U.S. power: Waging cold wars without end

June 26, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul

Suddenly, it seems, the world is at war.

In Iraq, armed and angry militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are at the gates of Baghdad. In Pakistan, government forces are mounting a ferocious campaign against the Taliban in North Waziristan. In Syria, the civil war drags on. These are “hot wars” involving the clashing of troops and weapons. Having escaped such “hot” conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these are the sort of war Americans have made it plain they are not prepared to fight.

But there are other wars going on. In Yemen, a forgotten war against an al Qaeda outcrop continues, largely fought with lethal U.S. drones. In Ukraine, Moscow is undermining the Kiev government by stealth. Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxious not to press his luck after successfully snatching Crimea from Kiev, is like a fox sliding through the hen coop, careful not to set off the alarm. He is being countered by targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. These are “cold wars” — a contemporary variation on the 40-plus years of  Cold War fought to a standstill by the United States and the Soviet Union.

vietnam -- soldiersThe very nature of war has changed since the hauling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the Cold War raged with often imperceptible intensity, the two sides mounted “hot wars” by proxy in minor theaters — the most prominent and punishing for the United States being Vietnam, a “cold war” first fought with teams of U.S. advisers, war materiel and money that became “hot.”

Before long, the heat became too intense for the American people and their children, who were conscripted to fight, and they called for a halt. Even so, it took many years to wind down. And when the last Americans scrambled out of Saigon, the city had already fallen to the Viet Cong and been dubbed Ho Chi Minh City.

Every U.S. war since the tragedy of Vietnam has been judged against that bruising conflict. It was even assumed for a while that Washington would never take part in a hot war again. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, however, threatened the U.S. national interest, and President George H.W. Bush decided to take the oil-rich nation back by force. With memories of our bloody entanglement in Vietnam still ringing in his ears, Bush stopped the Gulf War a little way over the Iraq border.

Rather than go all-out for Baghdad and mount an occupation by U.S. forces, Bush opted for turning Hussein’s hot war into a cold one. Financial and economic sanctions, a no-fly zone, a tightly regulated oil-for-aid market and other restrictive international measures kept Hussein trapped like a house fly in double glazing.

FILE PHOTO OF BAGHDAD LIT UP BY TRACER FIRE.The Gulf War may have been the last hot war the United States ever fought had it not been for the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, and the need within the George W. Bush administration to demonstrate that America would not let such ignominious attacks go unanswered. Afghanistan was a no-brainer: Osama bin Laden trained his terrorists there and the Taliban had allowed them safe haven. In a mood of controlled rage, Americans saw little wrong with waging a hot war against the killers who were out to get them.

Iraq was different. There is no space here to relitigate the casus belli of that war in Iraq and whether Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were real or imagined, but the upshot was that U.S. forces set out on their second simultaneous hot war. Bush soon discovered, however, what his father already knew: involving U.S. troops in a hot war in Iraq was punishing.

President Barack Obama then rode an anti-war wave into the presidency. Ever since, a conspicuously silent Bush has left Vice President Dick Cheney to defend the unnecessary war they chose to fight in Iraq.

The heavy toll of waging two wars at the same time, and the steady stream of caskets bringing home the U.S. war dead, appear to have persuaded Americans that they are no longer prepared to take part in another hot war. That is certainly the message Congress gives whenever Obama gets close to acting militarily on his own.

When it came to deciding whether to intervene in Syria, Obama appeared weak by hesitating. His decision to let Congress take the final decision, though, confirmed what was already evident: Americans are in no mood for a hot war.

EAST AND WEST GERMANS CLIMB THE BERLIN WALL IN THIS FILE PHOTO.The notion of waging a cold war, however, has taken a new direction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the old Cold War, the West had limited means of exerting its influence over the economies of the Soviet Union and its satellites because the communists operated a command economy virtually divorced from the West. The threat of economic sanctions meant little to a Kremlin that lived beyond the reach of the market.

