Why Americans have trouble coming to grips with WWIV

Charles A. Glenn

Much of the Cold War was not a war, as such, but rather a hostile truce built upon shared assumptions about how the enemy would react if provoked. This truce served to limit the actions of both sides, and introduced what may be the first, and last, conflict in history that was marked far more by covert actions than overt ones. Each side could maintain the fragile "peace" and still pursue aggressive foreign policy goals, but only insofar as the actions taken in that pursuit included a heavy dose of "plausible deniability."

Because of the length of the Cold War, this model for conflict persisted much longer than did any other war in which the United States had ever been involved. For roughly 44 years, beginning with the Yalta Conference in 1945, several generations of Americans were born and grew to maturity, and very few of the original Cold War policy-makers survived to see its end.

Thus Americans grew to think in terms of what we call "deterrence." The central belief around which our foreign policy was built for nearly a half-century was the idea that we could influence the behavior of other nations toward us, and that we had the ability to maintain our own security solely by balancing careful aggression with wise restraint. When this belief was tested, such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seemed to hold up to scrutiny. Even when we appeared to err on the side of aggression in the case of Vietnam and on the side of restraint in the case of our support for Saddam Hussein, these were conceived not as failures of the core beliefs, but rather failures to strike the right balance.

From the beginning, however, an interesting and often conflicting sub-plot was developing. Political leaders, such as John F. Kennedy, had begun marrying Wilsonian ideals to our policy of deterrence. The "advancement of liberty" became the antithesis of totalitarianism in all its various forms, and this created a debate within foreign policy circles over the size of the role the United States should play on the world stage.

But the Cold War came to an end not just because we became unusually aggressive in our advancement of liberty abroad (we did so only sporadically). It came to an end within that original framework of deterrence … we simply out-spent the enemy, and the mindset of mutually-assured destruction in which we had operated for four decades evaporated almost overnight. In the wake of that victory, and throughout the decade of the 1990’s, we enjoyed a false sense of security. Without an equally-powerful nation-state enemy to deter, we stuck our heads in the sand and focused on the antics of a president with an over-active libido and a former football hero-turned-murderer.

Meanwhile, a completely new kind of threat was emerging – one which our former policy of deterrence was uniquely unsuited to cope with. Deterrence doesn’t work against an enemy who seeks his own death, and although most Americans can cognitively understand how pointless such a policy is against such an enemy, we are loath to turn loose of our illusions.

We turn on our televisions and watch young Americans die in far-off lands for a people whose culture we can’t understand and whose internal conflicts seem too fierce to ever be overcome. The nobility of purpose we all seemed to share after 9/11 now feels immorally banal in the face of real Soldiers dying and real civilians being brutalized or beheaded. When we try to imagine how a mother or father of one the fallen must feel, it turns our stomach to hear high-minded speeches about preemption, liberty and freedom delivered by people who have lost no one close to them.

And against all reason, these reactions and emotions coalesce to form an irrational desire to return to the way things were. They make us vulnerable to the siren songs of politicians seeking office – who know better – and yet are still willing to use whatever advantage they can gain regardless of its depravity or destructiveness. These men and women offer a bridge to a past that no longer exists and a sense of security that was nothing but a deadly illusion.

Whether or not we fully embrace "preemption" is secondary to our first task as a nation. Our future depends on acknowledging that the way we used to do things got 3,000 Americans killed, and we must not even consider status quo ante. Furthermore, we must not elect anyone to any office in this nation who tries to sell us geopolitical poison while telling us it’s going to make us feel better or be safer.

Let us discuss our options. Let us debate our policy. But let us never give the enemy for free what so many Americans have died to preserve. Let us never sell our integrity for cheap assurances of false security.