Interesting Times: A war too long

For the Cold War to provide a practical lesson, we must also acknowledge its fundamental failure.

September 11, 2007 17:04
4 minute read.
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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In a long discourse in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani laid out his strategy for what he called "the long war that lies ahead." That he and his Republican colleagues freely call it a war is itself significant, given that their Democratic opponents are, at best, reluctant to do so. The West is at war, but should it be regarded as a "long" one? Among those who call it a war, the idea that it's a long one has become commonplace. In 2004 President George Bush, referring to the current conflict, used John F. Kennedy's famous description of the Cold War as a "long twilight struggle." Calling a war "long" is essentially a plea for patience and extended sacrifice - qualities that democracies are famously short of, particularly in the eyes of their enemies. The sixth anniversary of 9/11, combined with the war in Iraq alone continuing longer than World War II, reinforce the assumption that we have entered a new, semi-permanent state that could extend for another generation. Yet the analogy to the Cold War, as useful as it may be for accentuating the magnitude of the stakes, is also harmful. The Cold War is usually considered a positive model, since the democracies did indeed persevere and, in the end, decisively won. But for it to provide a practical lesson for the current predicament, we must also acknowledge a fundamental failure: that war could have ended much earlier had the US aimed to win it. THE STRATEGY of the Cold War, after all, was explicitly, starting in the Truman era, based on "containment." This was considered a relatively robust posture, since it implied confronting Soviet aggression rather than simply accepting its results. But it was much less ambitious than the notions of "rollback" and "regime change" that Ronald Reagan brought to the fore in the 1980s, which ultimately tipped the balance toward Western victory. In practice, Western policy during most of the Cold War was a compromise between two beliefs: that the conflict was based on negotiable misunderstandings, and that the Soviets must be resisted and defeated. Had the latter approach become dominant earlier, the Soviet collapse would presumably have occurred earlier, thereby hastening the freeing of millions of people and even preventing the tremendous suffering caused by proxy conflicts in the '60s and '70s, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Angola to Nicaragua. So the Cold War is not an unalloyed example of victory through perseverance, but of a war tragically and unnecessarily extended by Western ambivalence, by a stubborn refusal to recognize its essence and, most of all, by a reluctance to think in terms of victory. Worse, history seems to be repeating itself. Giuliani seems to have tentatively learned this lesson in his first of three challenges: "to set a course for victory in the terrorists' war on the global order." But even this statement avoids naming the enemy. His other two prescriptions - "strengthen the international system" and "extend the benefits of the international system in an ever-widening arc of security and stability across the globe" - while pointed in the right direction, are much too vague. Fighting the war against Islamofascism in the haphazard, incoherent and leisurely fashion in which the Cold War was "fought" would be disastrous. In the end, the Soviets collapsed despite the fecklessness of the West's efforts. While Islamofascism might be similarly fragile, we cannot rely on its falling of its own weight - certainly not before it becomes much stronger and kills many more people. So let's be specific: * The war against Islamofascism can and must be won. * Its first goal must be to drive all rogue regimes either out of power or out of the nuke/terror business. * The international order envisioned by the UN Charter must be revived for this purpose, ideally as the means to winning the war, but if not, then as the product of such a victory. The UN Charter, designed as the vehicle for free nations to take collective action against aggressors, was gutted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR managed not only to block the exercise of such action with its veto, but to deprive the very concepts of aggression and self-defense of their meaning. In a world in which "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" and aggression is not committed by invading armies but by the "plausibly deniable" use of proxy forces, the Charter became a dead letter. THE FIRST thing the West should have done after the Berlin Wall fell was to rectify this distortion. This could have been done by imposing UN sanctions on all governments that supported terrorism, and by imposing trade and diplomatic costs on Russia and China if they refused to support the use of the Charter according to its original design and plain meaning. The 9/11 attacks should have transformed such an agenda into an urgent imperative. Bush set off in this direction when he challenged the UN to either step up or get out of the way, but outside the Iraq war context, he never campaigned for reviving the Charter per se. Even with respect to Iran, rightly branded by the US as the world's foremost terrorist state, the UN-based sanctions campaign has been almost completely linked to the nuclear issue, with only a secondary mention of Iranian support for Hizbullah - and not even that, amazingly, regarding Teheran's backing of terrorism in Iraq. We don't know in what state Bush will leave the critical Iranian file for the next US president. What we do know is that he has not succeeded in putting forward a comprehensive vision for defeating Islamofascism and creating an international order that will help prevent such totalitarian threats from arising again in the future. Giuliani has made a stab in the right direction, but much remains for him, candidates of both parties, and other world leaders to do.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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