Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Cold War Versus the Current Era

Republicans are moaning about how difficult things are these days. This is curious. The Bush Administration went around in circles for five years huffing and puffing on North Korea and essentially came back to the policy that existed at the end of Clinton's presidency. After 9/11, we had to deal with Afghanistan and that would have kept the Bush Administration plenty busy, but they chose to give us a war in Iraq that we didn't need. It isn't just foreign policy that is difficult for Bush; he botched the response to Hurricane Katrina and then claimed he needed a law that allowed him to call in the military which was nonsense since the real problem was an underwhelming use of the resources he had.

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly links to a story by Paul Kennedy in the Los Angeles Times who punctures the new mythology:
IT WAS FUNNY, in a grim sort of way. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's polemical attack on the United States by remembering the 50-year Cold War as a "less complex time" and saying he was "almost nostalgic" for its return.


The argument goes as follows: The Cold War, although unpleasant, was inherently stable. It was a bipolar world — centered on Washington and Moscow — and, as UC Berkeley political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued, it was much more predictable than, say, the shifting, multipolar world of the 1910s or 1930s, decades that were followed by calamitous wars. Yes, it's true that the two sides possessed masses of nuclear weapons aimed at each other's biggest cities, but the reality is that they were constrained by a mutual balance of terror.

Kennedy debunks the 'easy' days of the Cold War and properly so. On several blogs, including Donkey Path, there have been posts reminding us how disastrous it would have been, as just one example, to have had a president like George W. Bush handling something as 'predictable' as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I don't want to minimize what's going on these days. Things are changing and we have an ideological administration with its head stuck on old ideas about the world; and some Republicans (Wolfowitz as an example) are even shocked that people in the third world aren't behaving like stereotypical natives in old Hollywood movies. In some respects, Bush has been handling the wrong problems while ignoring a wide range of issues, including genocide, human rights, labor rights, Global Warming and the need to deal with energy issues on a much broader basis. And certainly things are going on in parts of the world we don't know very well, but part of the problem is that there are too many people in our current administration (and Congress, for that matter) who don't want to know what's going on in the world, let alone learn, for example, what the difference is between Sunnis and Shiites. In the end, the problem is that the American people elected an incompetent marketing executive for president and a paranoid lever puller for vice president. We need competent people in this era who are driven more by pragmatism than ideology. We stayed out of trouble during the Cold War because by and large we did have competent people.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

I couldn't agree with your conclusion more, but I also agree with Gates' point. He may have had in mind something I've written about several times.

During the Cold War, despite the repeatedly cited specter of communism as monolithic and an omnipresent international conspiracy, the main joust was between nations and blocs.

The thing about nations and blocs is that you can set up a deterrent and mount retaliatory attacks against them.

Our so-called war on international terrorism lacks these features. Terrorists are being born, bred, indoctrinated, trained and sent forth to kill from several of our alleged close allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan being primary examples.

Our real good pals the Saudis were OK with us locating the fabulous and fabulously isolated and expensive Prince Sultan Air Base, so convenient for training the Saudi Air Force, in the middle of their desert. But when it came time to invade Iraq, they wouldn't let us fly troops in from there or launch air attacks from there. In other words, the damned big, expensive base was rendered useless when needed most.

We know Saudis are still funding charities that funnel money to terrorists. We know Saudis are jihadist volunteers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know Saudi madrassahs are still doing what they do.

In Pakistan, you've got al Qaeda operating openly and with impunity, launching attacks into Afghanistan.

In both countries, the central governments will do little about terrorists in their midst. And the U.S. won't invade its allies, especially since one has nukes and the other has oil.

So, our inability and unwillingness to get terrorists at their source inside nominally friendly countries makes for a much less neat and tidy set of problems.

Another thing that might've figured in Gates' thinking is how we've got this big, expensive, conventionally trained and organized military, but need something different to be most effective against terrorists. Yet, we still need a big, conventional military capability.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., you make some good points, particularly in the last paragraph, and I certainly don't want to minimize the real danger of terrorism, but I would make two points. A lot of small scale stuff happened during the Cold War that wasn't that different from terrorism and it took work, short of proxy wars, to check that stuff. Some of the stuff during the Cold War was even largely beyond our reach. A few years ago, I read a fascinating account of Chinese communists and Chinese nationalists operating in India of all places and battling each other and other groups.

When we could do things, it took smart people in the State Department, the national security people, sometimes our allies, on occassion the CIA when the smarter, non-cowboys were operating it and others to do things that did not require retaliatory attacks; or if they did, everyone was working overtime to make sure the retaliatory attack didn't spill over into something bigger.

As for the Saudis, that admittedly is a convoluted relationship just as our relationship with Israel is sometimes convuluted, though in different ways. Some of the top Saudis warned us that invading Iraq had the potential of opening Pandora's Box; they were not in favor of Bush's war and their warning have proven to be largely right. And yet, one of Bush's closest friends is Prince Bandar, the former ambassador to the US. If Bandar says boo, Bush too often backs off. Both the Bush Administration and the Saudis play the same rich boy's game: they try to have their cake and eat it too. And Bush is not particularly good at the game despite the fact that, at least five years ago, he held the best cards.

I suspect very soon we're going to see some good books explaining how Bush lost the leverage he had in 2002 by pushing for war in Iraq. We have gained absolutely nothing by invading Iraq. If we had properly finished the job in Afghanistan, we would have maintained, I believe, enormous leverage in the use of soft power without automatically resorting to lame retaliatory strikes (I still cringe when I think of the Rumsfeldian missile strike in Pakistan that missed our target but killed some 20 men, women and children; lame missile strikes like that merely motivate people to join al Qaida or the Taliban or some insurgency). If we had stayed out of Iraq, it's possible we could not have avoided small and focused retaliatory attacks here or there, but we also can't underestimate what the State Department might have accomplished if it had been operating on all cylinders with the support of a competent president and without efforts by a vice president and his people to undermine diplomacy or back channel activity to deal with various issues. For five years, we've been fighting terrorism absent some very powerful nonmilitary tools.

6:28 PM  

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