Cold War warmed over

By Bill Schneider
March 7, 2014

Can we have a new Cold War without a communist threat?  Some important political players seem to think so.

One of them is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his surreal press conference, Putin depicted the protest that overthrew the pro-Russian government in Ukraine as a plot by the West to undermine Russia. He even accused the United States of training the Kiev protesters: “I have a feeling that they sit somewhere in a lab in America . . . and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without understanding the consequences of what they are doing.”

Then there’s Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who seemed thrilled over the prospect of a new Cold War.  “We are all Ukrainians now!” McCain declared in what sounded like a call to arms. He even dragged out an article President Barack Obama wrote for a college publication more than 30 years ago. Obama had argued that “President Reagan’s defense buildup” had “distorted national priorities.

For old Cold Warriors, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

What’s missing now is ideological confrontation. When the Cold War started in the 1940s, a lot of people thought the United States — which had a 200-year-old history of isolationism — would never support an endless confrontation with no prospect of a definitive victory in the foreseeable future. But Americans did support the Cold War.  For more than 40 years.

That’s because they saw communism as a unique menace — atheist and anti-capitalist. And they saw the Soviet Union as a threat to U.S. security and world order.

Today, however, the Soviet Union is gone.  And communism is no longer the dire menace it once was.

Russia is still a dangerous power, of course, and it still has nuclear weapons.  But Russia’s objectives now appear to be less ideological and more nationalistic and ethnic. A statement released by Putin’s office said, “Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.”

The Ukrainian crisis has not provoked deep partisan division in the United States.  Sure, Republicans in Congress are criticizing Obama for “emboldening Putin” by not showing George W. Bush-like resolve in Syria.  But Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “If you’re asking whether the U.S. should be taking military strikes against Russian troops in Ukraine or Crimea, I would argue to you that I don’t think anyone is advocating for that.” Not even McCain.

The Cold War may be over, but the United States continues to be the pre-eminent world power and the principal guarantor of international order. President Bill Clinton, in his Second Inaugural Address in 1997, said, “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.”

History shows this is true. Since World War II, whenever there has been a serious threat to world order or humanitarian values, one rule has applied: Unless the United States acts, nothing happens.

What would have happened if the United States had failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, nothing. Kuwait would now be part of Iraq.

Having acted decisively in Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush left the crisis in Bosnia to the Europeans. The United States had no vital interests there. So what happened?  Nothing.  The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world’s vocabulary: ethnic cleansing.  Eventually, Washington felt morally compelled to step in and lead a coalition to end the brutality.

When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world — including the United States — looked away.  So nothing happened. The result was genocide. Clinton later expressed regret for America’s failure to act in Africa.

If the United States had not led an invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban would likely still be in power, harboring al Qaeda terrorists. It is unlikely that anything would have been done to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s murderous reprisals in Libya if the United States had not played a crucial role. It is hard to imagine a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians without a U.S. guarantee.

In 2008, Russia invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia to defend pro-Russian minorities who felt threatened by the anti-Russian government. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. ships to the region and sent humanitarian aid. But there was no sentiment in the U.S. for a military response. Russian troops are still in Georgia.

The United States may be “the world’s indispensable nation,” but it no longer wants to be policeman to the world. For one thing, the ideological zeal provided by the Cold War is gone. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the communist threat has been reduced to a rivalry (China) or a nuisance (Cuba).

Anti-communism is not a major issue for the Tea Party movement. Certainly not the way it was for earlier conservative movements led by Barry M. Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

After two less-than triumphant foreign wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), the American public has turned against U.S. military intervention. Public pressure stopped Obama from launching a military strike on Syria last year. Last week, a Huffington Post-YouGov poll asked, “Do you think the United States has any responsibility to protect Ukraine if Russia were to invade?” Only 18 percent of Americans said yes.

Then there’s the fact that the New America movement that Obama brought to power is highly suspicious of U.S. military intervention. After all, it developed out of two antiwar movements, one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq. “When I’ve sent young men and women into harm’s way,” Obama said in a 2012 campaign debate, “I always understand that [force] is the last resort, not the first resort.”

There is certainly no support for Putin among progressives in the United States.  They see him as a creep and a bully. They are outraged by his suppression of gay rights in Russia. The instinctive sympathies of Obama supporters were with the protesters in the streets of Kiev (and last year in Cairo).

The left today, like the right during the Cold War, wants to export American values to the rest of the world. Bush tried to export democracy. Obama wants to export human rights.

The difference is Obama does not want to do it at the point of a gun.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (C), attends the opening ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961. Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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