Russia isn’t a superpower and won’t be one again

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ghastly but also illuminating. It’s illuminated just how broke and dysfunctional its military is and how endemic the corruption is within it. But it’s also illuminating that the country is no longer a superpower, and likely won’t ever be one again.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it’s a corrupt state. If oligarchs can siphon off much of the money that would otherwise go to the state, it deprives the state of the resources it needs to be effective. This is evident in the condition of Russia’s military in the Ukraine war, where much of it equipment is breaking down. Their hardware is generally shoddy because a whole chain of people got kickbacks instead of insisting the stuff they were buying was of quality. Much of their military is corrupt too, but even if they wanted to be otherwise, senior leadership won’t allow them not to be corrupt. You succeed in Russia’s military by being a toady but remaining far enough down in the hierarchy where you won’t be held accountable.

Second, its military is badly managed. Its recruits are for the most part of low caliber and they don’t get the training they need to effectively do their jobs. There is little delegation of authority, meaning local commanders can’t adapt to changing conditions. The pay is poor too and conscripts are rarely of high quality. They also haven’t figured out how to run a military logistics chain properly. And their troops seem to lack many of the basics needed to be effective, like gas for their tanks, regular resupplies and secure phones for communications.

Most importantly, they’ve been priced out of the superpower field. This is essentially how we won the Cold War in the first place: we outspent the Soviet Union because our GDP allowed us to do it. To some extent Russia held on by being clever, such as by developing more effective tactical weapons. But with a GDP less than ten percent of the United States, they simply didn’t have the means to compete forever.

Effectively, China has replaced them as the world’s new superpower. They did it by embracing capitalism, utilizing its abundance of cheap labor and a growing highly skilled workforce that embraced education. This created double digit economic growth year over year, giving them a GDP that is now rivaling that of the United States. This also gave them the resources to expand their military, build aircraft carriers, improve their ballistic missiles and create the infrastructure needed to support a first class military.

Russia embraced corrupt capitalism after it lost the Cold War. It helped improve their dismal GDP, but not enormously. Capitalism was concentrated in assets it already had, like oil and gas, rather than in new and emerging technologies. It did not reinvest its profits in things that matter like China did: infrastructure and education. To the extent Russia can wield political power, it depends on aging technology. Its nuclear warheads are one of its biggest assets, but hardest to wield effectively.

All this is not to suggest the United States is home free. Our political polarization brings lack of unity, which adds to our own governmental dysfunction. We effectively have our own oligarchy in the United States too, and it is creating huge inequality and poverty. The Republican focus on taxes as being bad also means less investments in the future. With enough disunion, the United States can be broken apart. The same is true with many countries rife with sectarian struggles. Russia might succeed in a way through our failures. So far though we keep funding our defense establishment lavishly, and our military remains one that is highly trained and effective.

Obviously, Russia is still capable of causing a lot of conflict, misery and death. But its military mindset is still stuck in the 20th century. It can perhaps nuke Ukraine into submission, but it has forever lost the hearts and minds of its people. It can only succeed by brute force, if it can find the resources to do so, but it is doomed to eventually fail. The war has proven catastrophically unwinnable for them, and any victory would be pyrhhic at best. In the process, it is turning the country into an outlaw state, further depriving them of the resources they will need to thrive in the future.

This war, which is likely to drag on for years, will likely be seen as the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, at least so far.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves land wars are so 20th century and democracies are valuable

A week ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember going to bed feeling upset and morose. I didn’t sleep well. It was a strange reaction to events half a world away, but it’s good to know I was not alone. Lots of Americans are feeling the same way. The invasion of Ukraine has permeated American society the way few events do. It’s woken up pretty much all Americans and they don’t like what they are seeing.

So far Ukrainians have surprised the world by resisting the invasion extraordinarily well. Thankfully, the world is rallying to their side. Almost nobody is rooting for Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump perhaps being the exception. A lot of Republicans are probably rooting in secret, but it quickly became toxic for Republicans not to support the Ukrainians.

I detected a bit of racism in Americans’ support. There was a lot less concern for the indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria, likely because it’s not a predominantly White country. In Ukraine it’s a war of Whites against Whites.

