The new Cold War: the War on Terror

An Afghan mobile vender pushes his cart through war damaged buildings in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Some policies die hard. In "America's Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity," published by Harvard University Press in October, authors Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall argue that American policy formed during the Cold War was dominated by alarmism, political grandstanding and militarism. We asked Craig, a professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, to weigh in on how this U.S. political tradition informs American policy today. Logevall is a professor of history at Cornell University.

GUEST BLOGGER: Campbell Craig

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States embarked upon a stunning campaign of military spending and war. Vast new bureaucracies were created almost overnight, not least the Department of Homeland Security, employer now of some 200,000 people.

Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the deaths of thousands of American and allied soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans (mostly civilians), and have cost American taxpayers a trillion dollars and counting.

And all of this took place in a remarkable political climate, almost one-party in its nature, as Democrats in Washington competed with one another to acquiesce to the Bush administration's demands and thereby demonstrate their toughness on terrorism.

Many critics of this disaster, and many of those who still defend it, suggest that the "Global War on Terror" represented a new form of foreign policy, one shaped decisively by the absence of great-power rivals to the United States and the murky, sub-national nature of the terrorist enemy.

However, while it is undeniably true that the Bush administration broke new ground in the fields of profligacy and incompetence, much of what went on between 2001 and 2008 actually partook of long-standing political traditions formed over the past sixty years.

The United States had entered the Cold War out of the entirely reasonable fear that the Soviet Union, though devastated by its war against Nazi Germany, might eventually expand into key industrial regions in Western Europe and East Asia unless contained by American force. In initiating its containment strategy, however, U.S. architects of the Cold War opened the door to an array of interest groups, industries, and cynical politicians with a vested interest in maximizing the confrontation with the USSR, and eventually with communists everywhere -- perpetuating the politics of insecurity.

Because the United States had long been protected from would-be predators by the two oceans -- a condition the historian C. Vann Woodward termed "free security" -- American politicians were used to being able to play politics with foreign policy, and this tendency did not disappear after 1945.

Though the USSR was effectively contained by 1950, with Western Europe and Japan firmly on Washington's side, and though the Soviets were deterred from attacking the U.S. directly by the spectre of assured nuclear destruction, numerous institutions, together with politicians who saw Cold War alarmism as a sure ticket to electoral victory, had no interest in accepting these realities.

For decades, American policymakers contrived reasons to build new weapons systems, warn of clear and present dangers, and wage war upon nations that posed no threat to American survival. Indeed, the notion that the United States had done all it could to be safe in a dangerous world became itself the greatest threat to the alarmists who prevailed over official Washington. In George F. Kennan's apt phrase, these leaders had become addicted to the Cold War.

In terms of domestic, if not international, politics, the Global War on Terror represents a continuation of America's Cold War more than a break with it. And, as always, the expansion of U.S. militarism can only be stemmed by democratic resistance.

President Eisenhower's demand, in his farewell address of 1961, that an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" must stand guard against the "disastrous rise" of a military-industrial complex, remains as true now as it was then.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 12, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Speaking of the Cold War, Gorbachov said in a recent interview (The Nation) that unlike America, Russia does not think that America won the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. lost. He said that in 1989 on Malta when he and Bush the Elder expressed that they were no longer enemies, Gorbachov concluded that they had both won.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 12, 2009 1:15 PM

This Campbell guy sure sounds like he knows what he is talking. I wonder why he teaches in Wales?

Posted by: Aaronrodgers | November 12, 2009 7:37 PM

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