The Continuing Myth of a "Cold" War
Peter Beinart gets a little right and a lot wrong in his latest op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.
On the right, "World War IV" has become one of the most popular ways to describe America's conflict with the practitioners of violent jihad. It started with Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, who insisted just two months after 9/11 that we should call our new war by this "less palatable but more accurate name." After that, the term was picked up by Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary who is now an advisor to Rudolph W. Giuliani -- and who has made it the title of a recent book. Along the way it has entered the vocabulary of such conservative commentators as William Bennett, Michael Ledeen, R. James Woolsey and Larry Kudlow. Don't be surprised if a Republican presidential candidate uses it one of these days.
The funny thing, of course, is that the neocon right are here more aligned with Osama bin Laden than with sanity. They want it to be a world war, and so does he. That's the little secret about the "War on Terror." Bin Laden was just a sinister, hateful bigot who pulled off a spectacular mass murder, but when Bush responded by declaring it a "war," he elevated bin Laden, putting him on the level with the most powerful nation in the world. He was no longer just a criminal, he was engaged in a grand struggle to bring down an empire. It was a crusade. It was the propaganda coup of bin Laden's wildest dreams. When Bush then went ahead and invaded a country that had nothing to do with bin Laden's attacks, but whose citizens were mainly of the same very broad religious faith, bin Laden must have believed his prayers had been answered. It's little wonder that he's continually showed up on videotape, just when Bush needs a little spike in popular support. Bin Laden loves Bush; and the crazed neocons who provide the pseudo-intellectual irrationale for Bush's depredations love bin Laden. There is no great conspiracy, here, there is a mirroring psychosis.
The shift from the "war on terror" to "World War IV" may seem semantic, but in subtle ways it fundamentally recasts not only the conflict we're in today but the one we fought for almost 50 years against the Soviet Union. To believe the United States is fighting World War IV, after all, you have to believe that during the second half of the last century, we fought World War III.
Exactly right, and there are myriad reasons why the neocons want to remember the "Cold" War as a world war. More than anything, it makes them feel important. Pripaic posturing is an under-appreciated aspect of their entire ideology.
But did we? The truth is that the United States didn't fight World War III; we fought a "Cold War," which was the exact opposite. The whole reason Walter Lippmann invented the term in 1947 was to describe a state of geopolitical hostility that didn't include military conflict: That's what made it cold.
And while he's right that we didn't fight World War III, he's wrong about our having fought a "Cold" War. The term is so acceptably banal that we never even bother to consider it.
To be sure, each side aided local proxies, sometimes even sending in its own troops (as the U.S. and China did in Korea, and the Soviets did in Afghanistan). But unlike during World War I and World War II, Europe's industrial heartland remained at peace, regional wars never became globalized and American and Soviet troops never fought one another in any significant way.
In fact, every hot war around the globe that was rationalized as being fought against communism or capitalism was an atrocity of the supposed "Cold" War. So was each brutal dictatorship, anywhere around the globe, that could not have existed but for the support of either of the "Cold" War antagonists. That Europe's industrial heartland remained at peace meant little to those suppressed in Central and Eastern Europe. That U.S. and Soviet troops "never fought one another in any signficant way" was of little comfort to those in the firing lines of Indochina or Latin America or Africa or the Middle East.
The arrogance, insensitivity, and cultural myopia of the term "Cold War" is astonishing, and it ought to be forever banished from respectable usage. It wasn't World War III, but neither was it a "Cold" War. If anything, it was most reminiscent of the "Great Game," between the British and Russian Empires of the Nineteenth Century. Except that it was on a larger, and much bloodier, scale. But it was a war of empire, and just because the West prevailed, no one should pretend that a moral superiority was thereby conferred. Just because the Soviet Union was clearly terrible, that does not mean that the West was great. It wasn't a world war, because much of the world suffered from it rather than willingly engaging in it. But it was as hot as wars get.
There's an old Doonesbury strip, from the 1970s, wherein the Vietnamese character Phred takes a post-war vacation to Cambodia. Talking to the curator of a demolished museum, he asks if it had been destroyed during the "Secret Bombings." The man replies:
Secret bombings? Boy, there wasn't anything secret about them! Everyone here knew! I did, and my wife, she knew, too! She was with me, and I remarked on them!
I said "Look, Martha, here come the bombs.
His wife turns to Phred and says:
It's true, he did.
The only thing cold about the "Cold" War is the continued callous indifference to its horrifying consequences by the people of the nations who created and perpetuated it. We're supposed to be proud of ourselves because we and the Soviet Union never blew each other off the map. That's an awfully low standard for things in which we should take pride.