Just 15 years after the victory of democracy over dictatorship in Central and Eastern Europe, America is accused of operating secret prisons and evading due process in exactly that part of the world where it fought so long against these types of practices.
Far more than just a battle of competing economic systems or even of competing political systems, the Cold War was primarily a moral conflict. It was a conflict in which the West stood for the rights of the individual, the freedom of the individual to choose his own course.
The Soviets, on the other hand, subjugated the individual to the state. The Soviet leadership operated under the belief that it had the authority to choose for the individual. The mere fact that America is now prepared to use such tactics as rendition, which, in essence, says that the rights of the individual can be sacrificed for the greater good, goes against everything over which the Cold War was fought.
We should not be so quick to forget the war against communism, because it can teach us not only about the scope and seriousness of the current conflict, but also about the choices we should make in fighting the new enemy.
Consider the following assessment: “We have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with us there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken.”
Remarkably, this is not a description al Qaeda made by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld or Richard Perle, although it easily could have been. Rather, it describes the Soviet Union as George Kennan saw it 59 years ago in his famous “Long Telegram.” Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet Union went against the prevalent thinking at the time. Importantly, he saw that with the Soviet Union it would be a zero-sum competition.
The communists did not wish merely to gain dominion over a limited territory, they wished to conquer all. In Khrushchev’s words, they wanted to “bury us.” Kennan knew it was a battle between our vision, a vision of life and liberty, versus a vision of tyranny, death and destruction. When bin Laden states that “the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies— civilians and military— is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it….” the similarity is striking.
The Cold War began in the heart of Europe, with its division into East and West, and then spread as communism expanded into Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Similarly, from its very beginnings, al Qaeda has been a global network with tendrils stretching to the cells in Germany that planned the 9/11 attacks to its headquarters in Afghanistan, to its newer training facilities in the Philippines, and its recruiting areas as diverse as north Yorkshire, Fallujah, Madrid, and Africa.
Just as the communists before them, the terrorists exploit those parts of the world that have the highest concentration of disaffected and disenchanted populations. In the case of communism this included the populations of Europe on the brink of starvation after six years of World War, the uneducated peasants of Asia, and the impoverished of Africa and Latin America.
In addition to its sophisticated leaders, al Qaeda now exploits the disenfranchised and undereducated of the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Amazingly, extreme Wahhabi, or Salafist fundamentalism has even found adherents within the educated populations of Europe and America, from the Talib fighter John Walker Lindh to the Belgian suicide bomber Muriel Degauque, who recently blew herself up in Iraq.
Communism, with its false promise of a classless world of equality and redistributed wealth grabbed and held onto the imagination of many in the U.S. and the West, intellectuals who were ceaseless in their criticism of those who saw communism for the vital existential threat that it was. In addition to the willfully malevolent fifth-column that would betray our security, from the Cambridge Five to Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, it was these “useful idiots,” to quote Joseph Stalin, who effectively prolonged the struggle.
Now, the stateless enemy doesn’t even have to penetrate our national security structures nor manage to convince the intellectuals of the universal validity of their theocratic ideology. Instead, the media, academia and a vast portion of the policy community are more than prepared to openly undermine our side in this fight that only began four years ago.
In the early days of the fight against communism, only a handful of individuals fully understood the significance of the enemy and the magnitude of the coming conflict. It was the hard-bitten persistence of these few that put into motion a chain of events that ultimately would save our way of life. Without individuals such as diplomat George Kennan, economist Warren Nutter, historian Robert Conquest, writer Arthur Koestler, and leaders such as Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Harry Truman and above all Ronald Reagan, the annis mirabilis of 1989 may have more closely resembled Orwells’ 1984: a “boot stamping on a human face forever.” Thus we must not minimize the role of the few and how much our future once depended on a handful of individuals who understood the enormity of the threat.
If the 20th century taught us anything, it should have taught us that our way of life will again be threatened, that our freedom is precious and can never be taken for granted. There will always be those like Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, and bin Laden, whose sole purpose is to rob us of our liberty and impose their will upon us. Just because we are sitting in the comfort of victory, having won the long protracted war against communism, let us not downplay just how close that conflict was, and exactly how much was at stake. Everything was at stake.
Simply because the leaders in today’s conflict have made a series of tactical errors, does not mean that the enemy is any the less serious, or the stakes any less grave. The abuses of prisoners in Abu Gharib do not negate the carnage of September 11 or provide the rational for giving up the fight against those who murder innocents.
Just as many once minimized the danger of communism, so now many minimize the threat of the Jihadists. But they are no less deadly and no less committed to our destruction: not only is al Qaeda the most lethal terror organization in the modern age, it accomplished what the Soviet Union never managed: the mass murder of U.S. citizens on American soil.
Moreover, bin Laden has said repeatedly that it is the duty of all “good” Muslims to kill Christians and Jews; and beyond that, it is a holy duty to obtain weapons of mass destruction and so effect the global and final victory over the West.
Only in hindsight does the fight against communism seem to have been simple—a bipolar standoff in which we merely had to deter the enemy from making a first strike. But we forget the variety of policy dilemmas with which communism confronted our leaders. Remember the agonizing complexity of the responses required by such events as the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the spread of communism into Southeast Asia, the Prague Spring of 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, and throughout, the constant and enormous Soviet military build-up.
In the fight against communism, no one was ever sure what tools would ultimately bring victory. The important point is, they fought. Enough of them understood that coexistence was not a long-term option, and indeed, even if we could have survived it, was immoral, given the fundamentally oppressive nature of the regimes in question.
But for decades, the majority did not see it this way. Just as then, far too many today choose the suicidal self-delusion that if we choose not to fight, the other side will give up the fight as well. Secondly, in some twisted quasi-morality, they see it as more ethical to remove themselves from the conflict than to resist an enemy who is quite prepared to kill innocent civilians purely on the basis of their skin color, religion or country of origin. They think it is less objectionable to tolerate beheadings, bombings and torture than to take up arms.
We have to recognize that the nature of the enemy makes coexistence not only morally untenable but physically impossible. They have made it a case of “them or us.” Americans as well as Europeans therefore need to recognize the seriousness of this conflict and acknowledge that our leaders have committed us to the only responsible course of action, to fight back.
President Bush and his administration should be chastised but not condemned for their tactical errors in confronting a more complex, but no less deadly, enemy than the Soviet Union. They can and should be criticized for the way the invasion of Iraq was justified and the absence of a clear and realistic post-invasion strategy. They should be criticized for the violations of democratic principles and practices. Yet while such mistakes have grave consequences, they do not undermine the fact that the enemy is in a fight to the death, and all that we value is at stake.