Part of the reason I didn’t sleep well though was because I understood its magnitude. We thought we had won the Cold War in 1991 when the USSR fell, but this feels like it’s back on again. But the real reason for my disquiet was because this was the first major war in Europe since World War II. I literally was not alive during the last one. Like it or not, we’re in a whole new ballgame.

The world’s reaction to the invasion has been heartening. Russia is virtually alone because really there was no valid justification for it. The pretexts for the invasion were laughable: it was to go after Nazis in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s president is a Jew!

When even Switzerland is thinking of sanctioning Russia, you know just how upset most countries are at Putin’s action. It’s hard to see how Putin wins this. He may succeed in occupying the country for a while, but he can’t keep it. Ukrainians won’t allow it and the rest of the world will provide the resources to make sure they can keep at it. If their goal was to keep NATO in check, it’s much likelier now to expand it.

Moreover, the Russian Army has proven staggeringly inept. Their equipment is old, they can’t seem to maintain supply lines and the resources they need to keep it going are being cut off. Much of its army consists of conscripts and clearly many do not have even minimal training. The Russian Army has clearly degraded and is beginning to resemble a Potemkin village.

The invasion has also paradoxically breathed new life into flagging democracies. When they can see on their TV exactly what it means to be ruled by an autocrat, most people accept the systems of government they got. At least it’s familiar.

Until the invasion, Putin has projected the illusion of competence and tenacity. The invasion proves he is incompetent, as it was obviously a fool’s errand to invade in the first place. In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to win a conflict through military means, and a win is almost always an illusion and temporary. It’s why we finally got out of Afghanistan last year and our war with Iraq proved such a debacle. You can’t win a conflict where you can’t win the vast majority of hearts and minds. The last conflict we won convincingly was World War II, in part because Japan was an autocracy, and the word of its emperor was enough to end the conflict. These conditions largely don’t exist anymore.

Democratic values are values increasingly not cherished here in the United States. But this horrible invasion may provide an opportunity for Americans to stay with democracy, despite its flaws. No system of government is more stable than one that represents the view of those who are governed. Through gerrymandering we’ve managed to turn our country into one that resembles Russia’s oligarchy. Unlike Russia though we have an opportunity to change course, if we are smart enough to learn from Putin’s unfolding debacle.

Attention Donald Trump: Here’s what life was really like in the United States in 1953

Over the last few days I’ve learned that President Elect Trump wants to take us back to 1953. That apparently was when American was last great again. Trump was also seven years old in 1953, so it probably did look pretty good from the childish eyes of a boy of privilege. In 1953, the Trump family was living in a faux two-story Tudor house in Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York. At the time of the 1950 census, Queens was 96% white. It’s likely that his house on the Midland Parkway was even more so white, if that’s possible.

It should be obvious that we can’t rewind this country sixty-three years. In 1950, there were 161 million American. Today there is nearly twice that many. In 1950, whites were 87% of the population. The 2010 census puts whites at 64% of the population. Curiously there are some parallels between 1953 and 2016. Democratic president Truman had retired and Republican Dwight Eisenhower came into office. Republicans controlled 48 seats in the Senate, which gave them the majority since Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. Republicans also controlled the House by a margin of eight seats. With Eisenhower’s election, Republicans had a lock on Congress, but not a filibuster-proof Senate, just like today.

Eisenhower of course was no Trump, except in the sense that neither had held elective office before. However, Eisenhower had been the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during the Second World War, so he was hardly unfamiliar with government. In 1953 though Republicans were anxious to reassert power, having been out of the White House for twenty years. Still, 1953 wasn’t quite as wonderful and conservative as Republicans would have you believe. It was the year of the first sex reassignment surgery (Christine Jorgensen).

In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for alleged spying for the Soviet Union, charges still in dispute. The Korean War ended in 1953, but was never settled. It ended only when President Eisenhower, channeling a war-weary America, threatened to nuke North Korea if they did not agree to end it. Other signs of the new more liberal age on the horizon were easy to find. The second Albert Kinsey book (on the sexuality of women, which was news to many that women were even sexual creatures) was released. Hugh Hefner released the first copy of Playboy magazine.

