy. Even as they were secretly carving up the Middle East, his British and French allies scoffed at his naiveté.

It says much that one of the few Americans on the scene in Cairo and elsewhere was a young employee of the Standard Oil Company named William Yale who was taken on board as an adviser to the secretary of state simply because he had spent time in the region locking up oil concessions for his company. This is a predictor of the future of U.S. interests in the Middle East if there ever was one.

For, from 1941 onward, U.S. policy in the region was to keep Arabian, Persian, and Iraqi oil out of the hands of the Nazis and then the Soviets. It was, after all, our oil. We overthrew a democratic prime minister of Iran according to that logic and guess what that got us. U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia has been dominated by oil. And don't think for a minute that the invasion of Iraq wasn't guided in major part by access to oil reserves, though the clever invasion plotters somehow never found it convenient to admit it. (Their charade went like this: "Oil? Gee whiz, is there oil there?")

"All that is history" is the casual way of dismissing uncomfortable truths -- that is, until those truths come back to haunt us. It is a pity George W. Bush had not studied more history. But the lessons of history are best learned before, not after, becoming president.

Why did Santayana say "cannot" instead of "will not"? Will not is a failure of choice. Cannot is a failure of ability. Are Americans incapable of learning history? If so, our nation's future is not a pretty one. A mark of statesmanship is the ability to learn from history and apply its lessons to current conflicts and to skillful avoidance of future crises. But genuine statesmanship is in short supply. According to reviewers, a memoir by a recent secretary of state contains few lessons learned.

In part, we cannot learn from history because we are a pragmatic people. We make it up as we go along. Each new day offers a new experience and a new chance to try something different. It is refreshing, but it is also innocent and child-like. But there is little that is truly new and different and the circularity of human experience gives fate the opportunity to come back and bite us.

Had we known Vietnamese history, we would have known the guiding principle to its conflict was nationalism not communist ideology. Had we known Iranian history, we would have known the people wanted self-determination not an oligarchical shah. Had we known Russian history, we would have known the critical importance of Crimea's ports to Russia's access to the sea. Had we known Middle Eastern history, we would have known the deep territorial and theological divide between Sunni and Shia for more than 13 centuries.

Are there lessons in Chinese history that might guide us in understanding its offshore territorial ambitions? Are there further Russian history lessons that might help anticipate its maritime interests in the Arctic? Should we study Hindu-Muslim relations in the Indian subcontinent to prevent war between Pakistan and India?

Eventually, British duplicity undid the Arab revolt and denied Arab ambitions for self-determination in the region. But, T. E. Lawrence had studied Arabic and Arab history before riding his camel into the desert and eventually helping to kindle a semblance of unity among disparate Arab tribes to overthrow Ottoman domination and inspire Arab hopes. Based on his studies of history, he believed and helped inspire the Arab dream.

But what could he know? He was only 29 years old when his nation's senior statesmen and politicians betrayed him and the Arabs and left us with the bitter outcome a century later.