Repeating cold, unwinnable past

George Santayana, Spanish-born American philosopher (1863-1952) warned, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In Ukraine, Iran and Gaza, tragically with terrible human tolls, we are repeating the past.

In Ukraine, many hoped the shooting down of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 and the deaths of 290 innocent civilians would shock the parties into turning from escalating violence to negotiating a political resolution of the conflict. Instead, fighting is intensifying between the Western-backed Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed separatists. Under pressure of current events, Russia and the U.S. are repeating decades-old patterns.

President Putin, playing to revived Russian nationalism, repeats the Cold War accusation that the U.S. and CIA are orchestrating Ukraine’s strategy. President Obama ignores U.S. and Western European responsibility for inviting former Soviet republics into NATO’s military alliance, a dangerously provocative strategy that was bound to arouse Russian national anxiety and ire. Rather than viewing the overthrow of the corrupt regime of President Yanukovych as an opportunity for cooperation, Russia and the West repeated well-worn responses from the Cold War, offering competing economic aid packages and pulling Ukraine in opposite directions, thereby exacerbating tensions between pro-Russian and pro-Western Ukrainians. Now, escalating U.S./European sanctions and Russia’s military maneuvers on Ukraine’s border risk an even more dangerous confrontation.

For 35 years, since the Iranian revolution in 1979 that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of the Shah, the United States has refused to have diplomatic relations with Iran. We fail to remember that there is no more evidence this policy has positively changed Iran than there is that our not having relations with Cuba for more than five decades has positively affected Cuba. As Americans, while we remember Iranian radicals holding our citizens hostage, we forget that it was a U.S.-financed, CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 that overthrew the elected government in Iran and installed the Shah’s regime, and that in July 1988 a U.S. Navy cruiser shot down a commercial Iranian airliner, ironically with the same number of innocent civilians killed as on the Malaysian airliner. Like American memories of the hostage crisis, these are events that Iranians don’t forget. Remembering the past can be painful and fuel continuing hostility, but remembering the past more fully and honestly also can encourage a sense of national humility and greater realism. These surely are two qualities needed by both sides in current U.S.-Iranian diplomatic engagement to reach agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and possible cooperation on the conflict with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Given our country’s unique, high-profile involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over several decades, the war between Israel and Hamas may be the clearest, most humanly costly current case where failing to remember the past condemns us to repeat it. Even as real Israeli fears of Hamas rocket attacks and terrible Palestinian suffering from Israel’s military assault are the focus of popular and media attention, we need to remember how many times the parties have been here before, each time thinking this time will be different. The reality is that there is no military solution. No matter how many rockets the Palestinians launch, Israel will not disappear; and no matter how much of its enormous, sophisticated military power Israel applies, Palestinian nationalism will neither disappear nor diminish. Clearly, the highest immediate priority is sustaining a ceasefire. But fundamentally we must remember that since 1948 this conflict between Israelis and Palestinians — two peoples with authentic, bone-deep, national claims to the same small land — can only be resolved by a negotiated two-state peace agreement, and that needs to happen before it’s too late.

It is also urgently important to remember the numerous past opportunities for negotiated peace squandered by political leaders on both sides and by the United States. While Israeli and Palestinian leaders bear much of the blame for failing to reach agreement, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, recently confessed that he is dumbfounded by the lack of resolve in previous U.S. peace initiatives. Rather than repeat past failed efforts, Kurtzer believes the U.S. should announce a fair framework for a two-state peace agreement, including ideas drawn from earlier official and informal negotiations to resolve all the issues, and then as a next step present the framework for endorsement by the U.N. Security Council.

Ron Young served as National Peace Education Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker education and service agency from 1972 to 1982. This op-ed article represents Young’s personal views, not those of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace, for which he currently serves as consultant. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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