Egypt's Tiananmen Square Moment? Hazards of Historical Analogy

By David Ritter - 28 January 2011

Is the incredible bravery of an anonymous man, standing his ground in front of an armored vehicle in the midst of the unrest that is convulsing Cairo and other cities, Egypt’s 'Tiananmen Square moment'?

The analogy refers to the remarkable incident in the course of the deadly repression of protesters in Beijing in 1989, when an unknown man apparently carrying shopping bags stood peacefully and defiantly in front of a column of tanks. The individual, whose identity and ultimate fate has never been established became a global icon of peaceful protest, dubbed the ‘Tank Man’.

There is some similarity between the events, yet there are also fundamental differences. One of the elements that made the Tiananmen event so hauntingly memorable - and gave it enduring moral complexity - is that the tank driver did not simply run 'Tank Man' down, but attempted to avoid him, before the tank came to a halt.  There was even a conversation between the crew of the vehicle and the protestor.  The hidden tank commander - also never identified - seemed to demonstrate something of his own frailty and humanity through his actions. In contrast, in Egypt this week, the armored vehicle paused but did not change course and it shot the man with its water cannon.  Eventually the man was forced in to a running retreat. 

The willingness of observers to see Tank Man reincarnated in Cairo - an interpretation already echoing around global cyberspace – is harmless enough, but can nonetheless be seen as emblematic of a wider tendency for dramatic events of global significance to be viewed through the simplifying lens of historical analogy.  The danger in this practice is that rather than matters being understood in specific historical context and granted their own messy complexity, that the application of historical analogy leads to gross over-simplification, mis-interpretation and ultimately false strategic judgments.  Once a catchy comparison has been made, it is not only opinion makers but also decision makers who may start reacting to the construction, rather than attempting to comprehend and respond to unfolding events on their own terms.

Consider for example, the willingness of commentators to see recent hostilities and tensions in the Caucasus as a resumption of the ‘Great Game’ - the struggle for strategic supremacy between the British and Russian Empires that took place in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has forcefully argued that the historical analogy is almost entirely unhelpful. Indeed in an article published in Foreign Policy in September last year entitled ‘Call off the Great Game’, de Waal contended that the current misery of the Caucasus can in part even be attributed to the fallacious understandings of outsiders.

We are at fault, I believe, because our faulty perceptions and interpretations have helped make bad local politics worse. … the notion that the region is a "Great Chessboard" where the big powers push the locals around like pawns to serve their own goals. That is not what actually happens. In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round.

But perhaps the most striking historical analogy made in recent years was the willingness of some politicians and commentators to see the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Iraq as functionally comparable to that of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin's USSR. In his Address to the Nation on 17 March 2003, President George W. Bush said

The cause of peace requires all free nations to recognize new and undeniable realities. In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.

Of course, historical analogies did not determine the USA’s decision to embark on the ruinous invasion of Iraq that followed or provide the sole justification for the war (after all, it was in the same speech that Bush said emphatically that ‘[i]ntelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised’) but glib references to totalitarians of the twentieth century were certainly applied to provide a source of additional rhetorical legitimacy.

‘Lessons of history’ allegedly ‘learned’ from vulgar historical analogies are at best unhelpful in promoting good global decision making and at worst can contribute to disaster.

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