Nostalgia For What, Exactly?

It’s odd to see someone smart flatly misread something as badly as Paul Kennedy did in his oped in today’s LATimes (h/t Kevin Drum who echoes and amplifies Kennedy’s misreading).

Here’s Kennedy:

IT WAS FUNNY, in a grim sort of way. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s polemical attack on the United States by remembering the 50-year Cold War as a “less complex time” and saying he was “almost nostalgic” for its return.

Gates should know. He himself is the quintessential Cold Warrior, having served nearly 27 years in the Central Intelligence Agency (facing off against the likes of Putin, who was for 17 years an agent in the foreign intelligence branch of the Soviet KGB). So we should take him seriously when he suggests that the problems of 20 or 30 years ago were in some ways more manageable than our current global predicament.

Nor is he alone. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia these days for the familiar contours of that bygone conflict, which has been replaced by a much more murky, elusive and confusing age.

Palpable among whom, exactly? Certainly not Gates, who actually said this:

Speaking of issues going back many years, as an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost.

Many of you have backgrounds in diplomacy or politics. I have, like your second speaker yesterday, a starkly different background … a career in the spy business. And, I guess, old spies have a habit of blunt speaking.

However, I have been to re-education camp, spending four and half years as a university president and dealing with faculty. And, as more than a few university presidents have learned in recent years, when it comes to faculty it is either “be nice” or “be gone.”

The real world we inhabit is a different and a much more complex world than that of 20 or 30 years ago. We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia.

For this reason, I have this week accepted the invitation of both President Putin and Minister of Defense Ivanov to visit Russia. One Cold War was quite enough.

[emphasis added]

So what the hell? The “One Cold War was quite enough” quote got wide play in the news at the time. Someone explain this to me? And as someone who reads a lot of foreign policy news and no little number of articles, who, exactly in the foreign policy commentariat is nostalgic for a cold war?

20 thoughts on “Nostalgia For What, Exactly?”

  1. Democrats/Media.

    The Cold War is their template: identify with the enemy, believe in magic i.e. good intentions of the enemy, do not engage in conflicts around the world. “Talk” with your enemies because all you need is an agreement for “peace.” No need to actually fight.

    This explains the nostalgia.

    It is of course idiotic.

    Deniable nuclear terrorism won’t end human life on earth or even destroy America, but it also has no effective deterrence and lowers the barriers to losing a city or three. Sam Nunn’s group believes it’s near certain a major western city is nuked within ten years.

    The fundamental challenge is between Muslims who demand America’s destruction and America that by existing destroys Islamic certainty.

    It’s a recipe for terror and conflict until one way or another only America or Islam exists in the world.

  2. I can see it- defense contractors, technoweenies, and scenario planners probably miss it. Its astonishing how a good job and fat contracts can overshadow the emminent threat of nuclear war. I honestly think there is a lot of nostalgia- mainly with people who have convinced themselves that MAD is pretty bullet proof and we were never really that close to doomsday. I guess thats debateable.

    All i can remember is being a little kid and watching The Day After and Red Dawn and wondering if i was going to wake up to a horrific post nuclear nightmare. No thanks.

    Seems to be a lot of new converts to the MAD altar this late in the game. Somehow its supposed to keep Iran from nuking Tel Aviv and NK from selling a weapon to Bin Laden. Im not so sure about that in our present political climate. Part in parcel to MAD is brinkmanship, and i just dont see the current proponents as having the ruthlessness that kind of thing requires. If anything, we have spent the last 20 years convincing the most despotic regimes in the world that we just dont have it in us to kill civilians anymore. If a smartbomb cant land in a dictators bathtub, we’ll just throw up our hands. Thats fine, but its also incongruous with espousing a nuclear deterrant.

    I proposed a while back a doctrine of announcing that any rogue nuclear attack on US interests would be treated as a direct attack by _all_ states we consider rogue powers (and respond according). People went nuts at the suggestion. A.L. was not a fan. My point is we had better be darn careful about any thoughts of moving back to a Cold War mentality. It wasnt as rosy and simple as memory makes it. It requires some real hardball, and ultimately the willingness to start a nuclear war at the drop of a hat to convince your opponents not to test your resolve.

  3. Kennedy is pretty much right in his editorial except in his “palpable sense” qualification of the issue, where his effort to wedge in a strawman into the conversation is palpable.