On the international front, the spread of communism was a huge concern in 1953. Truman, as one of his last acts, announced that we had developed the hydrogen bomb. This one-upped the U.S. in the nuclear arms race, at least for a while. Joseph Stalin, the dictator running the Soviet Union died in 1953 to be succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. We were in the middle of the second Red scare, which put the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee into overdrive, the latter chaired by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Mere allegations of being a communist sympathizer were enough to get you blacklisted, which ended the careers of countless people. Today now that Republicans are in charge again some in Congress are calling for the resumption of the HUAC.

With Trump’s election of course concern about communism, or at least about Russia as our foe, seem to be over. This is despite evidence that Russia interfered with our latest election. Trump seems anxious to close this chapter in our history. It’s unclear if he will succeed, as at least some Republican senators want an inquiry into their hacking. Given Trump’s protestations it’s much more likely than not that there is a roaring fire under this smoldering pile.

Was America great in 1953? The Cold Wars with the Soviet Union and China were the major problems of that time as was checking the spread of communism. In that sense with the Cold War’s end in the 1990s America was more ascendant than in the 1950s. By empowering Russia, Trump risks starting it all over again. It’s completely fair to criticize Trump for this initiative, as it is likely to fracture NATO and potentially end the peace Europe has known since the Second World War. In 1953, the Marshall Plan was ending. Our investment in Europe brought it not only a Cold War peace but also prosperity to a rebuilt and newly democratic Europe. Our troops in Japan ensured it did not become a rival power again. Troops in Korea checked the spread of communism there. Today Trump wants to withdraw our investments in foreign countries. Our lessons in 1953 suggest this would be deeply counterproductive.

Segregation was a fact of life in 1953, something Trump tacitly approves of. The Brown v. Board of Education decision that would declare that separately funded schools for minorities were unconstitutional was still a year away. President Truman integrated our armed forces before leaving office. The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant, and not just in the south. The headquarters of the KKK was just eight miles from where I live now, in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The John Birch Society was on the rise as well, an organization that would not look unfamiliar to the Tea Party.

Both women and blacks could vote, but voter suppression of minorities was extreme, mostly in Southern states. It would take more than a decade for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Women were more likely to be home raising children than in the workplace in 1953. This was not true though if you were a single woman or poor. You worked, mostly at menial jobs that paid far less than what a man earned. But the Rosie Riveters in World War Two planted the roots of women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s pretty clear that neither Trump nor Republicans in Congress want to revert to the tax rates of the time. Our enormous prosperity was powered by tax rates that now seem astounding. The top tax rate was 92% of income, and corporate tax rates reached 50%. Eisenhower and Republicans were successful in cutting the top tax rate … to 91%. It was this redistribution of wealth that really powered America in the 1950s. It did things like build our interstate highway system by unleashing this money for productive uses. If Trump were serious about making America great again, he would be raising tax rates, not cutting them.

America was certainly a whiter place in 1950, but hardly a happy place. There were two major recessions in the 1950s. Pollution was unchecked. Some Americans escaped by toking on marijuana, but it was more of a fringe activity. Alcohol was the escape of choice for most. Chastity was hardly the norm in the 1950s, but illicit sex was more discreet. Homosexuals were largely in the closet but had learned to congregate in gay bars. AIDS was unknown but syphilis and gonorrhea were common. The extent of birth control was largely the condom, if you could find any. Abortion was available, just illicitly.

TV was something of a novelty in 1953, but those who had one were tuned into watching The Lucy Show. More people were listening to radio. PBS was not a thing in 1953. Cable TV did not exist. If you had TV, you were limited to ABC, NBC and CBS stations and sometimes not even those. Transistors were still in the lab; vacuum tubes were the state of high technology.

By most metrics the United States today is a much better place than it was in 1953, just a lot less white. Americans were more prosperous in general back then, largely because high marginal tax rates meant income inequality was not much of a thing. About 25% of workers belonged to unions. Just 10% do today.

It’s quite clear that Trump’s plans are likely only to bring back some of the worst aspects of those times, and little of its best aspects. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Cold War Returns

It is now looking like The Cold War did not so much end as it was postponed.

