It's strange, don't you think, this feeling of having been here before? Well, not quite here. It wasn't Ukraine and Europe then, but Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East. And if this is indeed Cold War II, Russia isn't the Soviet Union, but an ever-shakier petro-state with an all-too-bizarre new czar at the helm. In other words, in certain ways it's already scarier than the original Cold War because we don't quite know where we are, as Nick Cleveland-Stout, Taylor Giorno, and Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung make all too clear today in discussing the ever more astronomical Pentagon "budget" or do I mean gold mine or garbage dump?
Still, you'd think that Vladimir Putin, at least, would have remembered the last time around when a far more powerful Soviet Union went into Afghanistan and found itself fighting a determined local resistance movement backed by American money and arms galore. Yes, that was Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still a great power and its military an impressive force. Yet its Afghan War proved a disaster of the first order. When the Soviets finally did limp out of that country in 1989, and not so long after the USSR imploded, Washington effectively stayed at least until, 30-odd years later, its troops departed in dismal defeat like their Russian counterparts, heading for a country that looked as if it might be on the verge of coming apart at the seams.
Now, here we are in what might indeed be Cold War II, playing out the Ukrainian version of Afghanistan with a weaker Russian military, a visibly more disturbed leader, Washington again shoveling arms, money, and training to the other side, and the possibility that the war could spread elsewhere in Europe. What happens when history repeats itself, however weirdly? That's a question to consider as you read today's account of our potential new Cold War and the one that preceded it. Tom
Washington Should Think Twice Before Launching a New Cold War
A History Lesson for Our Desperate Moment
A growing chorus of pundits and policymakers has suggested that Russia's invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of a new Cold War. If so, that means trillions of additional dollars for the Pentagon in the years to come coupled with a more aggressive military posture in every corner of the world.
Before this country succumbs to calls for a return to Cold War-style Pentagon spending, it's important to note that the United States is already spending substantially more than it did at the height of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or, in fact, any other moment in that first Cold War. Even before the invasion of Ukraine began, the Biden administration's proposed Pentagon budget (as well as related work like nuclear-warhead development at the Department of Energy) was already guaranteed to soar even higher than that, perhaps to $800 billion or more for 2023.
Here's the irony: going back to Cold War levels of Pentagon funding would mean reducing, not increasing spending. Of course, that's anything but what the advocates of such military outlays had in mind, even before the present crisis.
Some supporters of higher Pentagon spending have, in fact, been promoting figures as awe inspiring as they are absurd. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, is advocating a trillion-dollar military budget, while Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council called for the United States to prepare to win simultaneous wars against Russia and China. He even suggested that Congress "could go so far as to double its defense spending" without straining our resources. That would translate into a proposed annual defense budget of perhaps $1.6 trillion. Neither of those astronomical figures is likely to be implemented soon, but that they're being talked about at all is indicative of where the Washington debate on Pentagon spending is heading in the wake of the Ukraine disaster.
Ex-government officials are pressing for similarly staggering military budgets. As former Reagan-era State Department official and Iran-Contra operative Elliott Abrams argued in a recent Foreign Affairs piece titled "The New Cold War": "It should be crystal clear now that a larger percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] will need to be spent on defense." Similarly, in a Washington Post op-ed, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted that "we need a larger, more advanced military in every branch, taking full advantage of new technologies to fight in new ways." No matter that the U.S. already outspends China by a three-to-one margin and Russia by 10-to-one.
Truth be told, current levels of Pentagon spending could easily accommodate even a robust program of arming Ukraine as well as a shift of yet more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe. However, as hawkish voices exploit the Russian invasion to justify higher military budgets, don't expect that sort of information to get much traction. At least for now, cries for more are going to drown out realistic views on the subject.
Beyond the danger of breaking the budget and siphoning off resources urgently needed to address pressing challenges like pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice, a new Cold War could have devastating consequences. Under such a rubric, the U.S. would undoubtedly launch yet more military initiatives, while embracing unsavory allies in the name of fending off Russian and Chinese influence.
The first Cold War, of course, reached far beyond Europe, as Washington promoted right-wing authoritarian regimes and insurgencies globally at the cost of millions of lives. Such brutal military misadventures included Washington's role in coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile; the war in Vietnam; and support for repressive governments and proxy forces in Afghanistan, Angola, Central America, and Indonesia. All of those were justified by exaggerated even at times fabricated charges of Soviet involvement in such countries and the supposed need to defend "the free world," a Cold War term President Biden all-too-ominously revived in his recent State of the Union address (assumedly, yet another sign of things to come).
Indeed, his framing of the current global struggle as one between "democracies and autocracies" has a distinctly Cold War ring to it and, like the term "free world," it's riddled with contradictions. After all, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates to the Philippines, all too many autocracies and repressive regimes already receive ample amounts of U.S. weaponry and military training no matter that they continue to pursue reckless wars or systematically violate the human rights of their own people. Washington's support is always premised on the role such regimes supposedly play in fighting against or containing the threats of the moment, whether Iran, China, Russia, or some other country.
Count on one thing: the heightened rhetoric about Russia and China seeking to undermine American influence will only reinforce Washington's support for repressive regimes. The consequences of that could, in turn, prove to be potentially disastrous.
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