Monday, May 05, 2008

It's the Pentagon's world, we just live in it

When Fareed Zakaria writes this:
we magnify small differences. We define deviancy down, so that any expression of national pride or interest by Russia or China becomes evidence of inevitable great power conflict... My fear is that the United States continues to have a maximalist view of international security - which sees any deviation from what we want - as evidence of evil.
and Matthew Yglesias writes this:
It's really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab.
What they're both really talking about is the fractured lens through which the US sees everything that happens beyond its own borders (and quite a bit of what happens within them.) You see this is the mysterious view that Europe is in the process of being conquered by multiplying Arabs, that France is basically a third world country, that China is relentlessly pursuing aggressive military buildups, etc etc etc. Now, this is annoying when any nation does it. (And we all do it.) But it becomes truly terrifying when great powers do it, because it leads to tragedy.

Which brings me to a very interesting article (via) comparing two very different views of the Cold War, even though they're almost precisely contemporary -- the views of George Kennan and Paul Nitze, embodied in the Long Telegram and NSC-68 respectively.

To grossly summarize the article, the author basically argues that the difference between Kennan and Nitze was a matter of worldview: Kennan saw the Soviets as motivated almost entirely by a sense of inferiority and fear of the more advanced western powers, while Nitze saw them as motivated by a crusading desire to destroy the capitalist west. (Again, gross summary.) Now, if you were going to mark these two men, I think you'd have to give the match to Kennan on points. He called more things right -- though he was not without error -- than Nitze, even if we restrict ourselves to a comparison of these two documents. Kennan saw that the USSR was fundamentally weaker than the west, and called basically for non-military competition except where necessary to contain. Nitze saw the USSR as stronger -- at a point when the US was already vastly more powerful in relative terms than it would be for the rest of the 20th century -- and called for massive arms buildups.

Now, it's not like Nitze was solely responsible for what happened. Nitze's work, however, was the one that got the military-industrial complex really rolling. After NSC-68, as Richard Rhodes writes in his most recent book, the defense budget became basically uncoupled from the rest of the fiscal process. Before NSC-68, in peacetime the budget was determined then the military budget was sized within that box. After NSC-68, the military got whatever it wanted, and then everything else the US government does got shoehorned in to the remaining fiscal room.

You can see that in many ways we still live in the world Paul Nitze helped build.

But, NSC-68 wasn't the only impact Nitze had. He was also, to his everlasting discredit, one of the key members of the Team B, Committee for the Present Danger fiasco which provided so much impetus to the Reagan buildup. In so doing, he helped the forces that may have brought the world closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This isn't incidental -- Nitze was one of the strongest voices calling for an aggressive, confrontational policy with the USSR, and it nearly led to disaster. Can we assume he did this for the same reasons that he wrote NSC-68? That is, isn't this view a product of a fundamentally flawed view of the USSR's power and it's intentions?

This would all be of mere historical interest if it weren't basically still the fundamental flaw in the worldview of American foreign policy. Differences are defined as threats, legitimate security concerns are seen as offensive actions, and the mere act of trying to keep up with American arms purchases is called "a military buildup". America has been so successful as a handmaiden to peace that the President and Presidents-to-be are reduced to trying to scare people with the specter of a bearded dude without a necktie in Tehran. (Whatever odious things Ahmedinejad says, even if he were an absolute ruler his power would still be limited by the fact that he's the President of Iran, a country 1/5th of America's population and 1/20th America's GDP.) Rather than celebrate this epochal success, the White House tries to scare the piss out of us, and too many in the media go along with it.

Imagine, then, how we would conduct ourselves differently if we were to acknowledge -- even for a second -- that other states have legitimate security interests too, and that we can even (gasp!) acknowledge them without sacrificing our own safety in the process. Imagine what we would have gained if men like Paul Nitze hadn't triumphed, and some more-sane-level of deterrence had been found. Imagine if we weren't, still, willing to spend ourselves in to penury to grapple with phantoms.


Catelli said...

Nice synopsis.

Advantage of history, it is easy to look back and criticize the aggressive, fear-based, military build-up. I wonder if it really could have gone any other way.

Post World War II, Soviet expansionism was a real threat. How much it was played up or over exaggerated is up to interpretation. However, the threat did exist. It would have taken men of extraordinary vision and diplomatic skill to follow a less antagonistic path.

In terms of real strength, it took the first Gulf War to show the inferiority of Soviet Armor. Up until then, there were will real fears that the Soviet T72 was a superior vehicle to the M1 (Even post Gulf War, the criticisms of the Iraqi T72s are tempered by the notions that they were export models with poorly trained crews). Consider that Europe and Asia (and to a lesser extent Africa) were considered part of the USSRs backyard, it was a powerful argument that the Soviets would be aggressive and expansionist.

Yes, the US aggressive policy probably became a self fulling prophecy in antagonizing the Big Rd Bear (I'm not arguing your conclusion). But still, when has mankind ever produced leaders of the quality necessary to stare down the USSR )or any powerful enemy) without reacting defensively out of fear and apprehension?

It is laughable that the current administration is trying to use the Islamic threat as further justification for military build-up. That is ludicrous. As is being shown in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current conflict is not the same type that was considered against the USSR. It is not traditional professional armies going toe-to-toe, one military doctrine against another, etc.

It is puzzling, to say the least, in how the "Islamic Threat" is hyped. Yes 9/11 was a horrifying event, but countless squadrons of F22 Raptors and fleets of new carriers would never have stopped that. The fear mongering that is happening now is counter-intuitive, and we don't need a historical perspective 50 years on to tell us that.

john said...

I would argue very, very strongly that any genuine Soviet threat -- one of adventurism, conquest, etc. -- pretty much died with Stalin.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was, in my view (and that of others) less about trying to pre-emptively threaten the US than trying to equalize the balance of terror between the two powers.

As for whether it could have gone any other way, the whole point of studying history -- if there's any social purpose at all -- is to avert a fatalistic view. If things could have been done better, best we learn how.

Catelli said...

I would argue very, very strongly that any genuine Soviet threat -- one of adventurism, conquest, etc. -- pretty much died with Stalin.

I'd probably agree with you. Well I wouldn't show my ignorance in attempting to debate that point. However, the echo of that threat (if not the actual physical threat) scared the West for a long time. I remember that fear, that threat. It was very pervasive in our culture and media during my youth. This manic desire for an equivalent, replacement enemy is proving to be even more terrifying, when one stops to contemplate it.

If things could have been done better, best we learn how.

Damn straight. That I don't dispute.