Cold War Presidential narratives

Two articles in the latest edition of Foreign Policy make essentially the same point: in spite of the rhetoric of the post-September 11 brave new world, the Bush administration is essentially driven by a cold war agenda and more importantly, cold war strategy. This is obviously a point that has been made before but it is made well in these articles. Firstly editor Moisés Naím:

Disappointments in Iraq also dealt a blow to a worldview that, for all its references to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an epochal event, still hearkens back to the Cold War. Consider the two primary responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Instead of concentrating all energies and resources to fight the strange, stealthy, and stateless network that perpetrated the attacks, the United States launched military assaults against two nation-states. First, it rightly attacked Afghanistan, a country whose government had been the subject of a friendly takeover by such networks. The second was Iraq, a country with a standing army and a dictator evocative of the Cold War era. Iraq offered a target more suited to the mindset of U.S. leaders and military capabilities than the more complicated terrorist networks operating inside powerful states, including the United States itself.

In other words, facing the prospect of waging a new kind of war against a new kind of opponent, the Bush administration chose instead to fight a familiar enemy whose face and address it knew. Yet U.S. troops quickly found themselves fighting not enemy soldiers but what Pentagon lawyers now call “unlawful combatants”—fighters with nationalities as fuzzy as they are irrelevant to determining their leaders, their chains of command, their loyalty, and their lethal willingness to die for their cause.

So much for the certitudes and heroic assumptions about how the United States should deal with the world, as outlined in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice may have claimed that “September 11 clarified the threats you face in the post-Cold War era.” But while September 11 might have clarified post-Cold War threats, revelations about high-level decision making regarding the war on Iraq suggest that the Cold War instincts that shaped U.S. national security strategy survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let’s now hope that they find their final resting place under the rubble of Iraq.

In a much longer piece Melvyn P. Leffler argues that “as controversial as George W. Bush’s policies have been, they are not as radical a departure from his predecessors as both critics and supporters proclaim. Instead, the real weaknesses of the president’s foreign policy lie in its contradictions.” He looks at Bush “innovations” such as preemption and argues that “the preemptive and unilateral use of U.S. military power was widely perceived as necessary prior to Bush’s election, even by those possessing internationalist inclinations. What Bush did after September 11 was translate an option into a national doctrine.”

Leffler’s argument is slightly different to Naim’s although their conclusions are the same. He argues that post September 11 Bush and co moved from a realist model of foreign policy that was about competitive peer states to a rhetorically driven model that ultimately fell back on cold war strategy.

In times of crisis, U.S. political leaders have long asserted values and ideals to evoke public support for the mobilization of power. But this shift in language was more than mere rhetoric. The terrorist attacks against New York and Washington transformed the Bush administration’s sense of danger and impelled offensive strategies. Prior to September 11, the neocons in the administration paid scant attention to terrorism. The emphasis was on preventing the rise of peer competitors, such as China or a resurgent Russia, that could one day challenge U.S. dominance. And though the Bush team plotted regime change in Iraq, they had not committed to a full-scale invasion and nation-building project. September 11 “produced an acute sense of our vulnerability,” said Rice. “The coalition did not act in Iraq,” explained Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light—through the prism of our experience on 9/11.” Having failed to foresee and prevent a terrorist attack prior to September 11, the administration’s threshold for risk was dramatically lowered, its temptation to use force considerably heightened.

This conflation of both cold war rhetoric and strategy in response to present dangers is seen, Leffler believes, in the rhetorical production of Bush as Reagan’s heir:

Bush and his advisors love to identify themselves with Reagan. Bush, like Reagan, says Rumsfeld, “has not shied from calling evil by its name….” Nor has he been shy about “declaring his intention to defeat its latest incarnation—terrorism.” Moral clarity and military power, Bush believes, emboldened Reagan and enabled him to wrest the initiative from the Kremlin, liberate Eastern Europe, and win the Cold War.

However Leffler, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and a specialist in cold war history, sees this equation differently. He notes that in spite of media and neo-con hype most scholars do not agree that Reagan’s arms buildup and rhetorical pronouncements brought victory in the Cold War.

In fact, the most thoughtful accounts of Reagan’s diplomacy stress that what really mattered was his surprising ability to change course, envision a world without nuclear arms, and deal realistically with a new Soviet leader. And most accounts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s diplomacy suggest that he was motivated by a desire to reform Communism, reshape Soviet society, and revive its economy, rather than intimidated by U.S. military power. Gorbachev was inspired not by U.S. democratic capitalism but by European social democracy, not by the self-referential ideological fervor of U.S. neoconservatives, but by the careful, thoughtful, tedious work of human rights activists and other nongovernmental organizations.

Bush and his advisors seek to construct a narrative about the end of the Cold War that exalts moral clarity and glorifies the utility of military power. Moral clarity doubtless helps a democratic, pluralistic society like the United States reconcile its differences and conduct policy. Military power, properly configured and effectively deployed, chastens and deters adversaries. But this mindset can lead to arrogance and abuse of power. To be effective, moral clarity and military power must be harnessed to a careful calculation of interest and a shrewd understanding of the adversary. Only when ends are reconciled with means can moral clarity and military power add up to a winning strategy.

In terms of my project what is interesting about all this is the constant interaction between:

- cold war rhetoric
- war on terror rhetoric
- narratives of Bush as leader
- narratives of Reagan as leader

Although these articles do not mention it explicitly the religious/apocalyptic underpinnings of these narratives are critical to their production. But I find it interesting to look at it, as these writers do, purely in political terms for a change. I am beginning to identify three interlocking yet distinct narratives which need tracing:

- the political apocalypse
- the religious apocalypse
- the popular culture apocalypse

These narratives leak into each other constantly but are none the less uniquely identifiable. The political apocalypse of Paul Wolfowitz is different from the religious apocalypse of Jerry Falwell and they are both different from the pop culture apocalypses of X-files fans and Kennedy assassination aficionados. Part of my project is to identify both the unique elements of each of these variations and then to also analyse their interactions as a “meta myth”.

This comes back to my notion of myth as a set of interconnected narrative nodes.

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