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. Both Brenda’s and James Canning’s conclusions are correct.
    Serbs came out of WWI as winners, but proved to be inept, and squandered their fortunes.
    Mr. Canning’s conclusion accurately sums it up.

    What needs to be clarified is the fallacy that the contemporary West fervently promotes: the Russians and the Serbs are the cause of the Great War. It is a well documented fact that Germany and Austria wanted a war at any cost. Even Siegmund Freud was an enthusiastic supporter of the war.

    Historical revisionism is bent on rewriting the events, their origins, and meaning. Gavrilo Princip is now being labeled as “terrorist”, a modern day (GW Bush) construct. Projecting ideology back into history is an ill-advised practice and Mr. Lobe himself is guilty of it. Princip was a member of Mlada Bosna, a young idealist, who, if he had to be made to fit a mold, would best fit the cast of an anarchist, but definitely not a terrorist.

    By recasting Princip as terrorist the West is deftly engineering to justify the Serbs current state. By accusing the Serbs of being responsible for starting the war, via “terrorist Gavrilo Princip” label the West seeks to justify the fact that the Serbs are the most disenfranchised people of Europe, thanks to NATO, US and EU.

  2. Those that fail to remember the lessons of history are forever doomed to repeat it. So it appears is going to be the case of the Middle East being the powder keg that will ignite WWIII, just as the Balkans ingited WWI and the Danzig Question ignited WWII.
    If you stop and think about it from the perspective of our psychotic and socieopathic “betters,” who we somehow presume are better governing us than we ourselves, they look at a major world war with horrendous military and civilian deaths as a desireable thing.
    It first would draw down the overall human mass population – which they view as a good thing, would allow for untold war profits for industries they hold major stakes in – which is a good thing from their persepctive, and it also brings them one step closer to their centuries coveted dream of a united world under their psychotic whip – the ultimate good from their perspective.
    It will be interesting to see if “We the Sheeple,” will allow our young men and women, and we ourselves, to be dragooned off into this possibly pending disaster.
    One can hope that like in the case of the recent Syria episode, the populations of the many nations will stand up and cry “Stop!”
    2014 will indeed be an interesting year as the fork in the road is near. New paradigm, or going down the road to disaster that is being planned for us all.

  3. The real winners of the war were the ‘international bankers’ who make piles of money from all sides. Their agents ensured beforehand that an alliance structure existed such that a single spark would start the conflagration, and that the conflict would be monumental. In the end when the savings of the European nations were exhausted the savings of the USA were thrown into the pile, placed on the British side, at the cost of the Balfour Declaration. Check it out. There is no prohibition in studying the history of the origins of WWI.

  4. The problem with all wars is that there are no consequences to the parties who are responsible in starting them, only to losing them. The last three wars the USA fought were all based on lies by their government: Pearl Harbour, War in Vietnam and the Iraq war. The scenario for an Iran war is based on one applied in the case of Japan where a series of sanctions forced that country to war.

    To-day, there are negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, yet it looks like that the party who controls the talks is a little paranoid state that has the US in its pocket, which seems to be willingly doing its bidding.

    Obviously the US politicians are set to get their country into another war for the sake of a foreign “power” and the people of the USA will not only have no say in the matter, but will be forced to sacrifice its sons and daughters in yet another useless war.

    The war that is being prepared is an outright offensive war disguised as a defensive one. The government of the US together with Congress has turned into a paranoid Israeli state since 9/11, and they are doing everything within their power to convince the US population that the only way to go is WAR. Normally I would say good luck to them, but this time the whole world will be implicated willy-nilly. So Good Luck to All of Us and a Happy New Year!!!

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