It sure looked like it ended back in 1989. For those of us of a certain age, the images of the Berlin Wall being torn down brick by brick (with many of the bricks being carted off as souvenirs) are indelible. Sometime in the early 1990s, I remember going to sleep with the realization that for the first time in my life, there was virtually no possibility of our country being attacked by nuclear missiles. No country had a reason to lob one at us. We were safe at last!

Over the last ten days or so, we have seen what sure looks like an opening salvo in The Cold War, Version 2. Russia and Georgia have been having a little tiff. It started over the largely ethnically Russian province of South Ossetia in Georgia. It was allowed quasi-independence from Georgia because Georgia feared Russia, its big brother. Who started this war? It is hard to say for sure, since there were plenty of skirmishes on both sides leading up to it, as The Washington Post cataloged yesterday. It looks like the Georgian army was the first to tip the apple cart by brazenly sending its troops into South Ossetia to show them who’s boss. To Georgia it was, “Well, excuse me for reclaiming my territory.” To the residents of South Ossetia it was, “Hey, I thought we were independent! Russia! Help!!” To Russia, it was “Let’s squash those Georgian buggers and send a signal that the Bear is back”.

Moving troops into South Ossetia was a spectacularly stupid move by Georgia, but one that was probably inevitable at some point. Disputed regions never remain disputed indefinitely. Eventually one side gets into a big enough huff and moves their chess piece. The Russian Army showed that Georgia’s forces were paper tigers. This left Georgia to squeal to its Western allies to help negotiate a cease-fire. Maybe Russia will withdraw, maybe not. Point made.

This war is not really about South Ossetia or neighboring Georgian territories under occupation by the Russian army. Telling this to the thousands of civilians who appear to have died because of this conflict is doubtless of no comfort. No, the roots of this event go back to that day in October 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the subsequently poor job the West did integrating Russia into the free world in the years since. Unsurprisingly, much of the blame can be laid on the Bush Administration, who have proven ever anxious to push its ideological saber when it could. This administration believes that possession is nine tenths of the law. That is why it never thought twice about suspending Habeas Corpus. If you have power, you should use it, whether earned or not. So of course we were going to overtly and covertly do everything we could to encourage Russia’s neighboring states to adopt our values. We needed an enlightened approach toward Russia. What we got was ideology.

In 1962, when the Soviet Union put mobile missile launchers in Cuba, the United States nearly became engulfed in a nuclear war. The result was the well-known and truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, just because we can, we are pressing new NATO states like Poland and the Czech Republic to accept our missiles as a “defense shield”. We are doing this supposedly to protect them from rogue states like Iran that might want to lob missiles at them. Of course, we are not doing it because Russia sits right next to them and has a habit of making sycophant states out of Eastern Europe. Why, we even invited the Russians in to check it the missile’s guidance systems. See, they’re not targeted at you. Never mind that in a couple minutes, they sure as heck could be targeted at Russia. Never mind that Iran has zero interest in lobbing missiles at the Czech Republic or Poland anyhow.

With the retirement of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian government gave up governing by vodka. With Putin, smart leadership was back. His methods were hardly democratic, but he was a man of practical action. He knew he could leverage the power and greed in the West for Russia’s own aims. Democracy became inconvenient toward a more powerful goal shared by most Russians: wiping away the stain of humiliation over their defeat in the Cold War. Russia has enormous amounts of land and natural resources. Western capitalism became the means to reinvigorate their economy. Naturally, we in the West and elsewhere were more than happy to earn some fast bucks. Communism is gone, as it is pretty much in China as well. What is not gone is the tendency on both sides toward hegemony. And the bad news is that while America is now just coming off its energy high having consumed much of its most valuable natural resources, Russia has what is likely the largest natural resources in the planet, much of it untapped. It also has all sorts of metals and oil reserves needed to run a first world country. Moreover, we greedily facilitated the process by providing it with the technology and expertise.