    But Kennedy’s effort to enter into the “conversation” between Gates and Putin with his editorial, reminds me of a particular type of corrective e-mail that used to annoy Stephen Den Beste. The e-mailer was often correct in their effort to clarify a point made but pretty much always missed subject, and larger point of SDB’s post.

  4. Kennedy’s book was excellent except for the last chapter, where he departed from being a hard-headed historian and tried his hand at punditry. Like most pundits, he basically restated the “conventional wisdom” of the moment with a new wrapper.

  5. MAD required survivable triads; nuclear ballistic missile subs (boomers), SAC, and ICBMs.

    No nation could strike first and escape retaliation.

    However, flight times in the ME are very short. Nations can’t afford survivable triads. A few first strikes will take out all conceivable Command and Control (no Cheyenne Mountain nor USSR equivalent). The reality of nuclear proliferation in the ME is a strike-first hair trigger.

    No nation can afford to “wait” and bank on the rationality of the other side. The rational act is to strike first so that the other nation’s nukes and ability to use them are all gone. There will be no fleet of deep ocean submarines launching ICBMs. No hardened bunkers spread across the Midwest or Ukranian prairie.

    MAD could only work with the USSR and US (China as third player). It certainly can’t work with a nuclear ME.

  6. _”However, flight times in the ME are very short. Nations can’t afford survivable triads.”_

    This was true up until recently, but Israel has at least partially address this.

    Israel now has 3 German built modern diesel electric subs with second strike capabilities. One is on station in the Med, another in the Red Sea or Indian Ocean, and the third in port at all times. Without Arab/Iranian hunter/killers to stalk them range is really a moot point- they may not be nuclear but they work fine in their limited role (particularly the shallow seas they patrol. They carry an unknown number of nuclear tipped cruise missiles. Command and control is also moot if Israel has pretty much been wiped out by Iranian nukes- the sub commanders certainly have ‘Samson’ type standing orders in case of such a catastrophy.

    The problem is at the moment this relatively modest number of low yield nukes wouldnt be enough to destroy much of Israel’s target lists. Millions would certainly die, but its an open question if some maniac such as Ahmanijad would be willing to accept the trade. Jim is also right that with CIC destroyed, Iran could probably manage to extract its leadership to some unknown location that the sub commanders wouldnt have any intel on. Its definately a real problem that Israel should be much more concerned with. Frighteningly the weaker Israel’s second strike potential, the more agressive they have to be to deter or preempt a first strike.

  7. There is also nothing like the DEW line the US set up in the Arctic. During the Cold War the US could afford to not launch hair-trigger because Soviet strikes would be detectable by the Early Warning system. Such a system depended on the large distances; and the ability to counter-launch quickly from a distributed geographic base.

    Since Israel, or Saudi, or whoever would not have a large geographic base (easily killable by a first strike) the logical thing is to launch first when things get hairy.

  8. Happy to oblige on this question of who might be ‘nostalgic’ for the Cold War – me. I am most enamored by the ‘Cold’ part; as opposed to a good Hot war with a spirited exchange of nukes in an effort to achieve the promised ‘mutual assured destruction’. Unfortunately for the real hawks among us, there was all that ‘talk’, ‘belief in the good intentions of the enemy’ and ‘peace’ whatnot that got in the way. But that was last time; with the proper attitudes in place on _both_ sides [“No nation can afford to “wait” and bank on the rationality of the other side”] there is no need to let the next opportunity get away.

    I can’t shake the idea that the whole object of war/jihad is to convert the ‘other side’ to your worldview. With the “kill them don’t try to convert them” mentality becoming well entrenched in countries that were once more civilized, I think the battle goes well for the barbarians. Losing our democratic ideals and the principles of western civilization need not result from being over-run by the swarthy (formerly yellow) hordes, apparently just the threat is enough to erode those principles from within.

  9. Ian go ask the Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghanis, Polish, Hungarians, Czechoslovaks, people along the Soviet-Chinese border, victims of Stalins post war purges, Mao’s purges, and any number of ‘little wars’ the powers enouraged just how bloodless the Cold War was. It was Cold _for us_ (mostly). For the rest of the world, millions were slaughtered and far more enslaved. That may sound like the halcyon days of diplomatic bliss to you, but to many of us that sounds like the days of the barbarians running half the world why the rest of us desperately tried to put them down without ending the world.

