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Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 19, 2008

Cold War ghost pains flaring up

Filed under: Bush administration,Foreign policy,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:38 am

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.


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August 14, 2008

Russia as Great Power Redux [UPDATED]

Filed under: Foreign policy — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:45 am

Here is some support for my friend the Trotskyist’s Great Power thesis (regarding recent Russian behavior — see previous post), from the Los Angeles Times:

For years, Moscow could do little but fume as NATO courted and enrolled Russia’s former Soviet allies as members. But now, with its economy resurgent because of high oil and gas prices, and NATO and the United States preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia’s relative power in the region has grown.

“For 3 1/2 centuries, Russia has dominated its neighborhood,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Russia is “throwing a gantlet down, saying that there isn’t going to be any more NATO enlargement.”

So far, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has granted membership to the three former Soviet Baltic republics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Former Warsaw bloc countries from Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south also have become members.

Georgia and Ukraine had been hoping to gain candidate status at a NATO meeting in December. But recent events in Georgia may make NATO members and even the two countries themselves think twice.

“The Russian argument is: ‘We are a great power. This is our sphere of influence. Just because the Soviet Union collapsed does not mean that NATO can expand on our border,’ ” Stent said.

The thing is, Putin may be a thug, but he is probably much less so than a lot of “pro-Western” leaders the U.S. has propped up in the past, especially in Latin America. Furthermore, the U.S. has been taking the proprietary attitude Russia has toward the Caucasus these days over a much wider area, since the time John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were spearheading (or gunpointing) foreign policy for President Monroe — at least that long — and often taking more extreme actions. The entire western hemisphere has been our “sphere of influence,” and the U.S. government has shown few compunctions about overthrowing and undermining and sometime invading countries, in our neighborhood and out of it, where a government does something we don’t like. No need to even mention Iraq, or the multiple attempts to “liberate” Canada: Spanish Florida, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Cuba, Grenada, the list of successful and mostly unavenged U.S. interventions goes on. We also conquered Mexico, but gave most of it back, excepting the southwest 1/4 of our present land area, of course. Returning to now, what would we do if Putin tried to establish a military alliance with Mexico or the Dominican Republic? That’s the equivalent of what Georgia joining NATO would mean to Russians.

You know what’s funny? Looking up historical parallels, I was reminded of which Great Power tried to rescue the U.S. diplomatically during the War of 1812: Tsar Alexander I’s Russia. The Russians weren’t too happy about the Monroe Doctrine later, but as far I know they never tried to adopt a Latin American country as their protégé, either. [NOTE: I am referring to Tsarist Russia here, during the 19th century, not the Soviet Union in the 20th.]

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August 11, 2008

Life Without Great Powers Not Seeming So Great in Georgia

Filed under: Foreign policy,Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:44 pm

On the way to a ballgame this weekend, listening to an NPR report on the recent Georgian conflict, my friend the Trotskyist commented that the world seemed to be returning to the pre-WWI Great Power system, with empires gobbling up territory at the expense of smaller, weaker states that needed to find a Great Power protector or become one themselves if they expected to survive. Or at least Russia was returning to that model.

I didn’t have a coherent response in the car, but one of today’s New York Times stories on the conflict makes it sound like the Georgians believed they were operating in a Great Power system. How else to explain why the Georgians thought this would be an opportune moment to deal with their own breakaway regions, which were under Russian protection, the kind involving real troops. The Georgians seem to have thought that Shrub’s cheerleading for their fledgling democracy meant they were under our protection in that old-fashioned sense of our being bound to protect them in case of invasion by another Great Power:

All along the road was grief. Old men pushed wheelbarrows loaded with bags or led cows by tethers. They drove tractors and rickety Ladas packed with suitcases and televisions.

As a column of soldiers passed through Gori, a black-robed priest came out of his church and made the sign of the cross again and again.

One soldier, his face a mask of exhaustion, cradled a Kalashnikov.

“We killed as many of them as we could,” he said. “But where are our friends?”

It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?

Since the conflict began, Western leaders have worked frantically to broker a cease-fire. But for Georgians — so boisterously pro-American that Tbilisi, the capital, has a George W. Bush Street — diplomacy fell far short of what they expected.

Of course, as Shrub’s friend Vlad Putin knows, the U.S. has spent the last five years in Iraq demonstrating just how limited our power is on that side of the world, and precluding any further major interventions anywhere, let alone battling Russia on its near-home turf. If this were the pre-WWI system, we might have declared war on Russia immediately and attacked one of her allies somewhere else or sent troops across the Bering Strait (just as in Risk) or used the Navy to cut off the Black Sea or sink Russian ships in the Pacific. Iran would be in big, big trouble. And World War However Many would have been ready to rumble. You have to feel for the Georgians; they are finding out the hardest way possible how little U.S. neo-imperialists can really be trusted.

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