On WWI Centenary, Will Congress Repeat the Blunders of Russia and Germany?

by Jim Lobe

In just a week, 2014 will dawn upon us, and, as we approach the mid-year mark, the number of op-eds, retrospectives, and documentaries about the Great War that broke out 100 years before, will likely be overwhelming. The question is what, if any, lessons will be drawn and how they will be applied, if at all, to today.

Hopefully, it won’t be too late by the time we mark the “Guns of August” to prevent the United States — and specifically, the U.S. Congress – from having embarked on a new “march of folly” — war with Iran. But if bipartisan stalwarts of the Israel lobby — led by Sens. Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez — get their way with their new sanctions legislation, which almost perfectly echoes the demands made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for Iran to dismantle virtually all of its nuclear program, I suspect that’s where we’ll be headed.

Perhaps that’s partly why Margaret MacMillan, the author of The War That Ended the Peace: The Road to 1914, suggested in a recent “Brookings Essay,” entitled “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War,” that Russia’s seemingly unconditional and ultimately disastrous commitment to Serbia in the name of “Pan-Slavism” — as well as the infamous “blank check” issued by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm to Austria after the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — may indeed hold important lessons for today:

Great powers often face the dilemma that their very support for smaller ones encourages their clients to be reckless. And their clients often slip the leading strings of their patrons. The U.S. has funnelled [sic] huge amounts of money and equipment to Israel and Pakistan, for example, as China has done to North Korea, yet that has not given either the Americans or the Chinese commensurate influence over the policies of those countries. Israel, while hugely dependent on America, has sometimes tried to push Washington into taking pre-emptive military action.

Of course, that’s precisely what is taking place before our eyes in the U.S. Congress today. After all, when 27 senators sign onto what I called the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer Wag the Dog Act of 2014 that explicitly calls for the U.S. government to “stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence [if the Israeli government] is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program,” you can’t help but be reminded of Russia’s incredible stupidity in reflexively backing Serbia and the radical nationalist groups that it supported in the run-up to the war, not to mention Wilhelm’s blank check to an Austria bent on humiliating and crushing the Serbs.

Ten years ago, Anatol Lieven drew the former parallel in his still-very-relevant book “America: Right or Wrong” (Oxford University Press):

If anything, the [U.S.-Israel] alliance is beginning to take on some of the same mutually calamitous aspects as Russia’s commitment to Serbia in 1914, a great power guarantee which encouraged parts of the Serbian leadership to behave with criminal irresponsibility in their encouragement of irredentist claims against Austria, leading to a war which was ruinous for Russia, Serbia, and the world.”

Lieven went on to document the various trends over the past half century that have increasingly enabled the Israeli tail to wag the U.S. dog — trends that have only deepened during the past decade despite the steadily rightward trajectory of Israel’s government and the advent of a Democratic administration clearly wary of Israel’s adventurism. Unfortunately, that administration gets very little support from a Congress that, when it comes to Israel and Iran, has, as former senior AIPAC official Douglas Bloomfield told me last week, been “on auto-pilot” for years, just as hardliners in the militaries and imperial courts in St. Petersburg and Vienna were one century ago.

No doubt most of the senators who sign on to the Wag Act don’t want war (although their main cheerleader, Lindsey Graham, has been calling for it for several years now) and sincerely believe that a new sanctions bill will only strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations with Iran and that Tehran’s threat to abandon the talks is simply bluster. No doubt some pan-Slavists in St. Petersburg believed that the partial mobilization ordered by the Czar, who, like Obama, tried hard to keep diplomacy alive, would be sufficient to persuade Vienna to back down and give the Serbs a face-saving way out. (“Soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure brought upon me…to take extreme measures which will lead to war,” Nicholas wrote to his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, as Austria declared war. “To try and avoid such as a calamity as a European war, I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.”) But it didn’t work out that way.

Of course, there are important differences between today and 100 years ago, including the fact that Iran doesn’t have an obvious great-power patron as Russia was to Serbia and Germany to Austria back then. Similarly, it was clear that some of the parties were eager for war (although not the one that they eventually got) in 1914, while the only country that openly threatens it today is Israel (although, as Michael Ledeen has pointed out, it has long been Israel’s policy to try to get the U.S. to attack first).

But some of the similarities are deeply disturbing, not least the “blank check” treatment that Israel enjoys in Congress and the confidence that only threats and pressure work against less powerful and presumably morally inferior foes. How timely it is to remember Wilhelm’s joyful reaction to reports that Austria would not retreat from the maximalist demands in its ultimatum against Serbia and how depressed the Serbs were when faced with the choice of humiliation or war:

“Bravo! One would not have believed it of the Viennese!…How hollow the whole Serbian power is proving itself to be; thus, it is seen to be with all the Slav nations! Just tread hard on the heels of that rabble!” [Shades of Charles Krauthammer.]

