The Cold War credentialed a kind of “thinker” who cannot think without the help of violently opposed abstractions: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, liberal democracy versus totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Forced into premature retirement by the unexpected collapse of Communism in 1989, this thinker re-emerged after Sept. 11, convinced there was another worthy enemy in the cross hairs: Islamic totalitarianism. Unchastened by a decade of expensive, counterproductive and widely despised wars, these laptop generals have been trying to reboot their dated software yet again as Russian President Vladimir Putin formalizes his annexation of Crimea.
As laments about Western weakness and spine-stiffening exhortations fill the air, it’s worth recalling the legacy of the central episode of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
The invasion was promoted by the Soviets’ serious misjudgment of U.S. intentions in the region. As the United States, along with Saudi Arabia, helped consolidate history’s first global jihadist campaign in history, it came to be prolonged by actual American actions. Questioned in 1998 about the U.S. role in the making of Islamic extremists, Zbigniew Brzezinski could confidently retort, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
Three years later, of course, a handful of stirred-up Muslims launched the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil, provoking the George W. Bush administration into such hubristic projects as eliminating “terror” worldwide and bringing democracy at gunpoint to the Middle East.
Muslims stirred up and radicalized by these blunders have subsequently ravaged Pakistan and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. U.S. citizens, too, have had to pay a high price — the loss of civil and legal rights — to protect themselves from what was originally a small band of cave-dwelling criminals and fanatics. Meanwhile, as the events of the last month show, the Soviet empire that had allegedly collapsed has returned under a different guise.
It is very likely that Putin’s land grab in Crimea will fail disastrously. As the Russian economy slows down, capital flees the country and domestic unrest grows, Putin’s position will become less than secure. The one thing certain to keep him in power longer, as well as weaken his opponents, would be a Western overreaction like those of the Jimmy Carter and Bush administrations in 1979 and 2001. Fortunately, the Obama administration seems aware of this peril.
Understanding this won’t be easy for the laptop generals. Not only has the military infrastructure of the Cold War survived intact — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, hundreds of bases around the world — but so has the intellectual-industrial complex that developed in order to make legitimate the enormous investment in national security. The hundred think tanks that bloomed, and the thousands of mediocre academics and pseudo-experts who found easy employment in the universities and the media, feel obliged to make themselves relevant and important again. But the rest of us can never forget that the Cold War was an intellectual and moral catastrophe — one in which all sides lost.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist.