Shadow Government

Andrew Bacevich and the Cold War analogy

By Peter Feaver

Professor Andy Bacevich, a prolific critic of American foreign policy, has proposed an intriguing grand strategy for the conflict formerly called the war on terror: let's approach the war on terror as if it were another Cold War. Since Andy knows first-hand the personal tragedy of these wars -- his son died while serving in the Army in Iraq -- his powerful voice of moral authority garners a respectful audience every time he speaks on the subject.

I am sympathetic to the Cold War frame and offered it as a useful way for thinking about the problem of terrorism almost exactly 8 years ago, as did other commentators -- notably, Eliot Cohen. We thought that the framework was a useful antidote to the pre-9/11 mindset which viewed terrorism narrowly through the lens of law enforcement and thus limited policymakers only to a very restricted set of law enforcement tools. The broader Cold War frame incorporated all of the law enforcement tools, plus additional ones. I don't remember Andy (whom I consider to be a friend and long-time debating partner) being persuaded by our reasoning then; I rather recall him thinking it would lead to what he calls American "militarism." But evidently he has come around to our point of view now.

In so doing, he joins President Bush, who used that frame in his 2006 National Security Strategy and his follow-on National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The three pillars Andy highlights would all produce emphatic head-nodding from any Bush administration alum. Pursue decapitation, meaning tracking and killing the terrorist leaders? Of course, and the Bush administration dramatically ramped up these efforts. Pursue containment, meaning improving law enforcement, tracking vigorously international financial transactions and weapons transfers?  Absolutely, and the Bush administration was very innovative in these areas. Compete with the jihadis on both a material and an ideological terrain? Again, this was a centerpiece of the Bush administration effort.

Even Andy's eloquent peroration -- "The upshot is that by modifying the way we live -- attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live." -- reads like one of President Bush's speeches. If a Bush speechwriter were penning it, he might throw in a reference or two touting No Child Left Behind, the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, the Malaria Initiative, the efforts in women's education, and the increased funding for renewable energy, all of which (and more) were viewed in much the same way Andy is suggesting here: part of an all-elements-of-national-power comprehensive approach to combating terrorism at both the material and ideological levels.

Now I recognize that many people, chief among them the current administration, would all argue that the Bush administration should have done even more on all of those dimensions. But the strategic pillars Andy recommends did comprise important parts of the Bush strategy and, on each of these dimensions, the Obama team has been trying to do the same thing, only harder, faster, and better.

Where he departs from what might be considered Bush/Obama orthodoxy is when Andy suggests that we can accomplish all of this even better if only we would abandon the fight in Afghanistan and also in Iraq (the Iraq point is implicit in his most recent articulation, but explicit elsewhere in Andy's writings). That is the novel bit of his proposal: the notion that the Cold War frame works better if only we would get out of Afghanistan (and Iraq). That was not President Bush's view and, so far at least with respect to Afghanistan, that is not what President Obama has embraced.

Nor does it follow inexorably from the Cold War frame. One can view the larger conflict as a Cold War, and still believe it is essential to prevail in theater combat in Afghanistan. One can even argue, as McChrystal, Petraeus, Bush, and Obama have, that prevailing in Afghanistan is an important -- Obama used to call it a necessary -- step in prevailing in that larger contest. Andy's new spin on grand strategy is in promising that we have a better shot at winning the larger contest if only we embrace the inevitability of defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the sooner the better.

It is a very enticing vision, but it rests on some hazy premises. Yes, we would prefer to be able to whack the terrorists from afar and do so in a fashion in which no civilians die. But who will give us the pin-point intelligence (and so much more of it than we are getting now), after we have abandoned our erstwhile allies in Afghanistan and Iraq? How often will the terrorist leaders we are hunting show up within range of assault helicopters away from civilian population centers, thus allowing us to do the Delta Force strikes Andy favors rather than the Predator strikes we have increasingly relied upon?  How can we be sure that our departure will encourage the Muslim world to see the terrorists as offering only a "retrograde version of Islam" and not, in fact, as the "stronger horse" that has defeated its second great superpower?

As long as one elides over these tough questions, one can stay focused on this promise that we can have it all and for less sacrifice, more gain for less pain, more security for less security operations. Such a vision is far more enticing than McChrystal's somber and stark catalogue of the costs entailed in pursuing success, or the similarly painstaking evaluation of the alternatives that leaves Steve Biddle endorsing a surge in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Andy's message is so enticing, I would be surprised if we don't hear this chorus growing. The question is: Will President Obama join it?

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