One of the principal reasons that policymakers should study history is to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. Mistakes in the realm of economics, social policy, defense, and foreign policy all come to mind.
Every policy maker has an array of decisions to make and often current problems are so complex that no remedy is obvious. One sure bet to avoid disaster is to immediately discard policies that have failed.
For example, one of the lessons of World War II is that a free society pays a high price if it chooses to appease an implacable dictatorship. Britain and France did no one any favors by appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. Their lack of resolve caused millions of people to die needlessly.
The Great Depression in the USA provides a telling lesson of what government should not do when the economy begins to contract, resulting in massive unemployment. President Hoover raised income taxes and signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act which cut off world trade and thus exacerbating an already weakened economy.
Since 1945, we have not made those mistakes again. We certainly have committed other errors, but American policymakers have shown an ability to learn from the past.
The current Obama Administration has a full plate of problems that demand the most delicate policy making. Domestically, the number-one problem is restarting the economy and growing out of the Great Recession. President Obama has also chosen to enter the health care reform fray and is frantically trying to corral his team in Congress to pass a bill that he can sign. Internationally, the White House needs to win the war in Afghanistan, make progress in withdrawing from Iraq, close Gitmo and, most importantly, prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
Obama was elected to bring change. Part of his appeal lay in his great rhetorical gifts, convincing people that he was going to rise above partisan politics and deliver solutions.
Most reasonable people would agree that little has been accomplished to date. It has been only nine months, however, and perhaps we should allow Obama some more time before we chide him for non-performance.
A modern American president must decide issues that require superb judgment. In an ideal world, the American president would be a master politician, an economic wizard, endowed with tremendous organizational skills, a gifted speaker, and know history.
Well, give one point to Obama. He is one hell of a speaker, at least when his teleprompter is present. But is that enough?
We live in the real world. No American president has ever possessed all the skills enumerated above. Neither Washington nor Lincoln or even FDR could meet such a high standard.
But of all the skills listed. the one crucial skill is a knowledge of history. By knowledge of history, I do not mean a professional historian who grasps all the nuances of what has occurred in the world over the last 500 years.
What I have in mind is something else. Any man or woman serving as POTUS should have a solid grounding of what has occurred in the world in general, and in the USA in particular, over the last century, along with a practical understanding of what has worked in the past and what has not.
The lessons of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, international trade and development policy, the collapse of Communism, etc. are basics that every American president needs to know. Likewise, on the domestic front, every president ought to know what happens when taxes are raised or lowered. He or she should know the lesson of the Cold War: market economies outperform any economy that has the word "social" or "socialist" in front of it.
This particular president, for all his gifts, is woefully ignorant of history. He has shown this on many occasions. Some of these instances are insignificant, like not knowing how many states are in the USA. He said 57, but every school child knows that it is 50, and has been so since 1959. In and of itself, this is not a big deal. More troubling was Obama's comment that JFK's fiasco with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961 marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Say that again, what? JFK was humiliated by Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. The Soviets took the wrong lesson from this meeting and placed missiles in Cuba a year later. For Mr. Obama's information, the Cold War ended in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was 28 years after JFK let Khrushchev eat his lunch in Vienna.
President Obama came to my city, Prague, in April this year. He praised the Czechs for throwing off Communism in 1989. Fair enough, but then he began making up history. Obama stated that the demonstrators compelled the totalitarian government to give up and implied that the moral force of the demonstrators forced the old line Commies to capitulate and leave town. I could not believe my ears. My Czech friends looked at me, bemused. They did not know that they were so heroic. And I was shocked that Obama had no one on staff to check his facts.
The truth was significantly different. The Czechs only began putting pressure on the regime to cede power a month after the Berlin Wall fell. Solidarity had already come into power in Warsaw, East Germans had been pouring out all summer through Hungary to Austria, and Czechoslovakia was the laggard (as usual) in pushing for an end to Communism. If anything, the revolution in Prague was an anti-climax in the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. But once again, Obama did not know this.
Why is it important to point out these Obama mistakes? I know that I should give the guy a break because he has his heart in the right place. After all, he is not George W. Bush!
These mistakes are important because they point to a serious underlying problem: no historical memory. This president does not have a clue about recent history let alone ancient history. He has no grounding on what works and what does not. His only guide is his philosophy or the ideology of his "advisors."
When a president has a philosophy, he must know that there will be a price for implementing it. Ronald Reagan knew that winning the Cold War meant budget deficits and all the problems that they bring. He also knew that implementing Reaganomics would bring long-term gains but also some very strong short-term pain. By knowing history he could craft effective long-term policy and gird his administration against the slings and arrows from his opponents for the downside that those policies bring.
This president has no idea what will work in either the domestic or international sphere. He does not realize that the country can ill afford expensive new social programs while we run a budget deficit that amounts to 10% of GDP. Obama does not understand that if you commit yourself to win a war in Afghanistan, you have to make a reasonable effort to do so and not be hemmed in by left-wing captives of ideology.
Furthermore, the lesson of Herbert Hoover is that a president does not raise taxes when the economy is in the tank. It is not smart economics. Full stop.
None of us should want President Obama to fail. Such failure is failure for the whole country. As an ex-pat American, I can tell you that the United States, for all its sins and limitations, is still the indispensable country. It is the only country that can still secure freedom and provide cover for the democratic world.
It is not too late for President Obama to change course and apply his intelligence to the task of fashioning the right policy for the right problem.
Will someone introduce President Obama to the economic ideas of Milton Friedman and Robert Mundell and for good measure throw in a book by Hans Morgenthau on the basics of international politics? No doubt the White House has sufficient resources for some remedial tutoring.