Cold War II

Memorial Day is coming up, and it isn’t a particularly funny holiday. It might be a good time, though, to poke fun at the War on Terror, which isn’t really a war at all, and isn't really on terror . . it's on violent religious fundamentalism - terrorism is its byproduct. With the creation of the Homeland Security Department, complete with its color-coded warning system (which is funny) and the friendly TSA employees (who are bordering on useless), it seemed at first that the war would follow in the steps of rhetorical, domestic “wars,” which were essentially just policy efforts with snappy titles. Who can forget Johnson’s War on Poverty, Reagan’s War on Drugs, and Clinton’s controversial War on Wilford Brimley? But unlike these domestic efforts, so frequently named for their purpose, the War On Terror takes place much more on foreign soil, “on the offense” as President Bush likes to say, via diplomatic efforts, funding friendly governments, and the occasional actual war.

So why are we naming this foreign policy “war” for its purpose? We’ve never done that before. A more appropriate name might be something like Cold War II. Why? Well, first of all, wars just seem to come in twos, like the World Wars, the conflicts against Iraq, and who can forget the famous “French and Indian War II” [insert really offensive joke here]? Second, and more seriously, the efforts of the US today mirror, almost exactly, our efforts against the USSR and communism in the Cold War (not the War on Communism). The conflict includes a clash of more or less mutually exclusive ideologies, for one. In addition, each side has limited the scope of actual combat, to Afghanistan today (and arguably Iraq now, but let’s ignore that conflation for a while), and to Korea, Indochina/Vietnam, and Afghanistan during the Cold War. Man, it sucks to be Afghanistan. Third, in both situations, the conflict is primarily waged through bit players, small countries that, for a host of reasons, choose a side. That’s an important point to keep in mind – we avoided, almost at all costs, any direct actions against the USSR.

To that end, there are quite a few lessons learned already that America could apply. One important point is that containment, as opposed to aggression, can be effective. Sure, there isn’t one huge political superpower that we’re fighting against, but it’s a very organized political movement, with strongholds and direct and indirect political influence. Starting by slowing the spread of fundamentalism should be step one. The US met with considerable success in the Cold War by, for the most part, drawing defensible boundaries, and attempting not to let communism spread further. The two borders that were the least defensible, the 38th parallel in Korea and the porous borders of Vietnam, led to serious problems. Overall, the containment and power threat policy worked fairly well, and certainly saved American lives because it was mostly realistic and defensible; it essentially conceded Eastern Europe and Asia, and ground away at the fringes. Restrictive systems where citizens’ choices are suppressed may function for a while, but on a large scale, they tend to blow up pretty violently in the end. I think that America could get a lot more mileage by working hard to halt the spread of fundamentalism in places like Indonesia, North Africa, and Egypt – the border areas. Yet these are exactly the kind of cultures, which, right now, are becoming less and less receptive to American intervention and support because of our aggressive actions directly against fundamentalist nations. It seems pretty clear these days that almost every nation’s opinion of America’s credibility has dropped precipitously. Perhaps it's time to build up NATO once more.

Who knows, maybe a more gradual approach to confronting fundamentalism may be a better strategy in the long term. At any rate, it can't hurt to rethink our strategies, and we definitely need to work on a name change. What sounds cooler to you: the War on Terror, or Cold War II? This is just something to think about think about this long weekend, as you enjoy an extra day away from work in the good ‘ol USA . . .


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