The Closet Moderate: It's Something Wrong With The Way I Think

Thursday, November 05, 2009

It's Something Wrong With The Way I Think

There's an infuriating tendency in American politics to read ourselves into the national narratives of other countries. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Sen. McCain told us that "we are all Georgians." The entire fucking Vietnam War owes its sorry history to the fact that we wrote ourselves into a struggle for national unification. Yeah, Ho Chi Minh was a ferocious pinko, but he grafted communism onto a nationalist platform. Back in the day, that sort of strategy wasn't all that unusual. No less a conservative than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appropriated the rhetoric of the Iranian socialists to stoke the fires of the Iranian Revolution (he later had them all locked up, exiled, or killed because he was that kind a motherfucker).

The most egregious example of this is the consensus view of American involvement in the fall of the USSR. Let me be clear, we did make life hard for the Soviets. However, we didn't cause the USSR to fall because we spent a metric fuckton of taxpayer dollars on an unworkable missile defense system. Sure, it was a factor. But you know what mattered more? The internal social, economic and political state of the USSR. Without getting too granular, the combination of glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsin, the Afghan War, falling oil prices and a truly defunct industrial base all played a rather more significant role in the Soviet collapse.

In other words, we didn't win the Cold War, and our belief to the contrary is part of the reason for our present troubles. More after the jump.

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I'll admit up front that it's an oversimplification, but I think it's an illuminating one. There are a couple of trends that flowed from the end of the Cold War that did lead us into our current ratfuck:

1. The belief that the Star Wars program brought down the USSR entrenched the idea that military force (and defense spending) was the only tool we needed to solve major security problems. Defense contractors were, of course, only too happy to encourage this idea. Anyway, from that belief stems the neoconservative idea that "throwing a dinky country up against the wall to show the world we mean business" is a useful way to interact with the world. As we learned to our chagrin, this isn't true. War is a tremendously complex and uncertain undertaking, there are a whole lot of countries in the world, and many of them are willing to play the odds. A decade on, we're slowly finding our way back to equilibrium, hampered by the fact that we're involved in all these wars now.

2. When you win a war, the expectation is that you reap some reward from it--the spoils of war. Unfortunately, we didn't win the Cold War, in the same way that the guy who doesn't suffer alcohol poisoning in a drinking contest doesn't so much win as "not lose." Since the Cold War had been framed as a contest for dominance and the US was the only superpower left standing, it was understood that we were in charge now. And that's true, as far as it goes. While unipolarity ensured that nobody was going to fuck with us, it didn't mean we could dictate to other sovereign nations. Quite the contrary. Without the threat of the USSR, many of the countries that had once been in the US camp were happy to go their own way.

At the same time, the threat environment shifted drastically. To draw an inexact parallel, when we finally shot Pablo Escobar, we didn't end the drug problem, we just fractured it into a million tiny pieces. Many national security issues that had been overshadowed by Soviet Menace (love that term) moved to the fore. Having built our diplomatic corps and armed forces to counter a superpower threat, we were sort of unprepared for asymmetric conflict. I have my doubts about the utility of counterinsurgency in our current conflicts, but no doubts that it's going to become an increasingly important part of our national security toobox if it's not discredited and discarded due to failures in Afghanistan.

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