Since the end of Soviet communism, however, globalization has changed everything. Now instead of condemning a whole population to inconvenience, shortages and penury, targeted sanctions can make life difficult only for the people making bad decisions. The range of the banking and financial systems now ensures that Washington can call the shots when it comes to dodging sanctions or laundering money — as Credit Suisse and the French bank BNP Paribas have learned at vast cost.

Cold wars are slow to win. But the punishment they deliver is more accurate and more effective than the old-school Cold War. Putin, for example, knows he has a limited time before he must bring his Ukraine adventure to a close and nurture a rule of law. For as long as he persists, Russia will lose its most talented citizens as they flee arbitrary justice, lack of freedom of expression, fixed elections and all other aspects of Russian life that offends talented people.

In Soviet days, high-value Russians were confined to the Soviet Union simply by being refused exit visas.

FILE PHOTO OF PREDATOR ABOVE USS CARL VINSON.Obama may have ridden an anti-war wave to become president. But once in the White House, while drawing down the hot wars, he has waged cold wars with vigor — much to the dismay of many supporters.

Obama’s use of drones, particularly in North Waziristan and Yemen, has been ruthless. He is even prepared to kill American-born terrorists with drones. In response to the Crimea annexation and Moscow’s surreptitious invasion of eastern Ukraine, he has levied stern controls and restrictions on the Russian top brass. When European leaders meet later this week, they are expected to weigh extending sanctions to broad sectors of the Russian economy as well as wider circles surrounding Putin.

To mount a hot war has been a last resort for most presidents and it is hard to imagine what pressing circumstances today would cause a president to mount an operation as complex and dangerous as the war in Iraq. But if the United States is to maintain its influence around the globe, and keep terrorists well away from its shores, presidents of either party must be prepared to wage endless cold wars.

To abandon war altogether would be to acknowledge that the American people’s desire for peace had left it pitiful and powerless.

Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War Two will be published in November by W.W. Norton.


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 1): 173rd Airborne Brigade under fire on Hill 823 in Vietnam, November 1967. REUTERS/U.S. Army

PHOTO (INSERT 2) Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and tracer flares lighting up the sky above downtown Baghdad as U.S. and allied bombing raids launched a Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, January 17, 1991. REUTERS/Patrick De Noirmont

PHOTO (INSERT 3): East and West German citizens celebrate as they climb the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate after the opening of the East German border was announced, November 9, 1989. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 4): The Predator unmanned aerial vehicle flies above USS Carl Vinson in this December 5, 1995 picture. REUTERS/Files


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Rubbish ..the end of the USA empire is coming to an end .

Posted by ronalto | Report as abusive

This article, in its references to Russia, is typical cold war rethoric hiding the real agenda. Writing “In response to the Crimea annexation and Moscow’s surreptitious invasion of eastern Ukraine…” is an example of how this is done. Russia is presented as an agressor without any logical explanation as to why this had to happen. At various times, one can hear explanations that Russia is rebuilding empire, or that Putin is a new tsar. This of course is nonsense, one has to see the things which are hidden and never spoken publicly, to gather what is really going on. The truth here is that the longterm strategic objective of US policy is breakup of Russia as federation. Since this can not be achieved militarily it is done by “soft” means. One aspect of this is built-up of strategic positions around Russia whenever possible. Georgia and Ukraine are two most valuable areas due to the location in the vicinity of ethnic republics and southern underbelly of Russia. This is why huge funds were pumped to Georgia and Ukraine over 20 years for “promoting democracy” (Victoria Nuland mentioned $5 billions for Ukraine alone and no doubt a lot of unofficial money was involved too) which in fact was creation of sizable population of agents of impact gradually pushing for key positions. When time came they took power by a coup with overt support by the US (famous F’ck the EU by Nuland her selection of people for key positions). Similar things were going on earlier in Georgia, eventually ending with catastrophic results but nevertheless the push is continuing.

