Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cold War Legacy

Forget Leo Strauss. Meet Albert Wohlstetter, "a mathematician who became a RAND Corporation international-relations theorist in the 1950s and 60s."

Wohlstetter made his mark by arguing for a more aggressive nuclear strategy against the Soviet Union than "mutually assured destruction." MAD, which presumed that our nuclear capability would prevent the Soviets from launching a nuclear war against us, just as theirs would have the same impact in reverse, could only work if the two sides were rational. But the Soviet Union was too expansionist, as well as too evil, to be treated as a rational actor, in Wohlstetter's view. He also argued that increased technological capability would enable the United States to rely on precision bombing as a weapon of war, thereby enabling it to use force without the risk of losing large numbers of ground troops in intensive, land-based combat. Late in life, Wohlstetter became interested in the Middle East and the Arab world. "He and his students," Fukuyama writes, "played a critical role in translating a broad, general set of neoconservative ideas into specific foreign-policy preferences."

Three of Wohlstetter's students were instrumental in applying his principles to the situation in Iraq: Richard Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz, at the Department of Defense, and Zalmay Khalilzad, first an envoy to Afghanistan and now ambassador to Iraq. All three, along with William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and, for that matter, Fukuyama himself, signed a 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton, which viewed Iraq the same way foreign-policy hardliners had once viewed Communism; like America's previous enemy, they argued, Saddam Hussein was too irrational to be deterred by normal diplomatic means, and the only effective alternative was to remove him from power. In the wake of September 11, 2001, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney quickly bought into those neo-Wohlstetterian ideas. So did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who believed that the United States could win in Iraq without deploying vast numbers of troops.

It's axiomic that generals always go into battle with their heads full of the previous war, and the first few encounters in a new conflict do little more than shake out the old notions that no longer make sense. Oh, and kill thousands of young men. It took First Bull Run through Malvern Hill to begin to make the point to American generals on both sides that sending infantry charges against dug-in artillery was murder.

This time, though, the battlefield generals got it right. But the diplomats and statesmen were still in Cold War mode. There's an axiom for that, too. If a nation hits on a foreign policy plan that succeeds spectacularly, as Reagan's did against the Soviet Union in the '80s, that nation is doomed to continue trying to repeat that policy until it runs into a mistake that leaves it thoroughly discredited.