January 4, 2010


Cheney Was Right: Obama isn’t at war with jihadist terrorism—and that’s a good thing. (Peter Beinart, 1/04/10, Daily Beast)

[T]hey missed the larger point, which is that while America is obviously at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it isn’t actually at war with jihadist terrorism. Rather than proving Cheney wrong, the White House should have done something more audacious: Prove him right.

To understand why America is not at war with jihadist terrorism, it helps to start by defining “war.” At its most basic, war is a state of military conflict between nations or other organized groups. But not every struggle that involves some military conflict is a war. Consider the Cold War. From the late 1940s through the late 1980s, the U.S. and the USSR tried to destroy each other’s economic and political systems. They killed millions in proxy wars. Occasionally, American and Soviet soldiers even shot directly at each other. But “Cold War” was an oxymoron: The Cold War wasn’t really a war because the struggle was not primarily military. That was the fundamental insight underlying George Kennan’s strategy of containment. Kennan recognized that the best way to defeat the Kremlin was to limit armed confrontation and instead leverage America’s economic and ideological power. America didn’t need to destroy the Red Army, he argued, because if it convinced the world that the U.S. and its allies offered a more dynamic and humane economic and political system, Soviet power would eventually crumble from within.

It requires an astonishing lack of historical vision to welcome the prospect of turning the war against Islamicism into another Cold War, Reagan's Triumph: a review of The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory, by Derek Leebaert (Steven F. Hayward, Winter 2002, Claremont Review of Books)
The Fifty-Year Wound can be considered a revisionist work, though unlike any revisionism seen before. Some of the nouns in the book's title ("wound," "true price") are misleading, and help explain the confused reception of the book among some conservatives. All wars, even victorious ones, have enormous costs, and not merely in treasure, as the greatest writers on war from Thucydides through Churchill have understood. The atmosphere of crisis that accompanied the Cold War contributed to, among other things, the heightened politicization of American society. War necessarily involves lots of waste, and leading the West involved diverting billions of dollars to less productive enterprises at home and to dubious enterprises abroad. We often supported squalid Third World tyrants and kleptocrats in order to ward off Soviet advances on the West's periphery, but much of our money ended up in the thugs' private Swiss accounts. Among the lasting encumbrances of our Cold War intimacy with Europe is that today our freedom of action is constrained, whether with regard to Middle Eastern policy or climate change policy.

Part of the Cold War's ferocity and peril was that as it progressed it became a two-front war. The Cold War abroad was matched by the Cold War at home; the phenomenon of anti-anti-Communism arose among liberals who had soured on the justice of the Free World's cause. While the Cold War was ongoing, conservatives and other Cold Warriors were understandably reluctant to acknowledge the costs of the struggle, because doing so lent aid and comfort to the anti-anti-Communists. And now that the conflict is over, the justifiable sense of triumph among those who stayed the course leads them to be disinclined to dwell on their mistakes.

Leebaert negotiates these treacherous crosscurrents with near-perfect pitch and refreshing honesty. Beyond just the direct aspects of the Cold War such as diplomacy and military power, Leebaert captures the cultural changes the conflict wrought. Yet Leebaert never indulges any of the fantasies of the revisionist Left or libertarian Right. To the contrary, he devastates the cliché that the U.S. embraced the Cold War in order to establish a militaristic national security state or to become a self-conscious imperial power. Above all, he never questions the necessity of the overall conflict, or expresses any doubt that the Soviet Union was the evil empire that Reagan understood it to be. In fact, near the end of the book, Leebaert is indignant that the Soviet Union isn't regarded as just as evil as Nazi Germany. The Fifty-Year Wound is patriotic throughout, realistic ("It would have taken an entirely different United States to have accomplished the task without the usual pork barrels, bureaucratic archaism, and vagaries"), and rejoices that our side won.

The Cold War had a beginning, middle, and end, and, like any epic, is best understood by contemplating the character and actions of its leading figures. Leebaert's character sketches are the strongest part of this muscular book. His highest praise is reserved for Eisenhower and Reagan. George Kennan receives the most damning evaluation, and deservedly so. "Kennan's long career," Leebaert writes, "has come to personify many of the more taxing habits of America's international behavior: intensely emotional, backward-looking, dismissive of the details of economics and technology, often racist, and occasionally 'reckless' and riddled with 'impulsiveness.'"

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 4, 2010 6:49 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus