Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

U.S. power: Waging cold wars without end

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 26, 2014 06:00 UTC

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.

Democracy is on the ropes. So what are we going to do about it?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 17, 2014 19:15 UTC

child holds her father's hand at a polling station in Kabul

Democracy is taking a bashing. On almost every continent, attempts to extend the right of people to choose their own government is running into deep trouble. In Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries, democracy is being overwhelmed by despotism and despair.

A commonly heard response is that Western democracy is not for everyone, that what works in our society does not automatically work elsewhere. Another is to suggest that we should not try to spread democracy to the rest of the world; it is none of our business.

Both views are mean and short-sighted. If the United States abandons democracy in the rest of the world, not only is the rest of the world sunk but tyranny will soon be heading our way as voting laws here become more restrictive.

Putin learning what U.S. didn’t

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 23, 2014 19:55 UTC

After America’s ignominious defeat and hurried departure from Vietnam in 1973 — when the world’s richest and mightiest nation was humbled by the stolid determination of ill-equipped, ideologically inspired peasants — it was generally assumed the United States would not wage war again until the lessons of the Viet Cong victory were taken to heart.

When Soviet forces hastily retreated with a bloody nose from their nine-year occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, similar lessons were suggested about the impossibility of militarily holding a country with a universally hostile population.

In his stealth occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia appears to have learned the lessons of both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Crimea: Too small to matter

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 1, 2014 16:41 UTC

Crimea is permanently lost to Russia.

That is implicit in President Barack Obama’s remarks about where the Ukraine crisis heads next; the terms of the Paris talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the West’s rejection of military action to hurl back the occupying Russian forces.

That Crimea is gone forever is also the view of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declared, “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”

It is now generally accepted in Washington that short of sparking a shooting war, Crimea is lost and will now always be Russian. President Vladimir Putin, presiding over an economy of $2 trillion, barely equal to California, has roundly defeated the United States and the European Union, with a combined worth of more than $34 trillion.

Will secession seal Putin’s doom?

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 20, 2014 06:00 UTC

Russian President Vladimir Putin chose a referendum on secession, attended by 15,000 menacing troops, as the means to pry Crimea away from Ukraine. This choice runs directly counter to his long-held beliefs about the need to maintain the integrity of his nation at all costs.

With the results in, it may seem that Putin has achieved exactly what he set out to do: restore Crimea to Russia after 60 years as part of Ukraine. But promoting the principle that secession can be legitimate on the basis of a single hastily-arranged plebiscite in the middle of a military occupation provides a precedent that may prove Putin’s ultimate undoing.

Until Putin annexed Crimea, secession was the dirtiest word in his playbook. He watched, appalled, as one after another former Soviet republic opted for independence from Russia. He has repeatedly punished those brave dissenters who dare advocate leaving the Russian federation.

European leaders show their weakness

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 10, 2014 22:24 UTC

 

The European Union, at the forefront of the hostilities between Russia and the West, is in a bind.

It has belatedly adopted Ukraine as one of its own. Yet the EU economy is so frail,  thanks to its beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, that it is reluctant to use financial and trade sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea and threatening to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine.

Even if the EU appeases Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial expansionism and allows Crimea to be annexed, it is going to pay a heavy political and economic price. Had German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drives the European enlargement project, and the International Monetary Fund been more clear about wanting Ukraine to eventually join the European Union, and more generous in their dealings with the nascent democracy there, they would have saved the Ukrainian people a lot of suffering, the world a deal of agony — and the EU a lot of money.

Where is Ukraine’s Lech Walesa?

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 24, 2014 20:05 UTC

The popular pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that has deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich is part of a far wider and longer historical tug-of-love between the West and Russia.

Who is chosen to succeed Yanukovich will decide whether it is possible to forge a permanent Ukrainian settlement that will satisfy both the European Union and Russia. The prospect right now looks bleak.

As candidates start lining up for the elections slated for May, no one has emerged with the suitable stature, political sophistication, public integrity and plain honesty needed to put to rest a lingering dispute about national identity that has cast a long shadow over the politics of Europe. Tensions between Russia and the Western European powers, particularly Germany, France and Britain, have been rumbling for centuries.

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