The Bush administration, the U.S. security establishment and, indeed, America as a whole were all profoundly affected by the four decades of the Cold War. It was inevitable, then, that the U.S. approach to the war against terrorism would also be shaped by the legacy of that war.

Unfortunately, the hawks in the administration have chosen to rely on a few narrow and disputed lessons from the Cold War while deliberately turning their backs on its more valuable examples. In particular, they are at risk of a truly catastrophic act of deliberate amnesia when it comes to the lessons of Vietnam.

The war against terrorism resembles the Cold War, rather than World War I or II, in a whole set of ways. Rather than an open and relatively quick military struggle against a group of enemy states, this will be a decades-long campaign in which ideological struggle, political manipulation, financial tools and - yes - "nation-building" will be at least as important as outright war.

American hawks are obsessed with the notion that former President Ronald Reagan's tough anti-Soviet stance of the early 1980s, and his increased military spending, were what really brought down the Soviet Union. But they forget two things. First, Reagan's strategy was a bloodless arms race, not a military campaign. And second, because the United States did not attack the Soviet Union, space was left for an anti-Soviet Russian democratic populism under former President Boris Yeltsin. This also played a central part in the Soviet Union's collapse.

If, by contrast, the United States had been seen by ordinary Russians to threaten Russia itself, there would have been a strong tendency for nationalists to rally behind the Soviet state, with disastrous consequences. Today, we are told that the United States wishes to bring democracy to the Arab world, which is a worthy goal. But does anyone really think that a successful democracy can be imposed on the Arabs by armed force, especially when most Arabs see U.S. strategy as guided by Israel, a state whose policies they regard with loathing?

Above all, the "war against terrorism" is a terribly misleading phrase to describe what the United States is now involved in. Terrorism is not a movement or ideology, but just a vicious strategy that has been used by many different movements over the years: Irish nationalists, Zionists, Communists, anarchists and others, including Muslims. The hideous tactic of suicide bombing was pioneered by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, though it is true that Muslim radicals have taken it to a new level of horror and fanaticism.

Of course, members of al-Qaida are terrorists, but they and their allies, like the Communists, are also a multi-pronged revolutionary movement. This movement wishes to replicate its success in Afghanistan (and, to some extent, Chechnya) by seizing control of various states and using them as bases for further campaigns against the "enemies of Islam."

 

It should therefore be self-evident that, as in the Cold War, socioeconomic factors are of key importance. Defeating communism in South Korea and elsewhere was universally recognized to be not just about defeating armies, but turning countries into successful and prosperous anti-Communist states. This should be absolutely obvious in the context of the struggle against Islamist revolution and terrorism. In the same way, we need to strengthen pro-Western Muslim societies so that they can resist subversion. The visceral hostility of elements of the Bush administration to "nation-building" therefore looks thoroughly bizarre, the product of a knee-jerk reaction against former President Bill Clinton's policies rather than any serious study of U.S. history.

Reference is often made to the Marshall Plan. But anti-Communist aid policies were also vitally important elsewhere - for example, in the successful strengthening of South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand and in supporting pro-U.S. regimes in Central America. Even when much of this money was stolen by the regimes in question, it still played a critically important part in keeping them out of the Communist camp. Today, this vital lesson of the Cold War appears to have been largely forgotten, replaced by a narrow and extremely dangerous reliance on pure military power.

In fact, during the whole of the Cold War, there was only one military campaign that the United States really had to fight with its own armies: the Korean War. In all the other cases, the United States did better by using local surrogates, or by not actually fighting at all. This was, above all, true of Vietnam. As that conflict so tragically illustrates, America's enemies in the Cold War shifted over time.

The tendency of U.S. Cold warriors to see all the Communist states as one monolithic bloc was a terrible error. It led directly to the failure to recognize the role of nationalism and the consequent inability in the early 1960s to notice the growing split between the Soviet Union and China. If this had been understood, it would have become immediately apparent that the correct U.S. geopolitical course was to play off a Soviet-backed, Communist-nationalist Vietnam against China, thus paralyzing from within any wider Communist threat to Southeast Asia. Instead of 59,000 American soldiers, not one American life needed to be lost in Indo-China.

Just because a cause is moral does not mean that it has to be waged under a banner of moral absolutism, along the lines of Bush's "you're either with us or against us." The strong (and absolutely correct) U.S. resistance to the evil of communism did not prevent Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger from eventually developing an alignment with Communist China against the Soviet Union - although when this occurred, China was still under the rule of the monstrous Mao Zedong.

 

Today, we do not have to like or admire the Iranian regime to see that Iranian nationalism could be a very useful tool against our other enemies. Indeed, Iran already has played a very valuable role, by giving vitally important support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

This is the truly crazy aspect of Bush administration policy. The three forces targeted as enemies have all fought ferocious conflicts with each other. The Sunni fundamentalism represented by Osama bin Laden, the Shia religious nationalism of the Iranians and the radical secular Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein are not allies but natural enemies. To bring them together requires something approaching suicidal genius on the part of the U.S. administration. Members of al-Qaida must be laughing their heads off.


Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Originally published in Newsday, September 8, 2002