Fighting the Last War in Iraq and the Middle East

The perils of using Cold War analogies in the twilight struggle against Islamic extremism


PRAGUE—Sixteen years from now, will Iraqis be sitting in gay-friendly bars sending gleeful SMS messages to each other about the final episode of the local variant on "Big Brother," as my Czech friends were doing last week?

I sure as hell hope so, and further hope that Iraq's election turns out to be as pivotal as the June 1990 ballot in Czechoslovakia. But basic comparative observation suggests more modest expectations, no matter how tightly the Bush Administration and its supporters cling to the Central European example for its Iraq and Middle East policy. Yet it seems hard for the Bush team to get through a foreign policy speech without invoking the Cold War as prologue.

"In the Cold War," the president said during a November 30 speech, "freedom defeated the ideology of communism and led to a democratic movement that freed the nations of Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet domination. And today these nations are allies in the war on terror. Today in the Middle East, freedom is once again contending with an ideology that seeks to sow anger and hatred and despair."

Certainly the differences between Czechoslovakia and Iraq are pretty dispiriting. The road to last week's historic vote was de-paved with car bombs; Czechs and Slovaks managed a transition from Stalinism to democracy without firing a single shot. Iraqis live within nonsensical borders drawn up by Winston Churchill after World War I; Czechs and Slovaks more or less proposed their own federation's borders to Woodrow Wilson, who got them approved around the same time. Iraqis have never tasted anything resembling peaceful, market-oriented democracy; Czechoslovakia was one of Europe's more impressive countries in the period between the two World Wars.

And so on. These contrasts are as large as they are non-controversial, yet the administration, and the intellectual foreign-policy network that supports it, continuously misapplies the Central European Cold War experience when laying the groundwork for a new twilight struggle against Islamic authoritarianism.

One anecdotal example: In George Packer's new book, The Assassin's Gate, he recounts meeting liberal hawk Paul Berman in July 2003: "He kept comparing the situation in post-totalitarian Baghdad to Prague in 1989."

From the president on down to the think tanks, the Cold War—or their version of how it was won—has been the "last war" that the modern strategists have been busy re-fighting. Whenever Bush needs a foreign-policy pick-me-up, he pips over to Mitteleuropa to take sustenance from anti-commie heroes, invoke the parallels of Auschwitz, re-bury the Cold War's Yalta division of Europe, and listen to the increasingly wavering pledges from the fragile Coalition of the Willing.

Back at home, his lieutenants seek to untie the Executive Branch's hands to do the kind of dirty work they think defeated Communism. Almost every single one of Bush's War-on-Terror scandals—torture, secret illegal spying on American citizens, intelligence manipulation—are familiar controversies that hinge on a single, classic Cold War-era debating point: Do the greater ends of the morally righteous generational struggle justify whatever illegal or immoral means are employed in its name? And more importantly (though much less focused on), do they work?

The answers now are as contentious as they were then, which is why we see the same old hoary arguments about quien es mas patriotic, whether even secret government programs "is helping the enemy", and who's really responsible for that defining American debacle in Southeast Asia?

"On Vietnam," Norman Podhoretz wrote in his thunderous September 2004 Commentary essay World War IV, "elite opinion trumped popular opinion. Nor were the effects restricted to foreign policy. They extended into the newly antagonistic attitude toward everything America was and represented. It hardly needs stressing that this attitude found a home in the world of the arts, the universities, and the major media of news and entertainment, where intellectuals shaped by the 1960's, and their acolytes in the publishing houses of New York and in the studios of Hollywood, held sway. But it would be a serious mistake to suppose that the trickle-down effect of the professoriate's attitude was confined to literature, journalism, and show business."

Podhoretz, like his fellow neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol, calls to mind another Cold War-era strategic relic that made recent news—covert propaganda. Both men were leaders of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a leading anti-communist organization funded for decades by the CIA. At various times during the Cold War, spooks owned or funded more than 50 news organizations abroad, while supporting several hundred American journalists and intellectuals.

Assuming for the moment that this covert Culture War was at all useful (this is, to put it mildly, under historical dispute), can it and other tactics employed from 1948-1989 still be applicable in the 21st century War on Terror? Podhoretz sure thinks so: "[I]n the aftermath of the defeat of Communism in World War III, a similar process [of capitalist democratization] got under way on its own steam in Central and Eastern Europe, and even in the old heartland of the evil empire itself. Why not the Islamic world?"

That question puts skeptics of neo-conservatism on the defensive, as it's meant to. Who wants to pour water on the cause for global freedom?

But the burden of proof should instead be on the people who carried out and supported a policy that did not, contra Berman and Podhoretz, resemble Prague 1989 in any way, shape or form, largely because the analogy is, unfortunately, largely inapt:

  • The Cold War was between two heavily armed superpowers pointing nukes at each other's heads. World War IV is almost totally asymmetrical.
  • The opponent in the Cold War represented an ideology that governed dozens of countries, produced some material "successes" (Sputnik, Olympic gold medals, etc.), and held significant sway in the democratic West. Islamic fundamentalism has produced basically nothing of value, and is only present in the West as an isolated if sporadically explosive strain within immigrant communities.
  • Most importantly, in terms of Iraq's election, liberation from the dictator was provided entirely from the outside, without help of an internal dissident opposition. Central European countries, while obviously affected strongly by the behavior of the superpowers, mostly "owned" much of their own freedom.

This last point may explain why the citizens in New Europe have been more lukewarm than their governments about supporting Bush's Iraq policy, even while maintaining their strong support for native dissident movements elsewhere. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel may have supported the war against Saddam Hussein, but his successor and rival Vaclav Klaus did not, and in any case the former playwright expends much of his considerable international clout not shilling for the exhumed Committee on the Present Danger, but rather championing the causes of Burma and Cuba.

Maybe Iraqis will take advantage of their opportunity to build a democratic tradition from scratch; I sure hope so, and the massive election turnout is certainly reason to smile. But to base United States foreign policy on the idea that they or their immediate neighbors will act like Czechs any decade soon, and therefore respond similarly to the same still-disputed Washington tactics that were deployed during the Cold War, is a recipe for bloody disappointment abroad, and illiberalism at home.

The United States, and the world, are much freer places than they were in 1972. That happy trend will not be accelerated by mouthing Ronald Reagan, while imitating Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover. And it won't be accomplished by declaring a confused, open-ended World War IV against an enemy that doesn't even have a state, let alone an empire.