Cold Assumptions

Supporters of the Bush administration’s approach to what is sometimes grandly (or grandiosely) called the Global War on Terror (GWOT), if accounts of some intra-administration discussions are accurate, have sometimes been fond of asserting that the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Critics of aspects of the attack on Iraq are sometimes derided as having a "pre-9/11 mentality," of entertaining the delusion that we can return to that brief interlude after the collapse of communism when some were convinced that serious conflicts, let alone a "clash of civilizations," were a thing of the past, that the triumph of liberal democracy had brought on the "end of history."

A strong case can be made, however, that it is the Bushies and their allies who are unwilling to acknowledge differences between the current conflict and previous conflicts in American history. This is perhaps not surprising. It may be too facile to say that generals (and politicians and "military intellectuals") are doomed to be always preparing for the last war. But as fallible human beings we are creatures of our experience and our particular histories (whether our understanding of them is accurate or nuanced or not). It would be surprising if our understanding of our past, with varying degrees of conscious awareness, did not provide models, or at least influences on our thinking, about how to approach the challenges of the present.

Many critics of the war look to Vietnam as a model that suggests the war in Iraq is unlikely to end well for the United States. Supporters of the war tend to see the Cold War, or in some cases World War II against the Nazis, as helpful models when thinking about what they see as another long-term struggle with a totalitarian ideology that will require a long-term dedication and commitment.

The View From the Top

I had occasion to cover President Bush’s talk this week in Irvine, Calif. It was the first time I have been in the same room with him since 1999. Most of the news coverage of the speech focused on his remarks about immigration, that being the hot topic of the moment, and one on which his characteristic stubbornness puts him at odds with much of his natural base on the right flank of his party. But the first half of the talk – it wasn’t a formal speech but a more casual theater-in-the-round near-chat, something he actually did rather well – was about Iraq and the war on terror.

I don’t know whether anybody in the country is really listening to the president, in the sense of taking him seriously as a source of information or inspiration, these days. He has become rather adept at sounding reasonable about acknowledging in a general sense that mistakes might well have been made – he said (I’m paraphrasing here, but I took pretty good notes) every war plan is perfect until it confronts the enemy – without fessing up to any specific mistakes. Thus he strives to create the impression of being flexible and in touch with reality without "giving in" to the idea that any serious changes in stategery or plans need to be considered.

What brought this impression home was an answer to a question – they came from the 350 or so members of the Orange County Business Council who attended, not from the assembled journalists, who were there to run cameras and/or take notes – as to whether, knowing all that he knows now, he would have made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Consider some of the implications of that question from a certain perspective. We now know – and presumably the president, at some level of consciousness or another, knows it too – that there was no operational connection between Saddam and 9/11 and no working relationship with al-Qaeda, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that our invasion sparked an insurgency that may tear the country apart, that we had no real plans for an occupation even though the State Department and other agencies had fairly detailed ones on the shelf, and that the invasion has increased the influence of Iran in the region and is providing a training ground for jihadists who are already filtering back to their home countries "blooded" and battle-tested. Disappointment with the results in Iraq has been a major factor in undermining Bush’s credibility, giving the president some of the lowest approval and highest disapproval ratings in modern history, making him a lame duck less than halfway into his second term. Do you think all that might give one pause as to whether the decision was a good one or not?

The president offered a bit of boilerplate about how it’s always necessary to exhaust every diplomatic option first "and we did," before saying without hesitation that he would commit those troops again even knowing how it would work out. (This is when he made the remark about every war plan being perfect until it meets the enemy.) He averred that he let Tommy Franks call the shots about the number of troops, and that because they both grew up in west Texas they had the kind of bond where Tommy would have challenged him without hesitation if he disagreed rather than be intimidated by the presidency.

We just didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s a shame things have happened that give the media a chance to undermine me, but trust me, things will work out fine in the end.

