The Good, Bad Old Days: Bring Back Cold War Mideast Strategy

Cold War nostalgia is all the rage these days. The Democratic Party, well at least the MSNBC wing, seems intent on a full tilt replay of the standoff with nuclear-armed Russia. In their bizarre fantasy, Putin is the new Stalin, Trump is apparently a legit Manchurian candidate, and – in a revival of an old-fashioned McCarthyist Red Scare – Tulsi Gabbard rates as Ethel Rosenberg. Up is down, black is white, and, as always, the empire rolls along.

The U.S. Army, of course, is 100% on board with the Throwback Thursday Cold War remake. Deploying troops to the "forward edge of (NATO) freedom," which just happens to be right up against the Russian border – essentially booze-fueled boondoggles for the soldiers involved – is what America’s Army does best. Training for wars that shouldn’t be fought, won’t be fought (until they…oops…are), is right in the army’s wheelhouse. It sure beats waging indecisive, high-casualty, counterinsurgency operations in the desert, after all.

It’s odd though, I recently got to thinking, that neither the Democrats nor the Pentagon seem aware of the "good" – dare, I say – side of the Cold War. Both appear intent on conjuring up only the ugliest parts of that humanity-on-the-edge-of-extinction era of old: fear-mongering, alarmism, and militarist provocation. What they aren’t ready to bring back is the practical – if admittedly callous – side of Cold War classic. Specifically, containment. The dirty secret, though, (as a self-styled humanist) it pains me to admit it, is that containment, Realpolitik, often works. It sure ain’t pretty, but it’s way better than the current alternative: endless, inconclusive, shooting wars from West Africa to South Asia.

So, call me desperate and cynical, but I’ve got a modest proposal (my apologies, Jonathan Swift): bring back Cold War strategy, at least in the Greater Middle East. I know, I know, containment was cynical, and often involved varying degrees of brinksmanship and cozying up to assorted dictators. In a perfect world, we’d all grasp hands and sing Kumbaya. It’s just that I’m an American, a veteran, and it’s 2019. This country has been at war (without a single victory to speak of) for over 18 years now – that’s a Civil War, two World Wars, and a Vietnam combined, for those still bothering to count. The thing is, at this point I am desperate. So eager am I to end these republic-destroying wars that I’ve at times defended Trump’s rhetoric (if not his actions) and even toyed with the notion of reinstating the draft. This are is the world we live in, folks.

Hear me out, though. Remember August 2001? I do. I’m just barely old enough to remember that pre-9/11 relic of a Cold War strategy-induced world. See, this author had just finished up cadet basic training – "Beast barracks" – at West Point, and, amazingly though it now seems, hadn’t the faintest expectation that endless combat in the Mideast awaited me. "Peace-keeping" in Bosnia or Kosovo, or wherever? Sure. Craft beer and pretty, foreign women in Germany? Hopefully. But war, real war, especially in the Arab World? No way!

See, in 2001, America had Iraq in a box – crippled by children-killing sanctions, of course – hemmed in and unable to make any mischief. Only here’s the brilliant bit: even though Saddam Hussein was portrayed as a useful villain-in-chief, Washington kept him in power in Iraq as an attrited, but useful foil to Iranian aspirations in the region. Oh, and Islamist insurgencies or – even worse – jihadi controlled territory? Unheard of. Other than in Afghanistan, that is, but heck, those were our Islamists, and they mostly kept their medieval shenanigans within their own landlocked backwater of a country. Assad, Mubarak, Ghadafi, Saudi kings, yea, we backed them or at least tolerated them. It wasn’t pretty, sure, but it squelched transnational jihadi terrorism. And American soldiers didn’t even have to die to make it so.

Look, I’m not all that naive. Cold War calculus wasn’t exactly humane, and it even set the stage for later catastrophes. Backing strongmen, literally erasing the Palestinian people, and maintaining a plethora of bases for soldiers and fleets in the region, was hardly the best case scenario. Alternatives existed, they always do, and America could’ve, should’ve, done better. But let me reiterate: it’s now 2019, the empire is stretched to its breaking point, and the nation’s leaders don’t even know how many countries we’re bombing or have deployed troops in harm’s way in. So, call me crazy, but I’ll trade 7,000 needlessly dead American soldiers (eight of my own), $5.9 trillion wasted, and – by a conservative estimate – some 250,000 civilian fatalities, for some good, old-fashioned, Realpolitik.

In our insane collective moment, this author – a once budding neocon turned progressive (of sorts) – has already called for a draft, desperately placed his hopes in Trumpian antiwar rhetoric, and now even pines for the good, bad old days, of Cold War transactional foreign policy. I’m not proud of it, mind you. Then again, I spent my entire adult life tramping the dusty alleys of Baghdad, and the valleys of Kandahar, for no reason whatsoever. So I’m going to request a pass on this one. Bring back Cold War cynicism. And bring our troops home too…

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen