“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So said philosopher George Santayana in what has become a staple of the columnist's trade.
But sometimes it seems we are condemned to repeat even the past that we do remember. That may be the case now as the West considers how to deal with three separate and distinct threats.
They are ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), Iran, and Vladimir Putin's resurgent Russia. One problem we have in regard to these increasingly aggressive international actors is deciding which historical analogies to apply to them in order to avoid repeating past mistakes.
The appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 is one main motif. The West is still haunted by the consequences of its decision to give-in to Nazi aggression, demands, and rearmament instead of quashing the fascist menace in its early stages.
Memories of Munich influenced American decision-makers to get involved in Vietnam. Fifty years ago this month Marines deployed there in the first steps of what would become a long, deadly, and unsuccessful ground war on the other side of the globe.
U.S. policy has since been a blend of lessons supposedly learned from the failures of Munich and Vietnam. We fear letting aggression go unchecked lest it grow greater and become more difficult to defeat after it becomes intolerable, but neither do we want to get involved in unwinnable quagmires at great cost in lives and treasure.
Our entry into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were motivated, at least in part, by the Munich mentality. Once we were in them, however, they turned out to be a lot like Vietnam.
At least three major doctrines have developed in response to the dilemma posed by the Munich-Vietnam dichotomy. Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's came first, followed first by former Secretary of State Colin Powell's, and then by former President George W. Bush's.
The elements of the Weinberger Doctrine are that the U.S. should enter combat: only when its vital national interests or those of its allies are threatened; only with a commitment to winning; only with clear objectives and the capacity to accomplish them; with constant reevaluation of the objectives and the forces committed; with support from the Congress and the public; and as a last resort.
The Powell Doctrine is usually expressed in the form of questions: Is a vital national security interest threatened? Is there a clear and attainable objective? Have the risks and costs been honestly and thoroughly analyzed? Have we exhausted all other non-violent means? Is there an exit strategy? Have we fully considered the consequences? Is there public support? Is there broad and real international support?
The Bush Doctrine has at least the following elements: make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them; take the fight to the enemy before they can attack us; confront threats before they fully materialize; and promote democracy and freedom against tyranny.
Each of these formulas has its critics, of course, and none is easily applied to all situations. The first two reflect more from Vietnam, while the last one draws more from Munich and, obviously, the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, which as the product of a long-festering unaddressed threat has some significant similarities to that earlier era.
There is no agreed upon Obama Doctrine. Expressed negatively, this president's national security principles appear to involve excessive confidence in his personal power of persuasion; symbolic gestures; rhetoric that exceeds actual willingness to act; letting other nations take the lead; inconsistently applied humanitarianism; and an admitted preference for domestic affairs.
Put more positively, however, the Obama Doctrine can be seen to embody several elements of Weinberger's and Powell's, to realistically reflect America's parlous economic condition and the war-weariness of its people, and to be a sensible middle ground between the poles represented by the experiences of Munich and Vietnam.
One thing is clear. Neither Obama nor his hawkish Republican rivals is doing a good enough job of addressing and explaining the issues to the American people.
The recent address to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was important and valuable for just this reason. He made a comprehensive case for his position, whereas U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle are offering mainly sloganeering and sound bites.
Perhaps the congressional debate on an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS and the Republican presidential nomination campaign will elevate and expand the discussion.
In the meantime America remains trapped between Munich and Vietnam.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)