Nuclear missiles, which used to be relatively far away in places like West Germany, may be but a relative stones throw from Russia if the West succeeds in putting these missiles in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic. In other words, 2008 looks very much like 1962 did to us, which is why recently one Russian general remarked if missiles go into Poland, it could be subject to Russian attack. Maybe this sort of delayed karmic experience is inevitable, but it did not have to be this way. It required the West, and the United States in particular, to act in a more enlightened manner instead of an ideological manner. Russia’s reaction to these new threats was entirely predictable. Consequently, they were wholly avoidable.

What would have been a more enlightened way to deal with Russia? Some ways were attempted. Russia was invited to attend the G-7, which became the G-8. We sent over venture capitalists and some that tried to teach America’s style of democracy, which proved to be a culturally imperfect fit. What was really needed was a slower and lower key approach. Eastern European countries had good reasons to want to become NATO and European Union members. Living under Russian occupation or its dominion was rarely a happy circumstance. What was also needed was a more respectful attitude toward Russia. If you want to avoid paranoia, you need to set up circumstances that reduce paranoid feelings. A slower and gentler approach toward helping emerging democracies would have been better. Providing military aid and advisors to neighboring countries like Georgia do nothing but inflame paranoia that the United States has motives beyond spreading freedom.

And so both sides are continuing their games of geopolitical chess which if we had acted in an enlightened manner we might have ended forever in 1989. Instead, the Cold War is reemerging unnecessarily, and doubtless its costs will be at least as high as they were during the last go around. Communism vs. democracy is no longer its animus. On the surface it appears to be about things like oil, free trade and keeping vital shipping lanes open. What is really going on is that the United States senses that it is an empire in decline, much like the British a century earlier. We also see Russia as a true empire for the first time. This time Russia is not saddled with the ideology that made it so inefficient. Our hope is that by sponsoring emerging democracies like Georgia, and by making sustaining friendships with strategic trading partners like Saudi Arabia the weight of these alliances will counter the newly unshackled Russian and Chinese states.

The effect of these changes is a new Cold War that in some ways is not that much different than the old one, and may well be scarier. The USSR is replaced by Russia, which is smaller, but by being more ethnically-pure may be more united. China is still China, but having embraced capitalism is also stronger. Then there is the United States. We thought we were the world’s only remaining superpower, but we were deluding ourselves. The United States is both stronger and weaker, both enabled and hobbled by being continents apart from the competition.

It remains to be seen how the emerging powerhouses of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Iran will fit into all this. It does appear that many more chess pieces are now in play and the game will get more complex from here on. All sides have studied the board for a long time. Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia is Pawn to King 4.

Review: At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War

The Cold War, thankfully, is receding into history like a bad but distant memory. I was born about a decade after the Cold War began and I was in my early thirties before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, which of course ended the Cold War. For a few wonderful years afterward Americans lived largely free of the fear of imminent nuclear attack.

Of course, we have not given up our nuclear weapons. We still have nuclear missiles on standby. We still think nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Instead of building nuclear arsenals to destroy the planet, now we develop smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons designed to drill deep underground and destroy hardened bunkers. Nor has the end of the Cold War diminished interest in nuclear weapons. The cost of entry into the nuclear club has dropped dramatically. It seems that every rogue state with sufficient means, and even many mainstream states like India, also wants the bomb.

The threat of nuclear war thus only receded a bit with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it has morphed and become a different and arguably far more complex chessboard. Today we are beginning to understand that the Cold War never wholly left, but instead it has mutated. What have changed are its players. Use of a nuclear weapon today, if it occurs, has only one small redeeming aspect: it is less likely to start a worldwide thermonuclear war and the United States is less likely to be its first victim.

Therefore, in a way the Cold War seems almost nostalgic. For all its immense cost the problem of nuclear deterrence was, in some respects, simple. Our strategy was to show that if attacked we could also attack our foes with equally lethal force, meaning that neither state would survive to claim victory. Was it luck, the hand of God or enlightened leaders that kept us from Armageddon? While we may never know for sure, former Air Force Secretary Thomas C. Reed would argue it was the latter. In his 2004 book, At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War he walks us through its long history.

