Daniel W. Drezner

Implicit and explicit analogies and why they scare me

Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs.  The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies — "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch."  This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you. ...

Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs.  The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies -- "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch."  This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you.

So one of the things I liked about Obama's speech last night was his willingness to confront some analogical reasoning head-on.  Consider this section, for example:

[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.  Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.  Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.  And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.  

Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs.  The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies — "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch."  This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you.

So one of the things I liked about Obama’s speech last night was his willingness to confront some analogical reasoning head-on.  Consider this section, for example:

[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.  Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.  Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.  And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.  

One could quibble a bit with some elements of that paragraph — the U.S. really did have allies contribute troops in Vietnam — but that’s a decent analysis as far as it goes.

The thing that nags at me, however, is the implicit analogy in last night’s speech, and in the policy discourse that will surround this decision:  Afghanistan in late 2009 parallels Iraq in late 2006, and therefore a surge strategy now will have similar effects. 

Glenn Greenwald has already catalogued the parallels in rhetorical tropes between the two instances (and Steven Metz chronicles the actual policy parallels).  Greenwald believes this will expose the hollowness at the core of Obama’s strategy, but I don’t think he gets the politics of this at all.  My hunch is that the surge is perceived to have worked pretty well  — Iraq in 2009 is in better straits than Iraq in 2006.  If policymakers are unconsciously adopting this parallel, then the strategy will sell.

The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq.  As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it’s a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative "stability" than Afghanistan.  Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq. 

This doesn’t mean that Obama’s other policy options are better — but I’d like to know the extent to which the administration recognizes the flaws in the surge analogy. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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