Due to this agressive stance by the US, Russia has no other choice than last-moment reactions when facing huge stretegic loss near its borders. Nothing strange here if one reminds the Monroe Doctrine or numerous wars led by the US to defend its more or less phony interests far away from its borders. In the case of Russia, its defense of interests is really simple as it is in line with the will of local populations, viz. the Crimea. But in the case of Crimea or eastern regions of Ukraine it is not politically correct to talk about the will of local populations, human rights or democracy for that matter. Which is in surrealistic contrast with the e.g. “defense” of the will of people of Kosovo by bombing and breaking up Serbia.

The conclusion of all this that it is the US agressive policy of containment with the longterm objective of breaking up Russia which is the real reason why Russia reacts in the last resort ways. This fuels propaganda of Russion “agression” which is sold on the cheap to uninformed populations.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Well Mr. Wapshott, reading that was ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Presidents always come along promising ‘no war’. Then it happens anyway. You would think the public would figure it out by now, but they never will. War is part of life. Everything competes… Animals, plants, bugs, solar systems… even galaxies. That’s nature. You can’t change it. That’s how things evolve. Pretending like it doesn’t exist, is simply laying yourself out to get run right over by mother nature. Because no matter how nice you are, there’s always going to be people that couldn’t care less. Your ‘nice’, is their evil opportunity to take advantage. And if one side looks like a bunch of innocent sheepherders, that doesn’t automatically make them the good guys.

So people can whine about it all they want, and blame all the evil corporations and all the other nonsense. If you want to blame something, blame the universe. This is how it works.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Yes. Perpetual war keeps those with military power powerful. Until Americans begin to vote with their conscience perpetual war will define America for another hundred years.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

And, of course, we’re supposed to accept all the premises of the old – or new – Cold War as legitimate because, after all, we’re the Americans.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

Well written article, this would never ever be published or aired on American TV and other medias, because Vietnam is a sore topic for americans. Iraq on the other hand has now been accepted as a fiasco Bush and cronies ventured into. Here we are 40 years later and nothing has changed, just the form of warfare now being played out in cyber space.
US$ was the biggest nuclear bomb that US has always had an edge on, now there are rumors that to contend this, C.S. America, S, E. Asia, Russia China have figured this one out and are working on a alternative currency/trade agreements, outside of the WTO. This would eventually have devastating effect on the US/EU dollar, and change the world does business without the threat of sanctions.

Posted by politicaljunkie | Report as abusive

Yeah, why not joke the BRICS with more words from the paper tiger. The collapse of USD/EUR is indeed imminent. It even has no use to speculate against that, because you will be payed out in worthless credits also. You might as well accept speech and words as payment, and have fun with them.

Posted by Dinges | Report as abusive

I wonder how much better off economically the U.S. would be if the American government devoted more effort to improving the domestic economic rather than funding so very many military exploits?

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

For those who think Russia isn’t the aggressor…please explain how Ukraine represents an existential threat to Russia again?

To go one better…please explain how Crimea is now better off with a bunch of Russian thugs running around stealing everything that isn’t nailed down there as well.

Putin is a wacko…and needs a serious image makeover as well. Simply put “you’re invading the wrong direction dude.”

As for President…to call what he is doing “incongruous” is indeed an understatement. “Leader of the Free World” however is not just some vacuous phrase…so the folks who are now tearing him down (Hillary Clinton) might want to step back for a moment and ask “if I want that job, how do i get it by tearing the guy down while he’s down?” Certainly her Presidency will have its down moments.

Back in “the real world” of “trying to Be President” there is a prima facie “Sturm and Drang” going in this White House which is at a certain level quite revealing if people are willing to pay attention.

The President is lacking in information too folks! So on the one hand “he lunges for Ukraine” yet on the other “holds back from Iraq.” In that job…this is normative…especially with poll numbers this low.

Ideally there will be new leadership in Baghdad, ISIS/ISIL will be crushed, the President can fly in and “look forward to doing business with ya.”

