Echoes of History . . .

The Erstwhile Conservative has cogently called attention to the political dust-up over Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and its threat to Middle East instability. GOP presidential candidates are, with a Libertarian exception, waxing bellicose. There is

The Battleship USS Maine (BB-10), Public domai...

The battleship Maine, via Wikipedia

ample historical precedent here. The easiest and quickest way for politicians to unite a squabbling electorate has always been to rattle sabers and stir up anger against a common enemy. Before 2003 I would have said the most prominent example of this was the Spanish American War. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Revolts against Spanish rule had been endemic for decades in Cuba and were closely watched by Americans; there had been war scares before, as in the Virginius Affair in 1873. By 1897–98, American public opinion grew angrier at reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. After the mysterious sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor, political pressures from the Democratic Party pushed the administration of President William McKinley, a Republican, into a war McKinley had wished to avoid. Compromise proved impossible, resulting in the United States sending an ultimatum to Spain demanding it immediately surrender control of Cuba, which the Spanish rejected. First Madrid, then Washington, formally declared war.

The article said this about the war’s aftermath:

The war lasted four months. John Hay (the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom), writing from London to his friend Theodore Roosevelt declared that it had been “a splendid little war.” The press showed Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites fighting against a common foe, helping to ease the scars left from the American Civil War.

The war marked American entry into world affairs. Since then, the U.S. has had a significant hand in various conflicts around the world, and entered many treaties and agreements. The Panic of 1893 was over by this point, and the U.S. entered a long and prosperous period of economic and population growth, and technological innovation that lasted through the 1920s.

The war redefined national identity, served as a solution of sorts to the social divisions plaguing the American mind, and provided a model for all future news reporting.


The war served to further repair relations between the American North and South. The war gave both sides a common enemy for the first time since the end of the Civil War in 1865, and many friendships were formed between soldiers of northern and southern states during their tours of duty. This was an important development, since many soldiers in this war were the children of Civil War veterans on both sides.

I might add, from memory of a Teddy Roosevelt biography, that the U.S. Army actually made impressive progress in reforming Cuba’s healthcare system, especially relative to yellow fever and malaria, and their social services.  The Cubans never had it so good, before or since. However, U.S. politics determined that we did not wish to be a colonial power and power was returned to the Cubans.

If all that doesn’t sound familiar, it should. The parallels of that conflict to 9/11 are clear. Americans were angry and fearful and were politically primed to vent their emotions in a tangible way on the foe. But the true foe, a cadre of religious fanatics financed by Saudi oil wealth, were in hiding, so the Bush administration found a foe of opportunity in one Saddam Hussein, a dictator who of course had nothing to do with 9/11.  But, he fit the foe’s profile in other ways. He was nominally Muslim (albeit of the wrong sect), he was a ruthless perpetrator of atrocities and he was said to have ambitions about weapons of mass destruction (never mind that he had made no significant progress to that end.)

Adding to the administration’s motivation was the unrealistic vision of re-making Iraq into an island of democratic stability in the principal region of world energy instability. But the lesson is clear – the Iraq War was a massive, unaffordable disaster, both for the United States and for Iraq, a nation still divided three ethnic ways and with only a few hours of electricity a day for its citizens.

Troops muster in Tampa before the Spanish-Amer...

Now comes the problem of Iran. In another time the Teddy Roosevelt solution might indeed be the right one – a “splendid little war” just might be the thing to bring feuding Democrats and Republicans together when nothing else can. Ah, but things are not so simple now as then. Russia and China are players on this stage as well. Now we have a global economy and there are nine nations that already have nuclear weapons. And as someone mentioned in Duane’s Morning Joe clip, North Korea has nukes and we aren’t talking about invading them. Deterrence worked for the Cold War and it is working now. What doesn’t work is nation building, even if it almost did in Cuba. This is not Teddy Roosevelt’s world any more. I submit that the Obama administration is pursuing the only sensible course of action as our fragile economy struggles for a foothold. We should find some other way to rediscover that we can be a nation undivided. I am frankly dismayed to find that most GOP candidates think otherwise.  It’s called demagoguery.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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8 Responses to Echoes of History . . .

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    No way you can ignore the clip from STRATFOR if you are going to take this position in a blog. I sent it to you and Duane BEFORE he wrote his blog and now this one. Here it is for your readers.

    It is the most complete and compelling essay that I have seen in a long time about that tumultuous region and the background in this link is critical to any analysis of Iran and the entire Mideast today, in my view.