Mr. Reed though does bring some unique insight to the Cold War. He was one of our nuclear program managers, and managed the development of a number of nuclear weapons as a young Air Force officer. It is in his description of the development of these weapons and his witnessing of their testing that this book shines. There is no substitute for a first hand account of a thermonuclear test in the Pacific. Mr. Reed gives us insight into what a real thermonuclear war would be like. I would say it would be chilling, except it would be just the opposite. The reality is hellish:

There’s the light, a brightness that simply does not stop. People talk about a flash, but a thermonuclear detonation is not a flashbulb event. The sun starts to burn on earth; darkness seems never to return. There are the colors- purples and other hallucinogenic hues that confirm Shakespeare’s observation about the next world: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” There’s the heat. It makes no sense to the brain, because the explosion being observed is almost over the horizon, as far away as Baltimore is from Washington. Yet the first flash gives way to an oppressive, lingering heat whose persistence is unnerving. And then there’s the all-enveloping roar of the savage beast unleashed… So much else happened that the senses are numb. The first shock wave is not a crack or a pop, as one hears from a gun fired far away. It is the opening of a roar encompassing the senses, seeming to continue forever.

Reed’s first hand accounts of thermonuclear tests, along with his recollections of what it was like working in the nation’s premier nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California are fascinating and insightful, as well as very scary. I was struck by the utter sobriety of those engaged in this ghastly nuclear weapons business, as well as their ingenuity in making such arrays of nuclear devices work from so many platforms: from submarines that lurked beneath the seas, from airplanes, and from all sorts of land based missiles. This was done while also ensuring that they would remain inert unless very complex permission schemes were used. Reed does us a favor by giving us a very intimate glimpse of these years. It is fascinating and sobering reading.

Eventually Reed got out of the nuclear weapons business and the Air Force. Politics attracted him. In particularly he was a devoted follower of a certain former actor and governor of California. No, I do not mean Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Ronald Reagan. Reed was a friend of Reagan during his years as governor, and acted as his chief of staff during those years. He also assisted in his many campaigns and won Reagan’s personal respect and friendship. He served as the Secretary of the Air Force under President Ford, and then went to work on Reagan’s National Security Council, ably assisted by a certain Major named Oliver North. Consequently, Reed also brings us some unique insights into the back stage shenanigans at the Reagan White House. We learn that the White House was broken into two sets of key players, the Old Guards of which Reed was a member, and a newer and more politically savvy set, epitomized by James Baker. Reed was an unabashed admirer of Reagan. He gives him full credit for ending the Cold War, although he is certainly respectful toward most of the presidents who developed the strategies and exercised the leadership needed during our long Cold War. He does not even mention Reagan’s fiscal and environmental wreckage.

While this book has many merits, it also has some detractions. Where Reed has personal insights, it shines. When he has no first hand experiences, like the Vietnam War, we tend to get short histories of the sort you can read free on Wikipedia. You can also tell that he chooses to walk a fine line. He is in awe of Reagan’s leadership and personal character, but he is less enamored with Nancy Reagan, who he portrays as “The Queen of Hearts”. On the other hand, even when he gets into sensitive areas, like Nancy Reagan’s behavior, he manages to do so in a way that is mildly gossipy, yet offers little in the way of new revelations.

Reed is also Republican to the core, so his bias is obvious. In the first chapter, for example, he gives a history of the death and misery inflicted by Communist rulers. It was a tragic chronicle but the numbers of deaths that he asserts were caused by Communism are so large as to seem incredulous. He asserts, for example, that Stalin killed over twenty million Russians and more than thirty million Chinese died in Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Unlike others, like Barbara Tuchman, he thinks our bombing of North Vietnam actually was quite effective.

The book’s title is a bit misleading. I imagine his publisher demanded a florid title to ensure brisk sales. He was never at the abyss, unless that means being fifty miles from a planned thermonuclear explosion. He was not starring down the Russians in the seas off Cuba in 1963. He does however provide plenty of insight and personal experience in significant aspects of the Cold War. This makes his book worthy of the read, in spite of its abject partisanship. For Reed is as much a patriotic American as he is a Republican. He comes across as one of the more eloquent and grounded people in the Republican Party, more of the Barry Goldwater mindset than the Newt Gingrich variety. Books like his are invaluable for historians and scholars. We should be grateful Mr. Reed took the time in the autumn of his life to capture it for us.

