Sunday, May 20, 2007

The new Cold War

In 1941, the United States entered the war against Nazi Germany, in alliance with the Soviet Union. That alliance--and only that alliance--allowed us to win the European war in three and a half years and made an important contribution to the victory over Japan, even though the Soviets only entered that war at the last minute. We expected that war to create a lasting peace, but as a few prescient observers like George Kennan had predicted, the Soviets immediately emerged as postwar rivals. Helped by the chaos the war had created and the advances of Soviet armies, Communism made huge gains in Eastern Europe, in China, and elsewhere. Thus began a 45-year worldwide struggle for influence and power, fought with various degrees of skill and judgment by American Presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush. It ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the seeds of the next great conflict had been planted. In the Middle Eastern theater of the Cold War the United States gradually developed three major allies: Iran (after 1953), Israel (after about 1960), and Egypt (after 1975 or so.) But especially after 1967, our support for the Israelis made both the US and the governments it supported increasingly unpopular. The Shah fell in 1979, and Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Hosni Mubarak never regained the leadership of the Arab world that his predecessors Nasser and (briefly) Sadat had enjoyed. In another portentous development, the Soviets in 1979 (a truly pivotal year) invaded Afghanistan, and the United States began supporting Islamic militants based in Pakistan against them. (Several years ago a young foreign service officer asked me about the wisdom of that decision. "Are you implying that the world might be a better place if had let it alone?" I asked. "It crossed my mind," he replied.) That led to a new era in American-Pakistani relations. Then, in the late 1990s, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, while Al Queda emerged as a significant force. Then came September 11.

After September 11, it seems to me, the United States made several critical mistakes. The first was its failure to realize how unpopular we had become in the preceding 35 years. There was no reservoir of good will among Arab populations upon which to draw, and "democracy" in that region would produce regimes that were more anti-American, not less. The second was the failure to distinguish among our enemies and recognize the ways in which we could use the tensions among them. While Islamic terrorism was bound to grow in countries with relatively pro-US governments like Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, it was no threat in a totalitarian dictatorship like Ba'athist Iraq. But so determined was the Bush Administration to carry out pre-existing plans and to see the threat in conventional terms that it decided to strike a blow against Al Queda by taking out Saddam Hussein, one of the more counterproductive steps in modern history.

And lastly, we assumed, in essence, that because Pakistan would accept American money, Pakistan was our friend. Instead, stories in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times
this morning make it clear that even under Pervez Musharraf, the friendship is nominal, not real. The Pakistanis are not spending the billions we are providing them every year on operations against Al Queda. The Pakistani army on the border has actually lent direct fire support to Taliban guerrillas in battles against the new Afghan Army. And meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden is living safely in the border regions (which the Pakistani Army withdrew from last year), and supporting himself--a supreme irony--on money that Al-Queda in Mesopotamia raises in Iraq, partly by kidnapping and partly, I would guess, by siphoning off oil revenues and American aid that vanish once they have gone into Iraqi hands. Officially the Bush Administration insists that all is well, and that together Pakistani and US authorities are "ramping up" the fight against Al Queda. Unofficially Pakistan obviously wants the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan and has an loose alliance, or at least a non-aggression pact, with Al Queda.

The U.S. may have another reason for treating Musharraf like an ally. Americans have been quoted to the effect that we are in a position to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons if a crisis occurs. We are obviously not, however, in a position to impose a cooperative regime on Pakistan if a coup topples Musharraf, which is far from impossible. Thus, while any arrangement we have is reassuring, it is no lasting solution to anything.

Al Queda, in short, enjoys what amounts to a secure sanctuary and even what used to be called a nuclear umbrella. We are back in a cold war era. But let us not get carried away--the conflict is, and should remain, on a much smaller scale than the one with the Soviets. We have to give up the hopeless, disastrous fantasy of imposing friendly governments upon the region; but if we do, we can probably at least restrict terrorist influence by using the kind of realistic diplomacy in the region upon which Presidents from Truman to Carter tried to rely. And meanwhile, we can work on using much, much less oil.

Which brings me to another point I've been meaning to make: a statistic I heard from the author of a recent book on the oil industry. During the 1970s, when the GI generation still ran the country, the price of energy doubled. Our parents knew the value of a dollar and responded appropriately--we reduced per capita consumption by about 30%. In the last few years we have seen the price of energy double again. But Boomers run the country now, and we have not reduced consumption at all. To those who object to my characterization of my contemporaries, I offer this additional piece of evidence. Another revealing fact along these lines deals with Hillary Clinton's tenure as a board member of Wal-Mart in the late 1980s. Ms. Clinton, it turns out, was anxious to increase the number of women in upper management positions in the company and expressed concerns about environmental issues--but she had nothing at all to say about the way Wal-Mart treated its workers or where it got its products. That is the profile of an upper-middle class Boomer Democrat--some one who cares only about issues of direct interest to people like herself.

My recent burst of posts has an explanation. This Thursday I will leave for France for a vacation of about 16 days, one of which I am in dire need. There will be no posts from there. This has been a momentous year for me, and I expect to share some reflections on it eventually, either here or elsewhere. But right now it's time for a rest. See you all in mid-June.


Anonymous said...

dear David:

i enjoy reading your blog and just got done reading your "the new cold war" post

please comment on the following:

i am not a historian but it distress me that so many say the Cold War started when WWII ended

i am distressed 'cause i think the Cold War started when the US and it's allies sent troops in support of the monarchist White Russian Army and in opposition to the Bolsheviks

this was in 1917 and not 1945

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Je vous souhaite bon voyage! Reposez-vous!

gareth said...

hi people, im a junior historian finishing off my matric year( from south africa) i may nto be American or have many views on teh ColdWar but many know that in reality the 'talibans' where using tehre time, and making it possible that by starting conflicts in Africa they would be causing USA to open there defences to attack, for they would be trying to suppress teh conflict in africa, David might i enquire as to your opinion on my statement, my email address is i would appreciate an email with your response on my question: did teh talibans/ Al-Queda start inter-country conflicts in Africa to divert the attention of America so that America could be attacked ? and if you are able could you give some 'URL's of sites where i could learn about this?

thanx gareth.

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