The recurrent affirmation that history is on our side, a phrase frequently used by President Obama and to a lesser degree by his predecessors, is a rhetorical flourish that betrays great naivety. TAI columnists Eliot Cohen and Walter Russell Mead have already commented on the latest presidential mention of this phrase here and here, eloquently noting that history does not take sides and that the repetition of this locution does not assuage the fear of people threatened by enemies. Survival and victory do not stem automatically from the conviction that one is marching in lockstep with History.
This—the belief that one needs not fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets, or in the hills because history is on our side and the enemy will auto-destruct—is the most troubling aspect of the progressive belief of being attuned to the direction of History. As the President stated on December 6, he is “confident that we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history” (emphasis added). Being on the right side of history, in his vision, causes one to win. The strategy (if we can call it that) is not to adjust our behavior to respond to our rivals and not to defeat the enemy but to keep a steady eye on history.
It’s a competition of sorts, but with history rather than with rivals or enemies. As such it is a plan, not a strategy, to match the path drawn by history.
One can imagine a policy memo written by the President’s advisers:
Dear Mr. President, our plan is to be on the right side of history. We are not engaged in a strategic competition with a rival, whose actions will receive an appropriate response not from us, but from history. If he/she misbehaves—namely, if he/she acts in ways not congruent with the path of history—he/she will engage in self-defeating behavior, or more precisely, in behavior defeated by history. Our goal, thus, must be to follow history, not respond to every manifestation of ahistorical behavior of those who chose to be on the wrong side of progress. Mr. President, your task is to be the steward of History.
The progressive belief in History can translate into…