Delusional Paranoia on Iraq

While I was driving home from church today, I was listening to a rebroadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press on CSPAN Radio. NBC reporter Tim Russert was interviewing Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, of course, was our War in Iraq and President Bush’s controversial strategy to add tens of thousands more American troops in Baghdad.

Senator Graham was strictly towing the party line. Of course, he thought President Bush’s strategy deserved a chance to succeed. He decried Congress for trying to micromanage the war. He kept reiterating the same points. If we leave Iraq now there will be a bloodbath. The Middle East will explode into a regional conflict. Al Qaeda will have a new base for the training and recruitment of terrorists. He also said Iraq would become a puppet regime for Iran, Turkey would invade Kurdistan and neighboring Sunni states would support the Sunnis cause in Iraq’s civil war. He implied that all this would lead to the same paranoid conclusion shared by President Bush and many on Capitol Hill: the terrorists would follow us home. They assert that failure to confront the terrorists today in Iraq could then mean goodbye United States of America and hello Islamic Republic of America. Goodbye internets, hello burkas.

Senator Graham needs a reality check. No one knows for sure what would happen if America precipitously withdrew from Iraq. I will grant you that a couple scenarios are more likely than not. If we withdrew, I think you could count on more Sunni vs. Shiite violence in the short term, although arguably there is plenty enough of it going on right now. The de facto partitioning of Iraq, already well underway, would accelerate dramatically. Many of the other scenarios he posed sound dubious at best. I would call some of them ludicrous and ultra paranoid.

With much of Iraq in turmoil and ungovernable, I doubt the Iranian army would want to join in the fray. I also doubt that if a Shiite state emerges from the civil war that it will want to be at any other nation’s beck and call. Iraqi Shiites have lusted for a nation of their own for too long. At best, their army could only partially protect the Shiites. In any event, there are many Shiites in Iraq and armed militias like the Mahdi Army have proven they can fight effectively. Like the United States, Iran has a finite number of soldiers available for messy occupations, and occupying a large part of Iraq would be a tall order. In addition, Iranians are Persians, and Shiite Iraqis are Arabs. Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic and Iranians speak Farsi. This introduces both language and ethnic differences. They may all seem like towel heads to us outsiders, but it is very unlikely that Shiite Iraq could ever successfully work as a client state of Iran. Iran and Iraqi Shiites have religion in common and not a whole lot else. In fact, there is likely quite a bit of animosity that still lingers. Twenty-five years ago, Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bloody war that killed at least 875,000 people.

Turkey could invade Kurdistan, but it would come at a great cost. First, they desperately want to become part of the European Union. Invading another country is not a great way to go about it, particularly since the invasion would be unprovoked. Second, the Kurds are hardly helpless. While the rest of Iraq has descended into anarchy, they have used their relative tranquility to increase their armed forces and readiness; an invasion would hardly be a cakewalk. If Turkey did try to occupy Kurdistan, it would probably devolve into a bloody occupation like the one we are seeing in Iraq. Third, even if American forces did leave Iraq, most likely they would relocate to Kurdistan anyhow. It makes a convenient base to keep track on elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, check Iran’s influence, and dissuade Turkey from invading. At least initially, the Kurds would welcome our presence as a stabilizing influence. In short it is hardly a given that our withdrawal would cause the whole region to explode into conflict.

Why do Senator Graham’s warnings sound so familiar? Tim Russert nailed it: this line of thought is peculiarly reminiscent of the Domino Theory so popular and proven so incredibly wrong that existed during the Cold War. The theory was that if we did not check communism in South Vietnam, it would creep all over South Asia. President Lyndon Johnson himself figured we might have to surrender the Pacific Ocean to the forces of communism if we failed to contain it in Vietnam.

Then as now, we got it mostly wrong. At least that is the opinion of the noted late historian Barbara Tuchman. I am in the final part of her book, The March of Folly (1984). It concludes with a long hard look at the waste of time, lives and resources trying to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It is painful reading, and not just because tens of thousands of Americans needlessly lost their lives there. It is also painful because here we are forty years later and we are repeating the same stupid mistakes. Ironically, the people who put us in Iraq were the very same people who harbored so much resentment that we let Vietnam fall in the first place. Iraq became their ideological battlefield that would prove we could do a Vietnam situation again, only do it right this time.