Or how prescient British Prime Minister Lord Asquith was in analyzing the likely consequences of the Austrian ultimatum:

But the Austrians are quite the stupidest people in Europe …, and there is a brutality about their mode of procedure, which will make most people think that is a case of a big Power wantonly bullying a little one. Anyhow, it is the most dangerous situation of the last 40 years.

Hopefully, the Great War’s centenary will spur some reflection in the Capitol come the new year.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So, the growth rate, from the original 3 stooges has now grown to 27 stooges. Wow, I guess I’ve underestimated the stupidity factor in the U.S. Senate. Isn’t there any intelligent people occupying those seats? Why hasn’t the NSA alerted the Homeland Security crew, the F.B.I., who ever else it is that apprehends the terrorists that are out to destroy the U.S.??? Where is Superman when we need him?

  2. Great piece. One might add that the US Congress has very stupidly encouraged Israel to continue to grow the illegal colonies in the West Bank, year in and year out. Insane.

    Regarding the catastrophe of 1914, one might note that Austria-Hungary actually posed a threat to the national security of Germany, due to its ethnic problems etc etc.

  3. Dear Jim Lobe:

    1- The present situation given the nuclear armed Israelis’ ‘irresponsible violence’ is far more dangerous: As I have previously highlighted this crucial point (presenting writing a paper on this issue, even risking being labeled as an anti-Semite), Israel includes ‘clinically’ traumatized post-Holocaust generations whose historical ‘persecution complex’ and their far more dangerous ‘pathological’ ‘paranoia’ have blinded them to their crimes against humanity, and their irresponsible violence in the past towards the Palestinian women and children, best demonstrated in their genocidal air attacks on the civilians in Lebanon in 2006, have indisputably manifested their ‘irresponsible violence’ as a symptom of their ‘pathological paranoia’. Equally beyond belief has been the ‘complicity’ of the UN, US, UK, Germany and France in these patients’ vicious crimes. To arm such pathologically disturbed ‘patients/politicians’ with nuclear arsenal as well as giving them moral, military and economic support, endorsed by the Congress, defy reason.

    2- Today, looking at the photos of the ordinary people (shopping, rushing or strolling in the streets of Germany, Britain, Austria, Russia, France, Turkey,…), taken shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, I wonder if they knew many of them would soon perish in an impending war, as soldiers or civilians. And had they been told/warned what actions would they have taken to stop a foolish war engineered by a small number of ruthless/ignorant politicians, yes ‘small’ in comparison to the millions who lost their lives, and why people did not turn against these uniformed/plain cloth criminals to stop the War?

    3- And apart from the carnage and loss of lives, with hindsight, with the Great War the world also witnessed the rise of blood thirsty Communism in Russia and Fascism in Europe whose genocidal legacies by the end of WWII left millions dead as well as leaving generations of ‘traumatized paranoid’ Jews, now the armed Israelis, who constantly need ‘protection’ even if they are armed to the teeth and have left 1000s of defenseless women and children murdered around them.

    4- In spite of 10,000s of American psychotherapists/analysts and lawyers no one has ever dared to tackle this issue to then question the moral justification and legitimacy of the irresponsible ‘arming’ of a clinically sick Patient suffering from persecution complex and paranoia!

    5- No experienced psychotherapist/psychiatrist would allow ‘arming’ such a ‘violent paranoid’ Patient! But the UNSC, the US Congress and the world media have even morally justified such folly and continue to be influenced by this great Patient’s destructive paranoid fear now desperately pleading for more military support to be ready to back him up while unilaterally destroying with nuclear weapons what this ‘paranoid Patient’, suffering from persecution complex, perceives to be an ‘existential threat’! A Patient who has perceived the simplest criticism of its crimes against humanity as an evidence of ‘Antisemitism’ and never stopped responding with violence!

    6- Is the World is afraid of this dangerous Patient? Where are the psychotherapists and lawyers, historians, academics, intellectuals and soldiers to speak out against this Patient and his world media; where are the American People to confront their ‘small’ groups of biased corrupt uniformed/plain-cloth politicians, their commissioned media representatives and their poisonous catastrophic propaganda?! They all are waiting; yes, waiting, just as many did before the outbreak of the Great War!

  4. I can see the resonance but hope it doesn’t get out of hand — is it already out of hand, are we that far gone? Serbia was the only real winner of WW1. The enormous new post-war state of Yugoslavia embodied the nationalist dream of the fractious Serbs. Every other combatant was diminished, including England.

  5. Britain, France, Russia were indeed losers, in the First World War. Was the war “worth it”, for Serbia? Not from the standpoint of 2014.

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