I don’t see a “Reagan/overthrow of the Marcos Regime” moment in Iraq however. This might be true in Ukraine (stare down with Putin would definitely be a big plus in the President’s numbers) and also Libya…where there is nothing but total chaos right now.

Right now he appears to be at the mercy of events…but he sure doesn’t look like Nixon who had to fly off to Russia just to finally find a friend. In short “the President has made good enemies.” If he gets a win under his belt in Iraq…maybe he can come out swinging to finish off his term.

Putin is a dream come true in that regard. We’ve got a long way to get to Von Manstein level of course.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

War is not part of life. It is part of the greed and lust for power at the top, among the wealthy. All the little people want is to have a home, job, and to raise a family without being menaced by their government. The sad thing is, the simple minds of the men of the little people. They will often rush to war for ridiculous reasons, being easily duped into thinking there is a cause which effects them. In the end they will be no better off after the war, and they will be lucky to get decent veterans benefits. The little people would be better with an education enough to see through the tricks of the power brokers at the top. Why go fight to make some rich slobs richer? Vote for people who know what it is to actually work. Don’t vote in rich people who have never held a real job, no matter what bull they tell you from the ‘stump’. Vote the war mongers and corporate puppets out of congress. Pay attention and get the country back to the people and restore the constitution by the way you vote and choose representatives. This is not really that difficult.

Posted by tpvero | Report as abusive

Yes, there is a new Cold War, but that is the good news. Better cold than hot. Conflicts between nation states are as old as human history, and nothing is going to stop that now.

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

This author, like all the other liberals, misremembers or falsifies how Vietnam went down. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City long after every American soldier was out of Vietnam, ie., two years later. The North was only able to defeat the South after Democrats cut off all aid to the South Vietnamese. Before that there was a peace treaty Nixon had gotten the North to enter into, but it ended up unenforceable because of Democrats. The North was getting large amounts of help from the Soviets and China, so it was necessary to continue to help the South in its struggle against the North. After the North finally overtook the South, communists murdered millions of people in Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos. America didn’t lose the war because the American people were tired of it, the war was lost because Democrats cut and run, with much cheering from their friends in the liberal media.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Yep, there are wars. And yes, many are “cold”. What a wasted article.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

As Major General Smedley Butler so aptly put it, war is a racket: http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/wari saracket.html

And yet, contrary to what Calvin Coolidge once said, the business of America has most definitely become perpetual war.

It certainly isn’t keeping cities like Detroit from turning into ruins, or putting the tens of millions of unemployed to work, or trying to build meaningful productive lives for the tens of millions living in crushing poverty.

Given the first two premises, you have to admit that America is run as little more than a racket. Washington and its swarm of cockroach-like politicians have little, if anything, to do with the well-being of the average citizen, the nation or the world.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Most of us in the USA just want to STAY OUT OF foreign conflicts. We have so many issues right here in the USA to be solved. We do NOT need to be fooling around in the business of other countries. STAY OUT!!!! Let the EU and the Arab League solve issues in the Eastern Hemisphere. The USA has no business messing with that side of the planet.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

Leading light of mainstream media advocates endless “cold wars?”
Mr. Wapshott, along with most of his colleagues, still thinks control of the paper money empire (the Fed, IMF, etc.) actually means something. Did you not learn from 2008 that this entire edifice of financialization, derivative and debt is but a sand castle?
The next collapse will prove which is more real: the West’s endless pile of paper IOUs, or Mr. Putin’s very real oil and gas.

Posted by troutcor | Report as abusive

In business management there is a saying: If you are a hammer, you see nails everywhere and all you want is to hammer them.

A fit analogy for the American military-industrial complex. All they want is war. Let young GIs sacrifice so that the complex can survive. There are still enough weapons to fight a long dead Cold War. And the politicians hubris for top dog will ensure continued wars for America. The urge to run the world, meddle in other people’s affairs, is a D.C. pathology.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive