I would look a lot more prescient if I had written more extensively about this over the last few years, but I have the link to prove that “Cold War ghost pains” have long been my favorite theory about the inexplicable rise of the regime-changing, occupying-for-decades U.S. monomania toward Iraq. That is to say, it was largely a matter of Cold War institutions, Cold War personnel, and Cold War thought patterns suddenly losing their raison d’etre just as they were reaching peak productivity and influence. Through most of the 1980s, Cold War: The Next Generation — the cartoonish resurgence of aggressive anticommunism under Ronald “Evil Empire” Reagan — gathered strength. So-called neoconservatives controlled the foreign policy apparatus, dominated the public discourse, and a thousand proxy wars and weapon systems bloomed. Then, when the full-time anticommunists least expected it, no matter what they claim today, the whole thing ended almost overnight, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a whole political culture devoted to warning America about The Threat that no longer had anything to warn us about.
Sure, conservatives neo- and otherwise quickly forgot their recent dire predictions and celebrated “victory” in the Cold War as bombastically as they once told us we were losing. It was the “End of History” and all that. In their secret hearts, though, the neocons found the end of history kind of depressing; they and the politicians they advised wanted to be actors in history, and the only history they really understood, or thought they did, was the post-WWII kind, with some hazy homiletic extensions back to 1938. At any rate, all the piously malicious energy and well-worn tropes about standing firm and sending signals and twilight struggling and Leading the Free World cried for some outlet, and it didn’t take long to find one. I continue to be struck by this passage from a 2002 Frances Fitzgerald piece, where we find Dick Cheney having his epiphany about where the guns could be turned now, because after all we had already paid for them:
On one occasion during the campaign, Bush junior confessed that he really didn’t know who the enemy was. ‘When I was coming up, with what was a dangerous world,’ he said, ‘we knew exactly who the they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who the them were. Today we’re not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.’ In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this February, Cheney admitted that before September 11 he had been similarly puzzled. ‘When America’s great enemy suddenly disappeared,’ he said, ‘many wondered what new direction our foreign policy would take. We spoke, as always, of long-term problems and regional crises throughout the world, but there was no single, immediate, global threat that any roomful of experts could agree upon.’ He added, ‘All of that changed five months ago. The threat is known and our role is clear now.’
What Cheney was saying, in a slightly more articulate fashion, was that the main purpose of American foreign policy was to confront an enemy—and that a worthy successor to the Soviet Union had finally emerged, in the form of international terrorism.
I bring this back up, because this past week we have found out where neocon passions really lie. As you should see at left or above, history is back, baby, along with such blasts from the past as missile launchers and other weapons systems being moved into countries neighboring Russian territory. It even seems that BushCo has been following a Cold War-ish policy of encouraging Georgia to conduct itself as an anti-Russian U.S. client that happened to be right on Russia’s borders, despite the fact we were not enemies with Russia anymore. Not-as-cuddly-as-the-U.S.-wants-him-to-seem Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili clearly likes to play Fidel Castro to Russia’s U.S., the provocative neighborhood gadfly who thinks he is protected enough to get away with it. Our bad.
In fact, there are not all that many Cold War similarities in the actual situation the U.S. (and the Georgians) face in Georgia, but we should have guessed at how excited the neocons and their fellow travellers (McCain) would be if a chance to confront the old archvillain, or some semblance thereof, even hinted at presenting itself. Josh Marshall was quite funny the other day, writing about:
the bankrupt posturing of the neocons, jumping at the hopes of a new Cold War with the Russians, despite the lack of the ideological underpinnings on which we fought the first and any Russian global ambitions or capacity to fight it.
But I think in our own lives we all know the type who heads off into some new and exciting scheme, with high hopes and little forethought. And when things don’t pan out or come crashing down at their feet, rather than take stock of the situation or reevaluate their own shiftless practices, they’re off to some new ambitious plan or get-rich-quick scheme as if the last gambit had never happened.
And it’s hard not to recognize that sad figure in the Max Boots and John McCains and Bill Bennetts and all the rest with their sustaining roots planted firmly at AEI HQ. After all, what happened to the long twilight struggle against radical Islam? So yesterday, I guess.
There is an old-fashioned term for people like this, and that is “warmongers.” If we can ever get our heads out of the WWII nostalgia-space long enough to admit that wars can actually be bad even if U.S. soldiers fight in them, we should consider using that word again, and bring the moral opprobrium as well.
Recovering historian that he is, Josh complained trenchantly in another post of the “grandiosity” that afflicts D.C. denizens when they deal with foreign policy, and points to the way that such grandiosity is built into the culture of the modern media and policy-making system:
One of the great threats we face is the personal sense of grandiosity of the lead foreign hands who shape the course of our role in the world. Not national grandiosity, but personal grandiosity. Because if you’re a foreign policy hand or political leader your own quest for greatness is constrained by whether or not you live in times of grand historical events.
There’s a lot of this nonsense floating around today by pampered commentators who want to find a new world historical conflict to write bracing commentary about before we’re done with the one from last week.
Amen. I think the media effect here is huge, but probably even broader. Endless repetition and stylization of the post-WWII historical narrative of world politics has boiled everything down to a few images and phrases and feelings that can easily sketched and reapplied to new situations. 24-hour cable news and the Internet provide an insatiable market for instant “historic” moments that no one will be able to escape for the next two days or remember in six months’ time. Technology and lots of practice make it almost absurdly easy to provide such historic moments, at least in terms of generating “compelling” footage of some would-be statesman saying appropriately steely things. In effect, they all want to be the star of their own cable “history” documentary, and they probably will be.