Gone But Not Forgotten

Making war and peace in the new post-Soviet world

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

It has been well over a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet many, still caught up in past institutions and protocols of that bygone age, forget the degree to which the collapse of the Soviet Union is with us today and helps to frame almost all of our struggles since 9/11.

Our troubles with Europe are said to arise from differing views of the world order and an imbalance in military power. Yet these new tensions cannot truly be understood without the appreciation that there are no longer 300 Soviet divisions poised to plow through West Germany. With such a common threat, natural differences between Europe and the United States — from the positioning of Pershing tactical missiles on German soil to prevent Soviet nuclear intimidation, to continental criticism of the American role in Vietnam and Central America — always were aired within certain understood and relatively polite parameters of common history and interests.

America, after all, was appreciated for ending Hitler’s rule — and immediately after for pledging its youth and national security in an effort at keeping a murderous totalitarianism out of a recovering Europe. With a common and deadly enemy nearby, Western Europeans had no utopian illusions that the United Nations, rather than NATO and America, could stop an aggressive Soviet premier should he choose to fire up his tanks. The idea that a German president would bark out anti-American invective at a mass rally would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. But now Herr Schroeder does so routinely — not because his people hate us or because we his deserve antipathy, but simply because he can.

In the shadow of the Soviet threat, Western European statesmen dared not disarm, but rather accepted the tragic reality that the world was a dangerous place and that deterrence — and not the bureaucrats of the Common Market — kept pretty awful people at a safe distance. With a Stalinist regime bloodied by the murder of 30 million of its own, and with World War II criminals of every stripe still lurking in its shadows, even hack lawyers in Brussels had no time to go after an American diplomat or general on bogus charges of genocide. Outnumbered three to one on the ground, a beleaguered Western Europe grudgingly invested in its own defense. Residents then accepted the bitter truth that the welfare state had gone about as far as it could — without its social expenditures taking away resources from the tanks, planes, and troops that alone could ensure its national survival.

Poor France. So long as the old bipolar world was engaged in high-stakes nuclear poker, its independent force de frappe gave it leverage with both East and West. Though without much conventional strength, the French nevertheless could warrant respect from the Soviet Union since, in theory, they had the power to take out Moscow. Despite having a pitiful conventional deterrent, France was nevertheless courted by the United States as a strategic bulwark against the rising nuclear arsenals of China and Russia.

No longer. In today’s world, except along the Pakistani-Indian border and in North Korea, there are no real reasons for the club of nuclear powers to go to war with one another. Instead, deterrence against rogue regimes and terrorist enclaves — which cannot be nuked, or threatened with nukes — means deploying special operatives and costly conventional forces of which France is pitifully short. It can blow up the planet with its few hundred aging missiles, but it wouldn’t have been able to deal with the menace of a rag-tag Taliban in Afghanistan even if al Qaeda had smoked the Louvre.

The demise of the Soviet Union also created this strange thing called “Old” and “New” Europe, as all of a sudden half a continent was transmogrified not merely from enemies to neutrals, but in fact to rather close friends. All those American characteristics that so bothered sophisticated Western Europeans — our deep distrust of socialism, our embrace of religion, our emphasis on free will and individualism, our very brashness — in fact endeared us to the newly liberated Eastern Europeans, who faulted us not from the left, for our knee-jerk anti-Communism, but rather from the right, on the grounds that we did not use force earlier to fight Stalinism in 1947, 1956, and 1968.

But nowhere is the ghost of the Soviet Union more evident than in the Middle East. And the changed circumstances involve much more than the end of tolerance for conniving right-wing despots looking to prevent commissars from controlling the world’s oil supply. We have gained some flexibility — with perhaps more to come — from the idea that Russia is now itself a vast oil exporter and in some ways serves our interests in lessening the world’s dependence on Gulf oil. Today’s Russians want to sell more of their own petroleum, not take over that of others.

The Arabs fought four major wars against Israel — in 1947, 1956, 1967, and 1973 — but none since. Why? Have the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq come to their senses, and thus entertained kinder and gentler notions about the Jewish state? Or was it instead that there was no longer a nuclear Russia around to threaten the United States on about day four or five of such conflicts, warning us to call off the Israelis lest they park their own tanks in Cairo or Damascus?

Surely the absence of such a nuclear patron explains the present reluctance of conventional states to attack Israel. Tel-Aviv’s neighbors accept that there is nothing between their own aggression and a humiliating defeat except their own degree of military prowess — or rather lack of it. Mr. Arafat and his clique can deal with Mr. Sharon or Mr. Bush — or nobody. Quite literally, in the post-Cold War tumult, there is no one else left in the region with whom to barter and banter.

