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Volume III, Number 12: 30 March 2003

Three Lessons for America

Tim Francis-Wright

When Bush administration officials talk about extending regime change to Teheran and Damascus, they are not just celebrating prematurely about victory in Baghdad. They also are showing that they have learned little to nothing from fifty years of post-war relations with the Soviet Union. The Cold War has three lessons to teach Americans who are willing to learn.

The first lesson of the Cold War is that some wars are best left unfought. Starting with the Truman administration, every American president and both major political parties saw the Soviet Union as the primary adversary for the United States. Only the United States and the Soviet Union had the military strength and flexibility to blunt each other's military. Furthermore, the prevalent ideologies in the two countries were antithetical. Soviet-style Communism was as inimical to the American polity as politics gets.

Despite the potential danger that American administrations saw in the Soviet Union, no American president dared go to war against it. Harry Truman did not threaten Soviet leaders with annihilation if they pursued weapons of mass destruction. Dwight Eisenhower held back when the Soviet Union put down a rebellion in Hungary. John Kennedy opted not to escalate the Cuban missile crisis into all-out war. Even Ronald Reagan found the very accurate Pershing II missiles more useful as bargaining chips for an arms control treaty than as actual instruments of war. Every American president since 1945 nonetheless found other ways to battle against the Soviet Union. The United States supplied its allies in Asia, South America, and Africa with military and economic aid to counter or preempt Soviet actions. American fear of Communism escalated conflicts in Korea and Vietnam into two of the largest wars of the century.

The second lesson of the Cold War is one that Americans do not want to learn. Whether the money spent and lives sacrificed in the name of fighting Communism were worthwhile is not at all clear. Fighting the Cold War the way it was fought might have hurt more than it helped.

Politics is not an exact science: nobody can prove what forces caused any political event. But one certainly cannot attribute the collapse of the Communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 to any one reason. Did the trillions of dollars spent by the United States in the fight against Communism between 1945 and 1989 cause the fall of the Berlin Wall—or did the success of democratic Western Europe, especially relative to repressed Eastern Europe, provide most of the impetus? Did tens of thousands of nuclear weapons cow the Soviet Union into submission—or did the United States simply have more capacity for the cost, the economic and environmental cost, of a nuclear weapons state—or did the Cold War legitimize the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact long after they would otherwise have fallen?

The third lesson of the Cold War is that ideology can blind its practitioners. During the Cold War, the United States justified all sorts of actions through its fear of Communism. So many of the dictators that American presidents supported, aided, or propped up were nothing more than convenient alternatives to left-wingers of all stripes. It did not matter if the left wing in question had more in common with Eugene Debs or Mikhail Bakunin than with Josef Stalin: the left and the Soviet Union were one and the same.

In Angola, the United States at one point or another supported all three sides in a civil war, almost wholly dependent on which groups the Soviet Union was supporting. In the end, the United States found itself supporting a puppet of the racists who ran South Africa at the time. In Chile, the Nixon administration effectively replaced Salvador Allende, an elected and democratic leader, with a military dictatorship. In Nicaragua, the United States was so afraid of the Sandinistas who had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship that it knowingly mined Managua Harbor in violation of international law. Anti-Communist dictators in El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, the Philippines, South Korea, and Zaire all depended on the United States, the purported bulwark of democracy. Our fear of Communism even led the United States and its allies to recognize the prodigiously murderous and downright chthonic Khmer Rouge as the lawful government of Cambodia after Vietnam deposed Pol Pot in 1979.

The United States no longer sees Communists as its main adversaries. Most of the seemingly formidable Warsaw Pact now consists of multiparty democracies. The only formidable potential adversary for the United States that is nominally Communist is mainland China, that curious amalgam of authoritarian oppression and market economics. (Leftists can take some comfort that they generally supported detente with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, when it was a very unpopular thing to espouse. Liberals caught on in the 1970s. Conservatives never caught on, maintaining to the end that "market forces" in China would bring about reform.) Instead, the specter of Islamic states has the Bush administration worried. In press reports, Donald Rumsfeld and other officials have threatened Syrian and Iran with dire consequences if they fail to keep out of the conflict in Iraq. Other officials have indicated, both off and on the record, that Libya, Syria, and Iraq are among the next candidates for "regime change" after Iraq.

The Bush administration is ignoring all three of the lessons described earlier. First, regime change is very likely to be unnecessary if the goal of the United States is to make the world safe for democracy. Let us assume that Islamic states like Iran pose a real and chronic threat to the United States and its allies, a threat equal to that of the Soviet Union in its heyday. Despite the imposing nature and widespread influence of the Soviet Union, the United States managed to win the Cold War without forcing regime change in either the Soviet Union or any member of the Warsaw Pact.

Second, gearing up for war against countries like Iran may be counterproductive. The Cold War should have taught Americans that lives and money could be wasted, even for causes that appear noble at the time. An administration that sincerely wants to stop terrorism also needs to discern what is motivating the terrorists. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein could provide justification for the sorts of terrorist acts that the Bush administration claims to be preventing through its foreign policy. But actions that would be moderating and pacifying, such as real and public efforts for peace in Israel and Palestine, are not on the Bush agenda.

Third, foreign policy based on one imperative is often bad foreign policy. The world has already seen an early version of anti-Islamic foreign policy—in Iraq from 1979 to 1989. The Carter administration supported Saddam Hussein because he was at once anti-Communist and anti-Islamic. The Reagan administration continued the pro-Saddam tilt, even to comic extremes. When Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the United States condemned the action, even though it worried that Iraq wanted to use the reactor to help build nuclear weapons. The United States even supplied Saddam Hussein with materials that could be used for biological and chemical weapons during the mid-1980s, because the war with Iran was not going particularly well. That Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator was less important than he was a counterweight to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Curiously enough, during the same period, the Reagan administration was supporting radical Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, anti-Communism trumped the worry about Islamic governments. In Afghanistan, Islamic rebels were the primary resistance against the leftist government and the Soviet troops that propped it up. Pakistan was the country that aided and abetted those rebels. One of the saddest and most chronic charades in Washington in the 1980s was the annual ritual of a mendacious certification from the Reagan White House that Pakistan lacked nuclear weapons and was therefore still eligible for huge amounts of American military aid. Once the Soviets left Afghanistan, the war was all but over and the certifications ended.

The United States and its allies won the Cold War in spite of many missteps and dubious decisions. More important than winning the Cold War was avoiding an actual war with the Soviet Union, a war that would have literally decimated humanity. The Bush administration, in its zeal to mold the world to its own design, is losing sight of what its predecessors both did wrong and did right.