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Not Another Cold War

Henry Kissinger has called for peace by negotiation. But $54 billion say nobody is going to listen.
Merkel Receives Henry A. Kissinger Prize

On Monday the CIA announced it had added two stars to its Memorial Wall for fallen officers. The memo is, appropriately for the shady world of intelligence, vague. Perhaps these quiet dead Americans were not killed in Ukraine; perhaps they did not even die recently. But one does wonder. 

In a surreal recent exchange, a colleague wondered how many American lives must be spent on top of the $54 billion in taxpayer money to scrape out a stalemate in East Ukraine. What is our interest there? As if summoned from my least charitable imaginings, an aging swamp creature appeared, indignant in response, to declare the American dead worth it, all the money worth it, to give Russia a defeat. It was, he said, like when we gave weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, never mind Osama Bin Laden’s second career. It was, he said, like WWII all over again; if you give a dictator a bit of land, like the mouse and the cookie, he’ll want more of it. 

Perhaps when the war party is sending its people they are not sending their best. I shouldn’t take stale arguments from a man clinging to Cold War glory days as the best case for further American involvement in Ukraine. But I might counter one Cold Warrior with another and suggest that Henry Kissinger’s recent comments at Davos be given due consideration. The former secretary of State said that Ukraine should be willing to concede territory in the east to Russia in pursuit of peace. “Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome,” Kissinger said, as reported in the Daily Telegraph. “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.” 

Kissinger warned against the West being caught up in the “mood of the moment.” The mood of the moment is an acknowledged proxy war with Russia, one to which, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the Pentagon is eager to deploy U.S. special forces (let’s pretend they are not already on the ground “advising”). Is this a flex? A threat? Do they think the Kremlin doesn’t read the Journal

It hardly seems feasible for the Ukrainian army to retake land that has been contested now for nearly a decade without the open involvement of the United States. That is my colleague’s point as much as Kissinger’s; there is no path to a resounding defeat of Russia that does not involve escalation and court disaster. Returning to the territorial status quo ante is about as close to a win-win as can be had in a war that has already killed and displaced so many.

Si vis pacem, para bellum; if you want peace, prepare for war. Peace, after all, ought to be the goal, not war for war’s sake. A slow, grinding return to the status quo ante will cost more Ukrainian, and probably soon American, lives. If something like it can be achieved at the negotiating table before those lives are spent, and before reckless monetary aid and dramatic sanctions further damage Western economies, then let us count our blessings. 

The liberal internationalists will say they are waging war for long-term peace, that Russia must be punished, left so weakened as to offer no threat in the future. The trouble is that a cornered nuclear power is a cornered animal with nuclear weapons. The other trouble is that Ukrainians are not going to eke out a win like that alone; if a defeated Russia is the goal, then the goal is to get even more involved. 

Kissinger is concerned with long-term peace, too, with the balance of power in Europe. Let’s ponder that. If Putin were in fact to be given a resounding defeat, somehow without open war with NATO or nuclear escalation—consider the unlikely hypothetical for a moment—then an already unstable Europe would be made all the more precarious. The E.U. and NATO represent shared interests among European countries in relation to the United States and Russia. Germany and France are, take your pick of the big wars, historical rivals. History is not ended.

It is a response to American domination, first militarily and then economically, that has brought Europe’s major powers together, and it was a response to Russian power to the east that has kept them together. Why should France let Germany set economic policy when that security interest is removed from the equation? What is NATO without a Russia worth fearing? The Poles, in their hatred for Russians, seem to have forgotten Lord Ismay’s comment, that NATO’s purpose is “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” That last part is important, too; invasions of Poland have, famously, not only come from the east. 

Unfortunately for all of us, though, Kissinger’s comments come to us from the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos. The jetset global class gave Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for further sanctions and further war a standing ovation.  

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Not Another Cold War

Andrew Bacevich has a piece up at the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. should approach the war on terror like the Cold War; specifically we need a new doctrine of containment, which for Bacevich means everything from decapitation strikes (though not ones that kill civilians — as if any decapitation can be clean) to […]

Andrew Bacevich has a piece up at the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. should approach the war on terror like the Cold War; specifically we need a new doctrine of containment, which for Bacevich means everything from decapitation strikes (though not ones that kill civilians — as if any decapitation can be clean) to “well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports” and “comprehensive export controls.” In each of these examples, Bacevich draws exactly the wrong lesson: decapitation attempts achieved little (think of Castro’s exploding cigars) and contributed to some awful blowback during the Cold War; the Soviet Union collapsed less because the Soviets had noisy submarines (thanks to those export controls) than because everybody in the Eastern bloc knew that life was sweeter in the West; and we had a pretty darn well-funded panoply of intelligence agencies and airport-security professional on 9/11, all of which failed to detect and prevent a low-tech attack by a handful of terrorists. Tightening border security makes sense, but throwing more money at already bloated agencies that aren’t fulfilling their missions effectively is only going to be counterproductive. And decapitations are precisely the kind of comic-book antics that detract from serious intelligence gathering and analysis — Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes establishes that point as anyone could ask.

Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy remains the best account of what U.S. foreign policy has been all about during the past half-century and more. None of Bacevich 2009’s suggestions for neo-containment address the fundamental defects Bacevich 2001 identified in that book. “Containment” is not a bad metaphor for what may be needed, but it’s the ambitions of the U.S. policy elite, as much as those of militant Islam, that need to be contained. William Lind has written some important essays on the idea of insulating the U.S. from centers of disorder — that’s a far more promising approach than pouring money into government agencies and attempting to control foreign states and other entities. Most of the active measures the U.S. took during the Cold War — the Vietnam War, CIA-orchestrated killings and coups, the still ongoing embargo of Cuba — failed dismally.

Bacevich concludes his piece with an interesting, but also quite mistaken, perspective on the moral-spiritual struggled involve in the terror war:

The competitive challenge facing the West is not to prove that Islamic fundamentalism won’t satisfy the aspirations of humanity, but to demonstrate that democratic capitalism can, even for committed believers. In short, the key to winning the current competition is to live up to the ideals that we profess rather than compromising them in the name of national security.

The upshot is that by modifying the way we live — attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis — we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live. Here lies the best chance of easing the differences that divide us.

The evidence just doesn’t support any of these contentions. Europe has gone farther than the U.S. toward “attending to … poverty,” but generous European welfare states do not seem to have dissuaded Muslims in those countries from becoming radicalized. And Muslim radicals in the developing world hold such compassionate welfare states in absolute contempt. On the other hand, Bacevich is mistaken about the appeal of Muslim radicalism on its own terms: Afghans were coming to hate the Taliban by mid-2001, and we’ve seen in the unrest in Iran this year that young people find something less-than-satisfying about the social system of the Islamic Republic. It’s a shocking idea, but the best way to discredit radical Islam to let it have its own states, so that the everyone can see — as everyone saw in the Communist states during the Cold War — just how miserable life is under such regimes. Only by such comparisons can welfare-state liberal democracy be made to look good.

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