    The “clip” shown in Duane’s blog did not provide the insights provided above. As well, every member of the panel, all respected men with deep knowledge of American foreign policy, expressed concern about how hard we were currently “choking” Iran today, economically.

    NOW, WHO, exactly in doing the “choking”. You bet it is the President. And we are closer to a war at least in the Straits of Hormuz right now than ever before in history. Who order a aircraft carrier to “show the flag” 10 miles off the Iranian Coast in the last couple of weeks. Yep, the President.

    I could go on, but so what. I DID go on in a fairly comprehesive blog entitled IRAN. You know where to find it. In that blog I incorporated the above link, reviewed where we are today and suggested that others might well have lent far more “range” to the panel discussion Duane posted.

    That panel is not the sole source of expertise on our current arguments with Iran and you should know that.

    I then sent my blog and a note to Bob Woodward, linking my blog. He replied. He said in part that the panel was a “high road discussion for a cable network”. And he is dead right in saying so.

    There are so many nuances to our policies in Iran that NO ONE can capture the details of our policy in a 1 minute campaigh debate remark or even in a 10 minute “clip” on TV. It is extraordinarily complex.

    The essence of our policy in Iran for years now is to “choke” them economically and isoltate them from the international community. That has been a bipartisan policy and carried forward by Obama.

    Well choke a man hard enough and he will either cry “uncle” or fight for his life. We are getting close to that point right now and the potential of Iran deciding to fight back leads to a prospect of WWIII. In other words, America is walking a very fine line right now.

    So what next should be done? THAT is the debate right now and NO ONE is calling for war against Iran. Some want to “choke harder”, some want to “stay right where we are” and of course Ron Paul and his followers say, “So what if Iran gets a nuclear weapons inventory”.

    Take you pick, Jim, but get your facts straight and view the situation in a real geopolitical context.

    Duane’s blog was an attempt to label Gingrich as a war mongering fool and you seem to endores that approach. Well had Gingrich AND/OR an articulate Saudi Prince been on that panel with Woodward, Ignatious and Brzenzinski, the “range” of discussion would have been much boarder and with much deeper context. THEN a judgement of what all said would be approriate.

    And guess what. Bob Woodward agrees with that view!!

    You have every right to take a position on Iran and how to deal with that country. But I have the right to say that I find you treatment of the issue, a very complex issue, as merely shallow politics and NOT reasonable geopolitical debate.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      Your accusations against me don’t hold water. You tell me to get my facts straight, but you don’t say which facts of mine are wrong. Then you criticize my “treatment of the issue” as merely shallow politics. Well, it was not my intention to embark on a “comprehensive geopolitical debate” in my little post, but simply to provide some historical context to counter the certitude shown by the GOP candidates about these issues. Rick Perry, for example, wanted to send our troops back into Iraq! Paul wants to leave Afghanistan immediately and abandon all pretense of leaving someone in charge besides the Taliban. And everything in between. Most of them imply that approving the Keystone pipeline will fix the problem. To me this kind of stuff is proof that politicians are just as prone to demagoguery and saber-rattling now as they were a hundred years ago and I thought it might be good to recognize that.

      I did read the Stratfor link when you sent it to me, and I re-read it this time. It is a good list of the complexities of the situation, but I can’t agree with your expectation that I should resolve the situation in one blog post. Toward the end of the article, Stratfor said,

      We find ourselves in a situation in which neither side wants to force the other into extreme steps and neither side is in a position to enter into broader accommodations. And that’s what makes the situation dangerous. When fundamental issues are at stake, each side is in a position to profoundly harm the other if pressed, and neither side is in a position to negotiate a broad settlement, a long game of chess ensues. And in that game of chess, the possibilities of miscalculation, of a bluff that the other side mistakes for an action, are very real.

      Hmm. Seems to me that the experts aren’t all that sure what to do either. They should tune in to the next GOP debate where they can hear some guys who aren’t afraid to make a decision. Right.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I don’t expect you to “resolve the problem in one blog post”. But I would expect you to explore the variour options, at least superficially. Instead you supporter another attempt to disdain Gingrich based on very little explanation. Your implication of course is that he is too “dangerous” to consider as the next President. I believe that is wrong and actually “shallow politics”.

    I have now posted POWER VERSUS POWER, which in essence is geopolitics, like it or not. Again you know where to find it. At a miminum, it lays out what I consider our current options given the situation on the ground, at sea and in the air around the Straits of Hormuz.

