Memory is a funny thing—and much less inviolable than we might like it to be. While it’s natural to think of our memories as being our objective historical records (sort of like photos our brain takes) in actuality our memories can edited, even rewritten.
For instance, I remember (or, at least, I think I remember) a few moments of a trip to the zoo when I was a toddler. Now, my mom likes to tell a story about this outing because she thinks it’s when object permanence clicked for me, and we have a photo taken right around the moment I can recall. So is my memory real, or did my brain create it, piecing together this other information I received later on?
I have no idea—and either option is possible. In fact, some neuroscientists argue that every time we bring a memory to mind, we re-record and change it. Remembering is less like taking a file out of a filing cabinet, leafing through it, and putting it back unaltered; and more like opening a Word document, scrolling through, unconsciously fixing a couple typos, and then being surprised that the computer is asking if we want to save our changes. We may not be aware that we made those edits, but they happened.
Our political memories are no exception, and the political establishment exploits this dynamic to the fullest. Vaudville comedian Will Rogers famously said that “The short memories of the American voters is what keeps our politicians in office”—but I’d say it’s not so much short memories as rewritten ones.
Right now, our memories about the last decade and half of American foreign policy are being rewritten at a breakneck pace.
And the effects are already obvious, as two recent polls demonstrate: First, Americans have a newly positive view of former president George W. Bush. And second, a Gallup poll released on Friday saw a significant increase in the number of people who believe we were right to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
More broadly, in early 2014 a rising majority believed the United States should pursue a foreign policy of minding our own business. Toward the end of last year and into 2015, a more aggressive foreign policy came into vogue. In the words of one Pew Poll report, “as new dangers loom, more think the U.S. does ‘too little’ to solve world problems.”
The primary reason for this dramatic shift is evident: The latter half of 2014 saw the rise of ISIS—and with it the supersized vision of ISIS commonly hyped by our media and politicians.
Yet if we listen to the expertise of our military and intelligence officials, the picture looks pretty different: ISIS is a problem, to be sure, but there’s no evidence it has credible plans to attack the United States, let alone manage an actual invasion. As the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble explains, with ISIS “what we’re talking about are not existential threats. They’re frightening. They’re damaging. They’re costly. But they’re not existential” to America.
This is not to suggest that ISIS is not scary, or to downplay the terror it is wreaking (particularly among historic Christian populations) in the Middle East. But it is to say that we risk repeating the mistakes of recent history if we fail to keep the threat of ISIS in perspective. When we give this group more credit than it’s due, we engage in a counter-factual hysteria which isn’t likely to produce good foreign policy decisions.
And it’s not just our current foreign policy which can change thanks to exaggerated reports about ISIS: Our memories are changing, too. The chaos and turmoil we see in Iraq today is all too easy to project onto the Iraq of 2003—even though pre-invasion Iraq was actually a far more stable place that (though by no means under good leadership) did not have any al Qaeda or ISIS presence.
The Iraq we invaded was not the Iraq of today. And that invasion did not prevent today’s Iraq: It created it.
Indeed, just how dangerous this memory rewrite is comes into stark clarity when we recall that (as even Bush has said, along with everyone from Barack Obama to Ron Paul) the 2003 invasion directly led to the creation of ISIS. In 2015, as the Iraq war revs its engine for another decade or two, it is vital to remember that ISIS was able to form because of conditions the United States created by invading Iraq, not vice versa—and we were right to reject the wisdom of that invasion in 2014.
If we allow our memories of 2003 to be rewritten, then come 2027 we may well find ourselves asking how to defeat the new monstrous group our 2015 war in Iraq helped to create.