Take Some Cues From the Cold War, Mr. President

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

August 19, 2007

In his efforts to persuade Americans to stay the course in the war on terrorism , President Bush often likens that struggle to the Cold War: The terrorists are like the Communists, “followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has expansionist ambitions, and pursues totalitarian aims.” He argues that in the long run, “like the Communists, the followers of violent Islamic radicalism are doomed to fail.”

The president is right about that, but he doesn’t seem to understand the most important part of his own analogy, which is that the Cold War wasn’t really a war at all. Whereas real wars are won or lost on blood-soaked battlefields, the Cold War was decided in the hearts and minds of those who waged it. It wasn’t about destroying hostile armies but about discrediting misguided dreams. We had to maintain our military strength, but ultimately we were able to prevail only when the enemy’s ideology collapsed.

The Cold War analogy has real implications for fighting terrorism, but you wouldn’t know it from observing U.S. policy. Bush may speak as though he believes we’re in a battle of ideas, but he wages the “war on terror” as if it were a traditional conflict, in which military force matters more than moral authority and allied support. After trying that approach for six years, and with U.S. intelligence agencies now reporting that the al- Qaeda threat is growing, it’s time Bush started acting on the lessons of his own analogy.

Here are four Cold War lessons for today:

Containment Works. In his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946, American diplomat George F. Kennan offered the fundamental insight that the United States needed a policy that lay somewhere between launching World War III and capitulating to the Soviets. Communism was an insidious threat, but that threat could be managed by maintaining a vigorous defense and making efforts to win over the world’s population—and eventually the Soviets themselves.

Kennan’s argument for a long-term strategy of “patient but firm and vigilant containment” was the opposite of Vice President Cheney’s reckless doctrine that says that if there is a 1 percent chance of terrorists acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, then the United States should act as if it is a certainty. Instead, containment was based on the view that living with and trying to reduce risk can sometimes be better than seeking to eliminate it, an insight that would have served Bush well in 2003.

When first proposed, containment was widely condemned as capitulation, and some critics went so far as to advocate preventive war. Fortunately, however, wise leaders such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood, as he put it in 1953, that “the colossal job of occupying the territories of the defeated enemy would be far beyond the resources of the United States at the end of such a war.”

For decades, critics from John Foster Dulles in the 1950s to Richard Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz in the 1970s called for a more assertive and militarized approach to the Cold War. But none of these critics ever offered serious alternatives to Kennan’s essentially defensive—and ultimately successful—strategy. Living with the Soviet threat was no fun for anyone, but doing so avoided World War III until communism collapsed.

Today, containment means defending against terrorist attacks; capturing terrorists with police, intelligence and judicial means; and using military force only when it is likely to reduce the number of enemies we face. And it means demonstrating confidence that in the long run the terrorists are, as Bush says, “doomed to fail”—as long as we don’t inadvertently help them.

Values Are Weapons. The Cold War also taught us that preserving the virtues of our own society is a crucial tool in defeating an enemy ideology. For Kennan, maintaining the “health and vigor of our own society” would be critical. “The greatest danger that can befall us,” he warned, “is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Kennan was not thinking of issues such as detaining prisoners indefinitely without charge, refusing to rule out torture, wiretapping without warrants or insisting on almost unlimited presidential powers—but he may as well have been.

President Harry S. Truman got Kennan’s point, and he defended some of his progressive domestic policies in Cold War terms, noting the need to “inspire the people of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy.” Eisenhower was also concerned about the potential foreign policy costs of domestic shortcomings, stressing that “we must not destroy what we are attempting to defend.” John F. Kennedy made similar Cold War arguments when he called on Americans to “practice what we preach.”

The United States did not always live up to these lofty ideals, but even after the Vietnam War and Watergate it was far stronger and more attractive than the Soviet Union. It simply took the optimism of a Ronald Reagan to reverse the communists’ notion that capitalism would die of its own contradictions. Despite early fears to the contrary, the Western democracies survived, and the bankrupt ideology they were fighting collapsed—just the sort of outcome Bush should be striving for in the ideological struggle we should be waging today.

Even Superpowers Need Friends. In the early Cold War period, faced with an existential nuclear threat and communist aggression on the Korean peninsula, U.S. presidents must have been tempted to rule their military alliances with an iron fist. Instead, leaders such as Truman gave America’s allies incentives to work with the United States. They set up institutions, including NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, designed to give other countries a stake in the new order. Truman recognized that “no matter how great our strength, we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”

Eisenhower was even more sensitive to the need to lead by example, drawing on lessons learned in his military career. “A platoon leader,” he said in 1954, “doesn’t get his platoon to go that way by getting up and saying, ‘I am smarter, I am bigger, I am stronger, I am the leader.’ He gets men to go with him because they . . . believe in him.” Eisenhower also shared Truman’s concern about the risk of arrogantly assuming universal appreciation for the United States’ good intentions. Thus, whereas Bush simply assumed that all nations would appreciate America’s obvious virtue and told allies that they were “either with us or with the terrorists,” Eisenhower believed that the United States should work to win allies to its side. “As a free country,” he said in 1957, “the only ally we can have is a free ally, one that wants to be with us.”

The NATO alliance was hardly free from tensions, as repeated crises demonstrated. But however great the differences among NATO allies, the contrast between their alliance and the Warsaw Pact could not have been starker. By the time the Cold War ended, every member of NATO wanted to remain in that alliance, and most members of the Warsaw Pact wanted to join it as well.

Pick Your Fights. One of the biggest mistakes the United States made during the Cold War—and one it is repeating today—was the tendency to see its enemy as one vast, monolithic movement. The result was a costly failure to identify and exploit differences between nationalists and communists—and among different communists—around the world.

Kennan was one of the first to see the potential divisions within the communist world and to suggest exploiting them. He was rightly confident that Western European communists, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Mao’s China would all want to keep their distance from Moscow.

Instead of exploiting the differences among its enemies, however, Washington—with rare exceptions such as Richard M. Nixon’s opening to Communist China—often drove them together by treating communism as a single movement, coordinated by Moscow, with a design to take over the world.

Bush does something similar today when he conflates enemies as diverse as the Sunni al-Qaeda network, the Shiite Persian state in Iran, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, and various authoritarian Sunni regimes into a single threat. During the Cold War, by failing to appreciate the degree to which governments in places such as Beijing, Pyongyang and Hanoi had their own distinct interests, U.S. policy helped to turn the notion of a communist monolith into a self-fulfilling prophecy, a mistake it is tragically repeating today.

Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism is likely to last a long time. Also like the Cold War, however, it will require us to be patient, to uphold our values, to maintain allies and to differentiate among threats. The precedent of America’s triumph in its most recent twilight struggle should give us confidence that if we do all these things, the murderous ideology we face today will end up on the same ash heap of history as communism did. Still, if Bush is going to evoke the Cold War as a model for the battle against terrorism, he had better start getting its real lessons right.