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Practice Makes Perfect

Politics should be informed not just by history but by historians, argues Suzannah Lipscomb.

Past precedent: 'The Storming of Kabul Gate in 1839', a 19th century illustrationWhen it comes to matters of war and foreign policy people run, quite rightly, for their history books. The debate last summer about intervening in Assad's Syria, for example, prompted Andrew Roberts in the Daily Mail  to castigate Britain for its ‘hideous, amoral selfishness’ and point out that the only other leaders since 1925 to have used chemical weapons were Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein. Other commentators compared the West's reluctance to intervene in Syria with the slow response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, John Kerry equated it with the Holocaust and those on the other side of the argument warned of the dangers of intervening by alluding to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In turn, each of these historical moments was, at the time, a contested site for historical analogy. In 2009 Simon Jenkins compared the war in Afghanistan to ‘Vietnam for slow learners’; in 2003 others had made the same comparison with Iraq, while Vietnam was fought over by generals seeking to avoid the Korean war.

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