Outdated Models

I suspect one of the reasons Bush can be so cavalier about an adventure some retired generals are calling the most egregious blunder in our history is that at some level he is viewing the war on terror through Cold War and World War II lenses, somewhat pink-tinted and romanticized by the fact that he was neither a participant in nor a close student of either event. The Center for International Studies at MIT is conducting a series called "Audits of the Conventional Wisdom." A recent paper in that series [.pdf] by John Tirman starts this way:

"Since the autumn of 2001, following the shocking attacks of September 11, President Bush and his advisers have repeatedly likened the war against terrorism to the confrontation with Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the long struggle with Soviet communism in the Cold War. But the current anti-terrorist campaign and the related war in Iraq are significantly different from those earlier contests."

The president and his supporters, beginning with Vice President Cheney, who talked early on about a conflict that could last for decades – convenient for somebody who for decades has longed to restore prerogatives and power to the presidency, which is always easier if you can convince people the country needs to be on a war footing – have invoked the Cold War either as a model for the current conflict or as an admonition to be persistent and never "let our guard down."

As Tirman notes, however,

"The Cold War was a great power contest that had many dimensions. There were wars, vast alliances, and institutions for managing the conflict – indeed, it was a highly formalized affair, with mechanisms, treaties, ambassadors, and so on, specifically dedicated to defusing potential conflict. It was, most important, an interstate competition. The states could and did speak with each other, negotiate with each other, trade with each other, sustain cultural and educational exchanges, and the like, for decades."

Tirman maintains that "The Cold War was ended by engagement, rather than ‘destroying the threat,’ and that is a powerful lesson." I might quibble here, suggesting that it was ended more by the internal contradictions and manifest failures of the communist system more than anything the West did, whether of a confrontational or engagement-oriented nature. But this may be a moot point in that if you look closely, there is almost nothing about the Cold War that resembles the current threat from al-Qaeda and the broader phenomenon of jihadism, so drawing any lessons from the Cold War is a dicey business.

Not Like the Soviets

Tirman is straightforward on this point:

"The threat from al-Qaeda and similar groups is wholly different from the menace of the Soviet Union. The latter, despite chronic weaknesses, had thousands of nuclear weapons, enormous conventional forces, and many allies. Al-Qaeda is nothing like a state. Its ideology is largely a cry against alleged Western mistreatment, rather than a successor system rooted in European philosophy (as were communism and fascism). Since the spectacular attacks of 9/11, al-Qaeda has provoked little actual violence in the West. The London and Madrid bombings, small in scale, were the work of local, self-styled malcontents."

Law enforcement, intelligence operations, and efforts to cut off financial resources have probably had an effect on al-Qaeda. The war in Afghanistan probably damaged the organization (insofar as it is an organization). But none of these activities bear much resemblance to the strategies employed during the Cold War.

Iraq might resemble Vietnam in some ways (though there are differences). One of the things the determination on the part of the coterie determined to invade Iraq might well demonstrate, however, is an inability or refusal to come to grips with the nature of the stateless terrorist organization, resembling to some extent, as some experts have noted, a multinational corporation more than a state and organizing through cyberspace rather than in more conventional ways, that probably pulled off 9/11. Far more comfortable to revert to older, more familiar models and engage in state-to-state military combat, whether or not it did anything to defuse or harm al-Qaeda (much of the evidence is that it has helped the jihadists rather than hurt them) rather than to take a fresh look at how the world had really changed.

However you may feel about the GWOT or how to cope with the genuine threat posed by jihadists – I think one solid approach would be to begin a massive military disengagement, bringing troops home and closing bases around the world, thus eliminating a source of resentment, serious vulnerabilities, and unnecessary costs for American taxpayers – it is important to acknowledge that this isn’t World War II, it isn’t the Cold War, and it isn’t the war in Vietnam. When you hear national leaders invoking those past models, it’s a pretty sure bet that they are fighting the last war rather than the current one, and are setting the stage for failure.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).