    I have also stated my own conclusions of “what next” based on a rather lengthy analysis (for a blog) or the situation. Respond to that blog if you like and we can engage in a geopolitical debate, not just a shallow political debate based on sound bites.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ All,

      I will leave it to other readers to judge whether my contribution to the Iran discussion is “shallow”, but I submit that there is no foreign-policy issue more important than the Persian Problem. I found it enlightening to revisit Duane Graham’s “Morning Joe” discussion post with Woodward, Brzezinski and Ignatius, and particularly the initial clip of Gingrich condemning Obama for not responding somehow forcefully to Iranian dares. The thing speaks for itself and the ensuing discussion is pretty much the opposite of “shallow”. Now that we have had this discussion, Newt’s accusatory accusations are, I suggest, a damning indictment of his personal tendencies toward, well, whatever the antonym for “gravitas” is. Ah, got it. “Loose cannon” comes to mind.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    And you either ignored or missed my point.

    I contacted Bob Woodward after watching the clip on Duane’s blog. He agreed that there was not sufficient “range” in the clip shown. All three, good and learned men, we expressing concern for how far we had already gone to “choke” Iran, with the implication that maybe we should loosen our sanctions on that country. Fine that is certainly a valid point to express.

    BUT there are other valid points to make as well and the clip or panel had no one there to make them. Woodward acknowledged that view and agreed that other views would be useful as part of the discussion.

    My take on the whole issue was that the panel was a good one to express that particular point of view. But before we all bow and agree, there should be another panel of equal stature to show other ways to achieve our goals of no nuclear weapons in Iran.

    Within that context, now consider the Gingrich clip revealed by Duane. Do you remember what specifically Gingrich objected to? He felt that canceling a schedule joint U.S./Israeli naval exercise in the MED, not the Persian Gulf was a big mistake and gave implications of trying to relieve the tension (by backing off a show of force) after the Iranian threat to close the Straits.

    That is not a “crazy” call for escalation. It is simply a way to show firmness and resolve against an enemy that is threating an act of WAR, closing an international waterway with military force. the last time I checked the seas of the world were still free to send our navy anywhere we liked (in international waters) and conduct exercises with any allies we liked as well.

    If such exercises HAPPENED to be near a zone where someone has threatened an act of war, I consider that pretty good deterrence, not escalation. It is called SHOWING power, not USING power. When one shows power, geopolitically, that is called firmness and resolve.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I get your point, Anson, and I count it natural for a military man to assume an aggressive stance over confrontational events like this one. My gut instincts are the same as yours. Iran issued an “I dare you” that would be a red flag to anyone with a background like ours. Gingrich apparently shares that instinct and despite his capacity for strategic thinking he is also given to being impetuous, or so it seems to me. You described it this way:

      “He felt that canceling a schedule joint U.S./Israeli naval exercise in the MED, not the Persian Gulf was a big mistake and gave implications of trying to relieve the tension (by backing off a show of force) after the Iranian threat to close the Straits.”

      I believe that Obama’s motive was just that, to “relieve the tension” of the situation. Do you feel that in so doing he surrendered freedom of the seas or made anyone, including Iran, think that the U.S. Navy was incapable or unwilling to enforce that freedom? I don’t. The last time I checked Jane’s Fighting Ships our sea power compared to theirs was like an eagle to a gnat. I think Obama did the right thing. I also am confident that detailed plans are in place for an aggressive and effective military response in the event Iran tries to mine or otherwise close the Strait of H.

      If this was Teddy Roosevelt’s era it would be very satisfying and probably quite effective to issue Iran an ultimatum, just like we did with Spain a hundred years ago, and then when they refused, “damn the torpedoes” and squash their navy like a bug. But as I said in the post, this is not the same situation, not the same economy, and we now have nuclear powers involved. The military has its role but the President must look at the larger picture. Even Teddy Roosevelt understood the core wisdom of the matter: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Gingrich has the intellect to understand that, but does he have the temperament to manage it? Based on his statements I’m worried that he doesn’t.


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Now we are at a point of disagreement based on some “facts” that is fine with me. Do we “show force” again, as we did by sending the carrier through the Straits or simply now “sit quietly” and wati to see what Iran does next. In both cases, of course, we maintain a very robust presence of naval and landbased air power in the region to deter (not attack) the next Iranian response.

    I hope you and your readers can see why I feel strongly about debating the “nuances” of what various leaders say and do. This should NOT be a debate over a “warmonger” and a “pacifist”. That is “shallow” and trivial, in my view. Both of us I hope want to show “firmness and resolve” in the face of current Iranians threats and decisions.

    How best to do so is for sure a reasonable debate, which this has not reached, in my view, a point of reasonablness.



  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Sorry, I meant to write NOW (not, not) has reached.



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