This essay is a review of:
Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987
The 1980’s was a decade in the United States where politics turned away from liberalism towards conservatism, demonstrated in the politics behind foreign policy. In his book, Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987, Christopher Hemmer explains the process that it takes for policy makers to decide what historical analogies influence and justify their policies, who according to Hemmer, should be seen as, “conscious and creators of analogies.”1 The selection of these analogies are associated to the changes in each specific decade such as the 1980’s, a decade of political progressivism.
Christopher Hemmer’s book begins with the explanation of why certain historical analogies are seen as relevant to current issues and used while others are ignored. Defined as the three factor model in the first chapter, Hemmer summarizes the process of choosing an analogy in three simple steps: a policy maker’s historical repertoire, the relative level of international and domestic threats present, and the causal similarities between events from the present and the past. Additionally, there are two methods, congruence method and process tracing, used to prove the assertion that “a policy maker’s ideas influence policy.”2 The congruence method focuses on the association between the beliefs and actions of a policy maker while process tracing focuses on the specific steps taken for a belief to influence a behavior. This can be accomplished by analyzing the policy makers’ speeches, conversations, letters, and other forms of expression. The following chapter, however, offers examples on how “patient diplomacy could secure the release of hostages.”3 The Pueblo, a United States ship believed to have been spying, was taken hostage by North Korea until a U.S. representative signed a document apologizing and admitting to those activities, even though he previously announced that he considered everything he was signing false. Also, the February assault in 1979 proved that countries with American embassies have a responsibility to protect its staff which exemplifies the diplomatic resolution against the armed mob's storming of the U.S. embassy located in Tehran. Other cases, such as the Mayaguez, the Perot Plan and the Munich Olympics, portray the United States’ willingness to use its military when provoked and rescue its hostages no matter the requirements since the attempt will turn into a popular result whether it fails or not.
Chapter three concentrates on the Carter administration and the Iranian Hostage Crisis as the president cooperates on creating policies that will lead to the release of the hostages. In a span of 444 days of captivity, there were four attempts. First, reminding the Iranian government of its obligation to restore the embassy but failing due to inability and unwillingness from their part to do so. Expected to resolve the crisis himself, “negotiations with the Iranians combined with diplomatic pressure constituted Carter’s second attempt to free the hostages.”4 Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, focused on the administration’s negotiations but sadly, his meetings and scenarios lacked initiative as the hostages were still in Tehran. Because of this, Carter decided to temporarily move away from negotiations towards a militant response which was bound to increase his popularity. However, his administration struggled to reach unanimous solutions. Having to choose between a rescue attempt and a punitive military strike, the United States took the most peaceful yet complicated option as it raised problems considering the uncertainty of the hostages’ exact location and how to arrive there without alarming the captors. Unfortunately, it resulted into a complete disaster which used the Entebbe analogy, a historic successful rescue mission of hostages, to “dominate discussion of the rescue mission even after its failure.”5 This historical analogy served as a way to justify the attempt ignoring its disastrous result. The fourth attempt involved returning to patient diplomatic negotiations as the best way to advance Carter’s personal and national interests ultimately leading to triumph.
Comparing the Iranian Hostage Crisis to the hostages in Lebanon, chapter four discusses similar events under two administrations: Carter’s and Reagan’s. Beginning his term with the hostility of Americans in Lebanon, Ronald Reagan looked at the Carter analogy to determine what his interests were and approved the policy of trading arms for the hostages. However, the Iranians feared that once they released the hostages, the U.S. would no longer be interested in selling arms. Reagan recognized that selling arms was not to improve relations with Iran but to prevent another Iranian Hostage Crisis from occurring. It was justified to “help the United States achieve a more moderate government in Iran and gather intelligence about Iran.”6 Knowing more about the other party could influence the predictions of chosen decisions and their effects in a more accurate way. A foreign meeting conducted had the U.S. delegation expecting all the hostages to be released upon their arrival and the Iranians expecting the Americans to arrive with half of the spare parts in return for their promise. Leading to many negotiations on site, both nations finally reached a peaceful agreement which ended the Iran-Contra scandal as Reagan proved he would do anything to get hostages back home.
The final chapter provides a general conclusion and the overall lesson of the book. Principally, historical analogies are invoked to “explain why particular policy makers believed specific policies would best protect their state’s national interests.”7 The lessons of history can allow policy makers to figure out what policies will advance their pre-existing interests as well as determine the interests themselves. As mentioned numerous times in this book, not all historical analogies are created equal; policy makers are more likely to choose recent ones which may influence policies by giving information regarding the expected results of different options and occasions. The three factor model discussed, “is an analytical device designed to explain and, hopefully, predict why policy makers choose the analogies they do.”8 Policy makers could benefit from expanding their history knowledge as it helps them formulate more educated predictions and choose the most accurate historical analogy. However, a wrong historical analogy will not affect a policy by making it unsuccessful since it is mainly used for justification, not certification of achievement.
Christopher Hemmer wrote this book to explain the process of policy decision making when it comes to foreign affairs and its significance. Dividing his book into five chapters to first explain the purpose of historical analogies and then concentrate on two different administrations related to Iranian confrontations with hostilities, serve as a way to prove the importance of historical knowledge contained in policy makers as they go, “through the process of judging possible analogies on the basis of causal similarities and are able to update their assessments as they learn new information.”9 In other words, historical analogies use previous political events to interpret a new situation and are used by policy makers as a way to justify their created policies.