    And for the record as far as I know we are still historically at a low point in global conflicts and war deaths. Sorry if that blows your worldview of herr Bush rapidly forming us into the next Reich.

  10. I can understand the nostalgia in the sense you note it, Ian. The difference is that you are addressing the enamoring features of the Cold War to the subject/issue of the War on Terror, while the Putin-Gates exchange and Kennedy’s ‘teaching moment’ is addressing the subject of the current tension between the US and Russia, much of which is over spheres of influence, perceived and/or actual, rising and/or declining. As such, I don’t see the features worthwhile.

    There is a lot left unspoken in both Gates’ and Kennedy’s touching on the Cold War subject. I do think Gates has the stronger and more accurate point, that is, at least by my inference, the chessmatch nature of the Cold War was an interesting and challenging time (nostalgic in an ordinary sense, not a strict definitional sense), but it is over, we are past it, and a different match is afoot in which we should be collaborating and not contending with each other.

    What I don’t quite understand is Gates’ reference to college president and faculty. It seems odd and out of place. I’ll take Gates at his word, though, that it was a reeducation camp for him.

  11. Yes indeed, I want to convert the other side to our worldview – at least regarding the “Don’t kill or enslave those who think different, for chrissake!” part of our worldview.

    Such a warmongering cultural imperialist I am.

  12. Gates and Putin(P&G) are men whom wish to return to nostaglia is sickening. What they miss is the days of imperial colonialism wearing either the garb of capitalism or sovietstyle socalism; a more neutral term might be called hegemony of information. Neither spent much effort on understanding the people in the world with whom they dealt. They simply wished the coloureds would remember their place.

    P&G failed to realize that knowledge was always fungible. The advent of the internet has made it even more so. Not a single author on this blog can deny the rapidity with which things change and how suddenly everyone has them. Go to India and see how, w/ a population of almost a billion, they have as many cell phones as there are people in this country. If you can spend the “coin” how much information can they receive w/ a spattering of literacy.

    P&G and their ilk fear this flow of information. It makes things “untidy.” That is why they cannot realize what the enemy we are fighting in the GWOT is. Not a single Islanmic fanatic is above using modern technology, chemistry, biology and physics(remember crashing planes into bildings, shaped charges, the use of chlorine gas) to destroy the ???(I do not think they even know), yet women cannot drive cars in Saudia Arabia, attend Madras in Pakistan. How else can one explain the all out assault on education in Afghanistan?

    P&G think they are pursuing an enemy on the battlefield whom must be brought under the sword hellfire missles or bomb droplets to be destroyed. This enemy will not be destroyed that way. We must provide the creature comforts of life: electricity air condidtioning, refrigerators, lights fuel for cars and transportation. Each time these comforts are provided
    evolution takes place. The kind of evolution that occured over two hundred years here in the USA as we strove “for a more perfect union”. That is the weapon the terrorists fear.

    This evolution gave us the end of slavery, religious tolerance, the emancipation of women, the ideas of equal rights. These ideas are not the ideas of the cultural left that Mr D’souza thinks repel tradionalists overseas. They came about as a result of hardheaded consensus driven by economic necessity, a conservative value of the must fundamental kind.

    If Putin wishes to return to glory of the Imperial Soviet Socalism and Gates yearns for Eisenhower years please let them do it without positions of power. For as long as they remain in them and live in the past our future is in jeporady.

  13. So Robert, you are confirming that you didn’t actually read the post above at all? Your rant bore little relation to anything that Gates said or probably believes.

