NEW YORK – The Cold War credentialed a kind of “thinker” who cannot think without the help of violently opposed abstractions: good vs. evil, freedom vs. slavery, liberal democracy vs. totalitarianism, and that sort of thing.
Forced into premature retirement by the unexpected collapse of communism in 1989, this thinker re-emerged after Sept. 11, 2001, convinced there was another worthy enemy in the crosshairs: Islamic totalitarianism.
Unchastened by a decade of expensive, counterproductive and widely despised wars, these laptop generals have been trying to reboot their dated software yet again as Russian President Vladimir Putin formalizes his annexation of Crimea. As laments about Western weakness and spine-stiffening exhortations fill the air, it’s worth recalling the legacy of the central episode of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
The invasion was promoted by the Soviets’ serious misjudgment of the United States’ intentions in the region. As the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, helped consolidate history’s first global jihadist campaign in history, it came to be prolonged by actual American actions.
Questioned in 1998 about the U.S. role in the making of Islamic extremists, Zbigniew Brzezinski retorted: “What’s most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Three years later, of course, a handful of stirred-up Muslims launched the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil, provoking the George W. Bush administration into such hubristic projects as eliminating “terror” worldwide and bringing democracy at gunpoint to the Middle East.
Muslims stirred up and radicalized by these blunders have subsequently ravaged Pakistan and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. U.S. citizens, too, have had to pay a high price — the loss of civil and legal rights — to protect themselves from what was originally a small band of cave-dwelling criminals and fanatics. Meanwhile, as the events of the past month show, the Soviet empire that had allegedly collapsed has returned under a different guise.
It is very likely that Putin’s land grab in Crimea will fail disastrously. As the Russian economy slows down, capital flees the country and domestic unrest grows, Putin’s position will become less than secure.
The one thing certain to keep him in power longer, as well as weaken his opponents, would be a Western overreaction like those of the Jimmy Carter and Bush administrations in 1979 and 2001.
Fortunately the Barack Obama administration seems aware of this peril. It is also true that public opinion in today’s deeply politicized world would be very skeptical, if not dismissive, of any American efforts to undermine Russia more directly. In a recent Gallup survey of 66,000 people across 65 nations, 24 percent of all respondents answered that the U.S. “is the greatest threat to peace in the world today.” Pakistan and China trailed the U.S. significantly, with 8 and 6 percent, respectively.
This may bewilder cold warriors. But then, they grew up in what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the paradise of domestic security suspended in a hell of global insecurity.” The Cold War was never cold for many Asians, Africans and Latin Americans, who experienced it as a series of devastating hot wars or brutal dictatorships propped up by leaders of the free as well as the unfree world.
The U.S. suffered during these years a great loss of moral authority; it then abused its position as the sole hyperpower when it launched an illegal invasion of Iraq.
It is not surprising that many Egyptians today blame the U.S. for everything that goes wrong — for supporting Hosni Mubarak, then the Muslim Brotherhood, then the army again. Others, such as the famous Iranian actress I met last month in Tehran, want to fight their repressive regimes without compromising American support.
George Kennan, America’s wisest Russia expert and the original theorist of the Cold War who later renounced his handiwork, once wrote that “the ways by which people advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.”
Understanding this won’t be easy for the laptop generals. Not only has the military infrastructure of the Cold War survived intact — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, hundreds of bases around the world — but so has the intellectual-industrial complex that developed to make legitimate the enormous investment in national security.
The hundred think tanks that bloomed, and the thousands of mediocre academics and pseudo-experts who found easy employment in the universities and the media, feel obliged to make themselves relevant and important again.
But the rest of us can never forget that the Cold War was an intellectual and moral catastrophe — one in which all sides lost.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.