There was a lack of informative sources about Christopher Hemmer online which made it difficult to interpret his influenced perspective and its factors. However, being a professor of International Security Studies and the Dean of the Air War College after teaching at Cornell University and Colgate University gives him sufficient amount of credibility for having written two books and various articles centralized on his educative interests: “American foreign policy, political psychology, and Middle East politics.”10 Logically, Christopher Hemmer’s interests most likely led him to the creation of this book about political relations between countries through foreign policies. Also, writing this book in 2000, a period of when the Second Intifada took place, demonstrates the linkage of the issues Hemmer was writing about which occurred in the 1980’s and his present time representing a rise of intensified Palestinian-Israeli violence. These similarities allowed Hemmer to investigate further on the events happening in the 1980’s which led to the inspiration of this book's formation.
Book reviews help establish different perspectives on what the author is trying to say as seen in the case of Christopher Hemmer as he explains the significance of historical analogies when constructing policies. According to Ole R. Holsti, author of Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy, Hemmer’s “analysis is nuanced and he concludes that historical analogies in fact played a somewhat different role in the two cases that he examined.”11 It is evident that without the Iranian Hostage Crisis, it is very unlikely that there would have been an Iran-Contra scandal. Ronald Reagan made it clear that he did not look at the Hostage Crisis for lessons on how he could best protect his interests but rather to determine what his interests were; interests strongly related to the liberation of the hostages in Lebanon. Moreover, William B. Quandt’s American Political Science Review involves a section where he briefly analyzes Christopher Hemmer’s book and his overall view of “analogical reasoning as a complement, not an alternative, to realist notions of strategic reasoning.”12 The integration of historical analogies to the decision process of policy development is labeled as a requirement in order to make reasonable interpretations of current situations. Lessons from the past aid policy makers into preventing similar issues from arising as they did historically.
American foreign policy varies from decade to decade, yet a similar process is utilized whenever policy makers decide how to choose analogies that will contribute to the selling of their formulated policies to the public. This book thrives in breaking down the general process into three specific components mentioned earlier as well as distinguishing other factors such as social interactions and personal beliefs that play a role in the influence of a policy. For example, people deal with an overload of information by using cognitive shortcuts such as using their beliefs to assume certain aspects of their surroundings and make decisions based on those interpretations. Furthermore, Hemmer performs an effective task in describing how “policy makers will seek analogies that give them information regarding both the internal and the international repercussions of their policy choices,” while still having in mind that international interests focus on improving status while domestic interests focus on advancing the policy maker’s domestic political position.13 The concepts explained in this book are easy to grasp since the language and diction integrated are expected to serve as a simple teaching tool for the reader who is predicted to have no previous knowledge of the content. Finally, the structure of the book helps with the clarity of the concepts as it begins with the explanation of what historical analogies are and why are they used, and then it moves into describing real life examples of when they have been used and how were they used.
The 1980’s was a period in the United States of America centralized towards conservatism which advocated the retainment of traditional social institutions in relation to culture and civilization. Although this book focuses on the government producing policies to solve current issues and using analogies to justify those policies, the decade for which this occurred was more in correlation to the belief in personal responsibility and limited government than the liberalist view on government action to achieve equality for all. Christopher Hemmer did, however, see this decade as a period of political progressivism as he asserted the advancements inserted in the development of the society to improve human condition through American policies. Historical events taught the United States distinctive lessons. The Son Tay rescue attempt, for example, taught the U.S. to have a clearer intelligence of their hostages’ whereabouts while the Entebbe and Mogadishu attempts were “evidence that rescue attempts can succeed” dramatically if prepared, surprised, and accomplished quickly, giving the enemy no time for reinforcements.14 These lessons ultimately verified the progress contained within the U.S. to continue the usage of analogies to learn from the past and create a more developed nation.
Assuredly, Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987 written by Christopher Hemmer demonstrates the importance of policy making as it involves the incorporation of distinct factors that influence its creation. The book, which gives the example of three factor model, helps structure the level of prominence in choosing the best historical analogy through the analyzation of the policy maker’s own historical repertoire, “the estimation of the relative level of international and domestic threats” and finally, the estimation of causal similarities between current events with those from the past.15 In order to progress as a nation, the United States needs to learn from its past experiences in order to interpret new foreign affair situations and be able to act upon them properly which will not only guarantee success but also domestic improvement.
1. Hemmer, Christopher. Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. 14.
2. Hemmer, Christopher. 27.
3. Hemmer, Christopher. 37.
4. Hemmer, Christopher. 57.
5. Hemmer, Christopher. 80.
6. Hemmer, Christopher. 125.
7. Hemmer, Christopher. 143.
8. Hemmer, Christopher. 146.
9. Hemmer, Christopher. 155-156.
10. Air University. “The Faculty - Biographies.” Air War College. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2016.
11. Holsti, Ole R. “Which Lessons Matter?: American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979-1987.” Barnes & Noble. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2016.
12. Quandt, William B. The American Political Science Review. Cambridge: American Political Science Association, 2002. 686687.
13. Hemmer, Christopher. 31-32.
14. Hemmer, Christopher. 42.
15. Hemmer, Christopher.