Of course, many on the right will say that Iraq is not Vietnam. In some respects of course they are right. However, you do not have to get too far into this part of Tuchman’s book to realize that when it came to how the war was executed many of the same strategies were used. These included candid intelligence assessments that were ignored by politicians and trumped up incidents used to justify unilateral escalation of the conflict. Both conflicts also had numerous attempts by the U.N. to keep the solve the conflict before armed force was used, and in both cases we found we would rather fight and prove our manliness than use diplomacy. In both conflicts there was amply warning that we would be entering a Pandora’s Box, yet we let our fears and hubris dictate our actions. In both conflicts, we studiously chose to ignore the history of the region, assumed the best case and supported anemic and corrupt leaders on the assumption that it was better to support the devil you know.

In Vietnam, for example, Tuchman notes that China gave weak support to the Communist North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong. This was because historically the Vietnamese and the Chinese have not gotten along. The USSR’s support of North Vietnam was far more in the moral support area than in advisers and money. Vietnam was just one of many areas of influence around the world that interested them. (One of them was Iran, which led to our engagement in Iraq and providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence and munitions.) Moreover, communism in Vietnam was a logical response to the times. As Tuchman makes clear, France’s interest when Vietnam was its colony was simply to exploit its people and devour its natural resources. The French ruthlessly suppressed any dissent. Little thought was given to bridging the cultural differences between the western and eastern culture. Communism in Vietnam was a generally recognized pragmatic means by the residents of Vietnam to bring about their fondest goal: genuine Vietnamese nationalism and sovereignty.

The result of our hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975 was a united country that had been artificially split in two. The communist menace hardly leached across South Asia. It ended with Laos and Cambodia, and all our massive secret bombings failed to bring stem it. Today Vietnam, like China, is more communist in name than in ideology. Thirty years later, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia is no longer communist. Laos remains a socialist state with a communist underpinning, yet remnants of the Hmong still wage occasional insurgent strikes to try to end the socialist state.

To me the lesson of Vietnam means we that should now exercise some perspective. Most likely, our worst fears are a result of our own paranoid delirium. For them to be realized depends on many really improbable ifs being executed. It allows for no possibility that other natural events and forces in the region might counteract these forces. It assumes, for example, that groups like al Qaeda can wield more power and influence than historic ethnic forces. Moreover, it assumes that by using our own force there that we can truly achieve our aims. One thing we should have learned to date from this conflict is that our presence (and in particular our use of armed forces) exacerbates the situation and provides much of the animus to keep the conflict going.

What is needed now is exactly what we should have done before we invaded Iraq: a cold, clinical and dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that our imagined risks will play out, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical forces at play in the region. Yes, I think further bloodshed is likely if we leave Iraq. I doubt strongly though that the terrorists will follow us home. As I mentioned in another entry we were the domino that fell on 9/11. We acted predictably and precisely the way that al Qaeda wanted us to act to effect a one time aim: inflame the Muslim world when we retaliated. At its heart, the violence underway today in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is the result of the same thing that drove the conflict in Vietnam: the desire of a people to direct their societies consistent with their own culture and values. Instead, the Arab world is rife with oppression, hopelessness and poverty. “Moderate” states that we support like Egypt are actually secular states where human rights exist on paper, but not in practice. Al Qaeda is a sad example of the effects that extreme oppression can cause over many decades. Al Qaeda though is just one force at work. There are many others. They are already moving their chess pieces. The movement will continue whether we stay or go. It is folly to think that we can contain or redirect the energy of these forces. They must be expressed and they will be expressed whether we wish it or not.

Just as the USSR eventually collapsed under its own bloated weight, so must these oppressive Arab regimes. It is this oppression and not our occupation that is causing the kettle to boil. Our presence simply stirs the cauldron. I am convinced though that although the path to resolution of these feelings in the Middle East may be bloody and messy, it will be resolved most quickly and with the most finality when we come to our senses and allow these natural forces to play out.