31 January 2010

History Rhymes

I was just reading this article called "The American Conception of National Security and the Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945-48" and was struck by a couple of parallels to modern defense and security analysis.

First, the United States, then as now (and rightly or wrongly), saw the enemy, in this case the Soviet Union, under every nook and cranny. Now, obviously this isn't any strikingly new analysis in light of the Red Scare that soon ensued, but I had never thought as much about how the US saw opportunities for Soviet encroachment in nearly every geopolitical event during that time period: Britain's withdrawal "east of Suez," Gandhi's movement in India, anti-colonial nationalist insurgencies in Indochina and Indonesia, the growing Arab-Zionist imbroglio in Palestine, etc.. I mean, some of the events in which the US saw a Soviet threat made intuitive sense, like the civil war in China (which featured actual communists) and the inroads communists were making in Italy and France. But I couldn't help but think about how we see Al-Qaeda under every rock today--Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia, et al.

Of course, though, there was (and is) some clear justification for viewing the Soviet Union (and Al Qaeda today) and the major events of the day through this prism. The USSR really did try to exploit and exacerbate situations like these in order to advance its interests, and Al Qaeda really does try to exploit local grievances in places like Yemen in order to further its own objectives. But I think it becomes problematic when you stop looking at geopolitical problems in their own terms (hey, Yemen is fighting a rebellion, has a secessionist movement, its leadership is rather ineffectual, and it's running out of water and oil--oh yeah, there's an Al Qaeda affiliate there too) and start only looking at them through the lens of whatever the grand ideological battle of the day happens to be.

Second, I was struck by the threat inflation and the tendency of national security analysts to ignore evidence that conflicted with preconceived notions and postures. The author of the article makes a convincing case that military planners, once they got it in their head, via the Long Telegram and similar directives, that the Soviet Union was an incredibly formidable and dangerous power that sought worldwide domination and subversion, tended to ignore any signs to the contrary--such as a moderate speech on the UN by Stalin, a Soviet press not entirely hostile to the US, diplomatic and territorial concessions, or rather clear and glaring military weaknesses. This mindset created its own momentum which led the US to pursue fairly maximalist anti-Soviet policies, the Soviets responded in kind, etc. etc.

Sound depressingly familiar?

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