Obama's Selective Historical Memory

What do the president's most recent remarks on Afghanistan say about his willingness to heed history's lessons?

In an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday, President Barack Obama attempted to brush aside a slew of recent comparisons between wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam.

“You have to learn lessons from history,” he said. “On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”

In some ways, he’s right. American casualties were much higher in Vietnam then they have been thus far in Afghanistan, and the war in Afghanistan is (ostensibly) about halting isolated enemy networks, not undermining an entire nation’s political ideology.

But what’s more interesting about Obama’s statement is its illustration of his selective historicism. Since the beginning of his presidency, Obama has traversed a peculiar rhetorical trajectory when it comes to heeding history’s lessons – one whose default premise seems to be ‘history is history; it is not reality.’

Indeed, on the torture question, his opinion has been that it is best to not prosecute those who acted “in good faith” – those whose actions fell within the legal framework developed by Bush and friends. This “look forward, not back” line was parroted most recently by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Aug. 24.

And on the issue of health care, Obama has woven a similar narrative. He said in his address last Wednesday, “we did not come to fear the future. We came to shape it.”

“I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress,” he added. “I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.”

So what’s behind this new, seemingly incongruous "adherence" to history’s lessons? Afghanistan, poised to become the largest policy quagmire of Obama's still young presidency, seems like it would be the ripest for convenient, historical neglect. Does a promise to “never step into the same river twice” actually mean anything, given a presidency thus far punctuated by a downright refusal to glance backwards?

Time might not tell. After all, it hasn't yet.

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