We forget that there is an entire generation of Arab dictators and terrorists — from Arafat to Saddam Hussein — who were trained or welcomed in Moscow, and who predicated their policies on the idea that Soviet intelligence, Soviet weapons, Soviet money, and Soviet opposition to America could provide them a degree of security otherwise unwarranted by their own resources or ability. The first Gulf War would never have occurred had Saddam Hussein convinced his tottering patron Mr. Gorbachev to do the usual Russian thing of threatening us with nuclear-tipped missiles — or had the Iraqis waited until 1995 or so, to acquire through an indigenous nuclear program what they had lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In that context alone should we understand the race by Middle Eastern tyrants and despots to acquire weapons of mass destruction. WMD is a polite name for some sort of surrogate Soviet nuclear deterrent, [of the sort used] to coerce or blackmail the United States from acting freely to promote the establishment of democratic government and freedom and the removal of terrorist enclaves.

A liar like “Baghdad Bob” — Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the so-called Baathist “information” minister — did not learn his craft reading the Arabian Nights, or from the braggadocio and tribal mythmaking of the Arab coffeehouse. No, he was a product of the Baathist police apparatus — and thus indirectly of Soviet-style disinformation protocols, according to which lies in service of a criminal state were not really lies at all. If the West shudders at the state-controlled untruth in the Arab world, it should remember that the closer a state’s former ties with the Soviet Union — whether it be Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine Authority, or Libya — the greater propensity it displays for censorship, fabrication, and an intrusive Big Brother.

Perhaps the biggest change is in the nature of terrorism itself. Gone are most Russian and Eastern European money and training for hijackers and assassins. The Czech or Bulgarian police are more likely to round up killers than to subsidize them as they did in the past. Polish commandos help Americans fight terrorists rather than helping terrorists to fight Americans. Berlin is not a haven for spies with Middle Eastern operations, but is rather undergoing a massive construction to return it to its former status as Europe’s premier capital. In short, the playing field of the terrorist has shrunk considerably, as a fourth of the planet has suddenly done an about-face and joined in to stop rather than foster killers.

Our own defense capability reflects these new opportunities. That we may soon move 80,000 military personnel out of Germany would have been impossible in the Cold War. With such new flexibility, should Turkey or Saudi Arabia forbid use of their bases, why should we be paying material and political capital for runways and hangars in the first place when we cannot use them? Suddenly the old paradigm — that we had to scheme with rightists to gain their soil to corner the Soviet Union — no longer matters; instead the renter, not the landlord, now holds the greater hand, as we craft our armed forces to be more mobile, flexible, and independent from blackmail or coercion, from “friends” and neutrals alike.

That we are refitting some of our nuclear submarines with conventional cruise missiles to take out terrorists, rather than to strike Soviet cities, is also the kind of new thinking that has in it an ominous message for rogue states once protected under the old Soviet nuclear umbrella. If the free world has now doubled or tripled in size, so have American military resources, to focus on a diminishing terrorist stronghold. We fought so well in Afghanistan and Iraq in part precisely because we now have the freedom to devote our efforts to unconventional warfare without worrying that we are shorting our heavy armor and tactical aircraft — once so critical to stopping a Soviet assault in Europe. Ten thousand Special Forces may not have kept the Russians from blasting into Germany, but they were invaluable in Afghanistan and Kurdistan. Lumbering B-52s might have been blown out of the skies by Soviet Migs, but they rained fire and ruin on the Taliban with impunity.

With the demise of the Soviet Union perished also the idea of spreading Marxism by force across the globe. Our enemies could always bring in the Russians if we proved too demanding of reform; cynical neutrals could play us off against them to gain aid or attention. In the world’s impoverished and desolate expanses, naïve dreamers and psychopathic killers alike could always justify their quasi-allegiance to Stalinism on the grounds that a coercive socialism was closer to brotherhood than wide-open American capitalism.

Islamist fascism entertains neither these utopian pretenses nor the air of shared struggle that trumps racial, religious, or geographical boundaries. If you are female or gay, your correct politics don’t really matter. If you are Christian or non-Middle Eastern, too bad. If you are addicted to Western freedom or consumerism, you might as well save the trouble and go straight to Hell now. So Khomeinism or al Qaedism is not Soviet-enhanced Marxism: It lacks not merely the resources of a vast continent at its call, but also an ideology that misleads and confuses with false promises of social justice. With the Islamofascists you get what you see — a return to the 13th century and all its darkness.

What do such new realities portend in our current struggle? We must remember that much of our frustrations with our European allies can be attributed to the absence of a global rogue nation that could destroy Europe with a flip of a switch, and that their pique with us is not predicated on what we do or say but, rather, on the changing global realities.

And if we are exasperated with Cold War institutions like the U.N. and NATO, it is precisely because they are paradigms of a bygone age that have remained fossilized rather than evolving to meet the challenges of a new era. So in most cases, the United States is at last in a singular position to promote freedom and democracy without either cynicism or the Realpolitik that today’s elected socialist will be tomorrow’s Soviet puppet. It is becoming quite a different world — and one, thank God, that at least a few in our government have sized up pretty well.

In short, for the first time in a half-century, Ronald Reagan’s threat to terrorists and their supporters that “you can run but not hide” is at last true. The world of al Qaeda is shrinking as we speak — and there is no person or force left that can bail any of them out from the doom that awaits them all.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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