The Corner

Settling Soviet Hash

If I may jump into the settling-Soviet-hash issue for a moment (scroll through yesterday’s posts if you’re not up to speed). I agree with most everyone else who says that it would have been very hard indeed to rollback the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, before they had an atomic bomb (though certainly easier than it would have been after they got the atomic bomb).

But, I think this conversation glosses over the most important lesson. Before one engages the question of what was possible, it makes sense — and is very clarifying — to address the question of what was most desirable. And on this score, it seems to me any realistic examination of costs and benefits would find that it would have been far more preferable to take care of the Soviets at the time. It would have saved lives, reduced misery, unleashed prosperity, diminished fear and improved the lives of millions if not billions of people for two or more generations in innumerable ways. Contrafactuals are often childish because we never know what resides behind curtain number 2 when we retroactively decide we shouldn’t have opted for curtain number 1. But, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that if we’d forced regime change on the Soviet Union in, say,  1946, that there would have been no Vietnam and, perhaps, no Korean War and no permanently Red China (which alone would have reduced the pile of 20th century corpses considerably). Eastern Europe would not have been immiserated and enslaved. While the space program would have suffered without the Space Race, it seems a sure bet that the net gain of liberated human genius would more than have compensated for that.

The reason this is important is that there seem to be lots of people who think the Cold War was not merely the best we could get, but the ideal policy option period. It wasn’t. The Cold War consensus agreed to kick the can down the road for half a century, leaving open all sorts of terrible possibilities regime change would have foreclosed. It maintained a balance of terror, and wrote-off millions of decent freedom-loving people to economic misery and political tyranny and warped our own politics and economy in not entirely healthy ways. It’s also worth noting that the tidy “bipartisan consensus” everyone fondly recalls today was neither so bipartisan nor as tidy as nostalgia suggests. By the second half of the Cold War it was hardly obvious at certain moments that it would hold, as the Democratic Party succumbed to the demands of its own base.

There is also the anti-Cold War argument of John Lukacs and others that’s worth considering, even if you don’t have to accept it whole. According to Lukacs, we blundered in the early 1950s when we — specifically Eisenhower — refused to accept Churchill’s advice to engage the Soviets after Stalin’s death. There were ample reasons to believe that the Soviets were ripe for such an overture. Eisenhower (and Dulles) dismissed Churchill out of hand as foolish and perhaps senile. Lukacs may be wrong that the Cold War could have ended thirty years earlier — without a war –  but it seems fair to say that he makes many persuasive arguments toward that conclusion. Surely it’s true that the entrenched, bureaucratized brinksmanship of the Cold War made it very difficult indeed to look for ways to bring it to an end. The benefit of a hot war is you tend to know when it’s over — and it ends a lot quicker. One can certainly imagine similar thinking developing in America with regard to the Jihadi threat since Muslims are much less likely to give up Muhammed and the Koran than Russians were to give up Marx and Das Kapital. 

The policy implications of my point may seem obscure. But just look at Iraq. In the first Gulf War we decided not to topple Saddam and instead, in a moment of supreme strength viz a viz Iraq and the world, we opted for establishing a de facto Cold War with Iraq (and, as it turned out, with al Qaeda). We put Iraq “in a box.” The 1990s were punctuated with hot war flare-ups with Saddam in order to keep him in that box.The Shiites of the south and the Kurds of the north were in keys ways akin to the captive peoples of Eastern Europe, whom we rhetorically exhorted to rise-up but materially abandoned. Saddam’s regime arguably became more brutal because of our policy and his hold on power more secure (I am not however, assigning moral blame to the U.S. — Saddam chose to brutalize his people). And, at the end of the day, it turned out the Cold War strategy merely kicked-the-can down the road and made the eventual liberation of Iraq more difficult and costly. 

In short, the Cold War approach may be the best possible option, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good option.  

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