Monday, June 18, 2007

Cold War Warmed Over

[posted by Callimachus]

Interesting opinion piece by Andrew J. Bacevich, who generally falls into my personal "wrong-but-worth-reading" file. Here I find him less wrong than I usually do.

I've never been entirely persuaded by the short list of things we supposedly did wrong in Iraq that then caused all the trouble. Disbanding the Iraqi army, for instance, clearly caused a set of problems we were slow to address. But not disbanding it -- leaving the corrupt and incompetent brigades with their arms and their sadistic colonels in place amid the masses they had massacred a few months before -- would have led to another, and I suspect worse, set of problems.

Bacevich takes on another platitude: That the U.S. military is too small to meet current challenges. Here, though he never mentions the name, Bacevich agrees with Rumsfeld. He notes the way this issue has become a touchstone for reliability by the mainstream Democratic candidates trying to out-flank the GOP on defense:

Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama all promise, if elected, to expand our land forces. Clinton has declared it "past time to increase the end-strength of the Army and Marines." Edwards calls for a "substantial increase." Obama offers hard numbers: His program specifies the addition of 92,000 soldiers.

Bacevich takes a stick to this: "Any politician who thinks that the chief lesson to be drawn from the last five years is that we need more Americans toting rifles and carrying rucksacks has learned nothing." He says its the consequence of another failure of creative thinking: To see the current crisis in anything but "World War III" (or IV) terms.

This second consensus consists of two elements. According to the first element, the only way to win the so-called global war on terrorism, thereby precluding another 9/11, is to "fix" whatever ails the Islamic world. According to the second element, the United States possesses the wherewithal to effect just such a transformation. In essence, by employing American power, beginning with military power, to ameliorate the ills afflicting Islam, we will ensure our own safety.

I've had my own dalliance with the world war image, and certainly I've been enthusiastic for the transformative and elevating effects of freedom and popular control, as opposed to totalitarianism. But the depressing situation in Iraq and Afghanistan has me willing to look at alternative strategies.

Bacevich's prescription is another backwards-looker, however. Instead of World War II, this will be a new, multi-generational Cold War:

In fact, the great lesson of Iraq (further affirmed in Afghanistan) is that the umma — the Arabic name for the entire Muslim community — is all but impervious to change imposed from the outside. If anything, our ham-handed efforts to inculcate freedom and democracy, even if well-intentioned, have played into the hands of violent Islamic radicals. The Bush administration's strategy has exacerbated the problem it was designed to solve, while squandering American lives, treasure, moral standing and political influence to little avail.

Now I grew up in the Cold War, and I have no love for it at all. It was a necessary struggle, often brilliantly waged on our part, but just as often full of blunders, over-reactions, unwanted consequences, societal parasites, and crippling moral compromises. It warped this nation in ways that never will heal.

If Bacevich is going to go for that, he ought to honestly lay out the price to be paid, or some of the vicious policies of exclusion and endurance we will have to embrace. He doesn't. He goes no further than bland buzzwords like "limits of American power" ... coexistence without appeasement ... containment ... "quarantine."

"The candidate who can articulate such ideas might well merit respect and popular support," he writes. And I write, the candidate who tells you honestly what that will cost you, what you will have to accept in the name of your security, what your children will have to be taught to fear, what the people of the Declaration of Independence will have to take to bed with them -- the one who will tell you what even Bacevich blanches to spell out -- is going to make you sick.

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