  14. Gates was an analyst, albeit one with a more skeptical view of Soviet intentions; not unlike Kennan was in his
    early period; when he realized that Russian nationalism
    not communism, really drove the expansionist tendencies,
    how the Okrana was replicated in the MVD/KGB and now SVR. He correctly saw the revanchist tide that was emerging in the Perestroika days; the August Coup of ’91
    and the Parliamentary revolt of ’93, the popularity of Gen. Lebed were all were signs of this. Other indications
    like the “Brown” election that empowered Zhirinovsky and led to the Chechen war, and ultimately to the rise of Putin. Ironically, the former situation led to the
    rise of a failed state on the Russian doorsteps; an early
    version of the Iraq quagmire, attracting all sorts of jihadi adventurers, Khattab; aka Al Suwailem, Shamil Basiyev, and the Mecca boys with the San Diego address, Al Midhar and Al Hamzi. Not to mention the atrocities at Nord Ost theatre and Beslan’s No. 4 school. Putin is a different animal, an old school Soviet apparatchik who received the less glamorous assignments (Seriously, Dresden)unlike his septua-ginarian Arabist rival Yeygeny Primakov (any one remember Sy hersh’s interviews with Scott Ritter on the influence Iraq had on Russia, not vice versa. He rose in the administrative sections as aide to the St. Petersberg mayor, than the SVR, finally as the Cyrilic version as Von Papen, in a world with no Hitler figure at least in that environment. Perhaps he fancies himself the second coming of Yermolov, or Grabbe; the two generals on the late 18th and early 19th
    century in the Caucasus, mentioned in the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy. Some could argue that
    Ahmamdinejad still fits that role on the global stage. Some have called our President a unilateralist, but how does that compare with the ‘termination’ of former iled Chechen vice president Yandarbichev in Qatar, some two years back. An inexact parallel would be Bush going after Prince Turki or Prince Nayef for their role in the machinery of Jihad; ala the fictional Jed Bartlett in the “West Wing episode “Posse Comitatus” with nary a major complaint. Putin eerily lives up to the omnipotent
    caricature of Bush, portrayed in the netroot blogs and
    assorted media. He has crushed the opposition media,
    imprisoned their financiers, used Beslan to void the
    election of regional governors, empowered the state
    security apparatus. His two hand picked candidates
    Defense Minister Ivanov and Chief of Staff Mevdevev
    all the front runners All the while he has harnessed his
    his nation’s own oil reserves and tentative influence on other oil rich regions like Azeirbaijan and Kazakhstan,
    has wrested control over Ukraine and Georgia, has
    extorted Eastern Europe now supplies nuclear materiel to Iran, which will end up in Chechen hands, prevents any substantial assistance to Iraq. He’s provided military
    assistance to Chavez, re-established logistical contacts
    with Cuba’s military nomenklatura. Although considering the track record of Russian troops in Chechnya, it’s better we don’t have their help. All the while spreading the sub-Michal Moore screed we saw in Munich last week.

  15. I am personaly think it is less worse that a nuke can pop up more easily now than 10000 nukes without warning even if there was less chances of that happening. In the end i think we humans have to be perfect soon or then we dont have a way to escape a orwellian 1984 due to spread of technology.
    Evidently the Cold War nostalgy is that it ended well and also forgetting the hot wars everywhere like Vietnam, Afeghanistan, Africa, China etc…

  16. Robin

    If I haven’t read or understood what Gates is talking about what is the partnership Gates refers to? Is it to seek a greater understanding of the GWOT? Is it the understanding that the “old Cold War” was one waged by states w/ nuclear weapons that adhered to the ideas of MAD?

    Why will you not tell me what you think the piece says?
    All your comments tell me is that your reading is differnet from mine. Surely you can do better than that.

  17. Hmm – Seems some commentors here need to read Wretchards “The Three Conjectures” in full and work at understanding it.

    Conjecture 1: Terrorism has lowered the nuclear threshold

    Conjecture 2: Attaining WMDs will destroy Islam

    Conjecture 3: The War on Terror is the ‘Golden Hour’ — the final chance

    In short, because we won’t know where it came from positively, the chances that we make the OTHER SIDES casualty total be 1 x 10^9 in very few iterations in the exchange goes up exponentially. Should the Mad Mullahs in Tehran or any other leader in the Muslim world cause a nuclear flower to bloom over an American city we would not seek revenge but retribution (yeah, that comes from Doc Holliday in Tombstone). To quote OBL:

    bq. Responding to the question “are you trying to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons?”

    bq. “Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.” Time Magazine Dec 1998

    And his follower, Al-Qa’ida spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith:

    bq. “We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill 4 million Americans – 2 million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of the [Americans’] chemical and biological weapons.”

    I would be glad to send any of those interested the cut and paste of Wretchards article. I keep it around to refresh my memory. Or you can go to The Belmont Club and find it yourself.

    Dusty – Glad to see someone still reads Den Beste and remembers his contributions to the conversation. I have his archive on the portable hard drive.

    And back to point, there was no nostalgia shown, just a statement of priciples by Gates. It is better to walk and talk softly, etc…..

    The Hobo

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