Knowing history can indeed help us avoid being "condemned to repeat it" though as often as not only by making new, more interesting mistakes. But how can we explain a case of two peoples who seem compelled both to remember and relive an experience they would much rather forget?
Barely three decades after fighting one of the bitterest of all colonial wars, France and Algeria are again embroiled in conflict. The rhetoric in both countries constantly recalls what some now term "The First Algerian War", but even while they deplore their plight they cannot help falling into familiar roles: the Algerians in a fratricidal civil war, the French supporting a discredited regime to avoid a still worse alternative. With bombs set by Algerian Islamists exploding across the country and armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris, France's drift toward a deepening confrontation will continue along the path of least resistance. As it does so, America will have to be deaf to appeals to avoid in a new crusade against resurgent Islam. There are indeed lessons to be learned from the first Algerian War that may yet help us to keep out of the second, but learning them requires confronting something even more intractable than the vaunted "Green Peril": our own ingrained attitudes toward Arabs and Islam.
Most Americans first learned of the Algerian conflict when Islamist rebels hijacked an Air France jetliner last Christmas Eve. Many were then surprised to learn that at least thirty thousand people had been killed there since a military regime seized power three years before; that if the rebels were to win, hundreds of thousands of refugees were expected to head north for Europe; and that the French government therefore considered Algeria -- not Bosnia or nuclear testing -- to be the gravest problem it faced.
More Searing Than Vietnam
An introduction to Algeria must begin with its nearly eight-year war for independence, when perhaps as much as 5 percent of its population was killed while another 10 percent fled the country when peace came in 1962. The Algerian War is often compared with America's Vietnam War. In both cases Westerners marshaled superior military power and prevailed on the battlefield, only to lose the political struggles at home and abroad. French and Americans each talked about winning "hearts and minds", but found in the end that their own hearts were not in it. Both suffer from historical "syndromes" that differ in their symptoms but are alike in the stubborn persistence of their effects.
Yet as important as Vietnam has been for America it hardly approaches what Algeria has meant for France. Imagine, to begin with, that Saigon was four hundred miles from San Francisco rather than eight thousand. Suppose that South Vietnam was another constituent state of the union, no different from Alaska or Hawaii, in the same way that Algeria was constitutionally a part of France. Add a million American settlers. Then we might begin to see why this was a very different war, much worse even than the one we are still recovering from. But even then it would surely beggar the imagination to believe that, after our erstwhile bitter enemies had made themselves into a Westernized elite, lost democratic elections, and confronted a new insurgency, we would promptly become their main backers -- sending arms and advisors, and assuring billions of dollars in aid each year. French diplomacy is often thought to be unprincipled and pragmatic to a fault, but it is not usually considered perverse. Why is it then that France risks reprising one of the most miserable episodes of its recent past?
History never actually repeats itself -- though, as one historian has suggested, it sometimes rhymes. Before considering the uncanny similarities between the first and second Algerian Wars we should stress the differences, starting with how each began.
Before the All Saints Day uprising in 1954, the French appeared to have their Algerian departements well in hand, subverting through stolen elections even the limited democracy allowed the Muslim majority. The present conflict, on the other hand, came after the victors of that war, the National Liberation Front (or FLN, its French acronym), finally allowed political liberalization following a week of bloody rioting against austerity in October 1988. In the first freely contested local elections in June 1990, more than half those who voted opted for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which lacked a detailed political program but appeared as a principled and effective opponent of a corrupt regime. The first round of national elections in December 1991 revealed that FIS support was not simply a protest vote. Though their backers were fewer -- 3.26 as opposed to 4.3 million in the local races -- FIS candidates still prevailed over every other party in all but a handful of districts. Rather than risk another round of voting, the Algerian military forced the FLN president to resign, outlawed the FIS, and declared martial law. Clashes between the army and Islamists ensued, and the fighting now rivals the first Algerian War in sheer ferocity. But in this case the conflict was initiated by the military rather than the "rebels" -- who would otherwise have been Algeria's first democratically -- elected government. (For the sake of comparison, recall that the FLN had fewer than three thousand members when the first Algerian War began.)
As for the French, there is not yet any question of their directly fighting the Islamists beyond France's own borders, and the decision to continue the war or pursue peace will ultimately be made in Algiers, not Paris or Washington. The fate of government partisans in the event of defeat is even more uncertain than was that of French army officers and settlers in the former conflict. Intent on regaining international prestige, Charles de Gaulle risked the attempts of the latter to assassinate him and overthrow the republic, in order to extricate France from Algeria. The government in Algiers in the 1990s, on the other hand, has a much more narrow focus and is concerned with foreign opinion only to the extent that it helps or hinders its war machine. We can therefore expect them to fight to the end with still greater bitterness and brutality.
Yet the FIS cannot count on anything like the international support its predecessors enjoyed. In the first Algerian War the elites of what was just beginning to be called the Third World, the French intellectual monde, and mainstream Western opinion all saw the FLN as part of that nationalist, anti-colonialist wave -- what Harold MacMillan was to describe as "the wind of change" -- that would sweep the world by the early 1960s. They received arms from the Arab world, Eastern Europe, and China, benefited from bases in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, and enjoyed diplomatic recognition by dozens of other states. In contrast, the support offered the FIS by the supposed "Islamic international" is trivial, while countries across North Africa cooperate in hunting them down. They enjoy scant sympathy from foreign intellectuals, for whom the plight of Salman Rushdie is far more gripping than that of thousands of tortured Islamists around the Arab world -- many of whom are equally innocent of anything more than "thought "crime." Finally, while an FIS victory is usually seen as inevitable, it is never represented in the triumphalist terms of the 1950s by Western commentators. Instead, most tell their audiences to expect another Iran.
Historical analogies are useful not for the answers they provide, but for the questions they provoke. Unfortunately, analogies are more often used as substitutes for analysis, and phrases like "another Iran" -- or "another Vietnam" -- fill the mind with images that crowd out critical thinking. We tend to jump to the answer "never again", without asking how it happened in the first place and whether the comparison is relevant or revealing. The American obsession with the Iranian revolution -- which many Sunni, Arab Islamists themselves see as a failure, one they intend to learn from -- has caused us to neglect Algeria's own recent past, which both the French and the FIS find to be far more germane. In deciding whether peace with Islamic activists is desirable or even possible, we must at least consider whether we are falling into a self-defeating pattern in the way we project our preconceived notions onto the Arab and Muslim "other." However much present predicaments seem to mirror that history, the future will surely be different -- it always is.
Even if neither the...