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. 

Before Washington embarks on a new Cold War, it’s time to remind ourselves of the global consequences of the last one. 

Cold War I: The coups

Dwight D. Eisenhower is often praised as the president who ended the Korean War and spoke out against the military-industrial complex. However, he also sowed the seeds of instability and repression globally by overseeing the launching of coups against nations allegedly moving towards communism or even simply building closer relations with the Soviet Union.

In 1953, with Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA instigated a coup that led to the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeqh. In a now-declassified document, the CIA cited the Cold War and the risks of leaving Iran “open to Soviet aggression” as rationales for their actions. The coup installed Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran, initiating 26 years of repressive rule that set the stage for the 1979 Iranian revolution that would bring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

In 1954, the Eisenhower administration launched a coup that overthrew the Guatemalan government of President Jacobo Arbenz. His “crime”: attempting to redistribute to poor peasants some of the lands owned by major landlords, including the U.S.-based United Fruit Company. Arbenz’s internal reforms were falsely labeled communism-in-the-making and a case of Soviet influence creeping into the Western Hemisphere. Of course, no one in the Eisenhower administration made mention of the close ties between the United Fruit Company and both CIA Director Allen Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Such U.S. intervention in Guatemala would prove devastating with the four decades that followed consumed by a brutal civil war in which up to 200,000 people died. 

In 1973, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger followed Eisenhower’s playbook by fomenting a coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende, installing the vicious dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. That coup was accomplished in part through economic warfare — “making the economy scream,” as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it — and partly thanks to CIA-backed bribes and assassinations meant to bolster right-wing factions there.  Kissinger would justify the coup, which led to the torture, imprisonment, and death of tens of thousands of Chileans, this way: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

Vietnam and its legacy

The most devastating Cold War example of a war justified on anti-communist grounds was certainly the disastrous U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It would lead to the deployment there of more than half a million American troops, the dropping of a greater tonnage of bombs than the U.S. used in World War II, the defoliation of large parts of the Vietnamese countryside, the massacre of villagers in My Lai and numerous other villages, the deaths of 58,000 U.S. troops and up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians — all while Washington systematically lied to the American public about the war’s “progress.”

U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in earnest during the administrations of Presidents Harry Truman and Eisenhower, when Washington bankrolled the French colonial effort there to subdue an independence movement. After a catastrophic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. took over the fight, first with covert operations and then counterinsurgency efforts championed by the administration of John F. Kennedy. Finally, under President Lyndon Johnson Washington launched an all-out invasion and bombing campaign.

In addition to being an international crime writ large, in what became a Cold War tradition for Washington, the conflict in Vietnam would prove to be profoundly anti-democratic. There’s no question that independence leader Ho Chi Minh would have won the nationwide election called for by the 1954 Geneva Accords that followed the French defeat. Instead, the Eisenhower administration, gripped by what was then called the “domino theory” — the idea that the victory of communism anywhere would lead other countries to fall like so many dominos to the influence of the Soviet Union — sustained an undemocratic right-wing regime in South Vietnam. 

That distant war would, in fact, spark a growing antiwar movement in this country and lead to what became known as the “Vietnam Syndrome,” a public resistance to military intervention globally. While that meant an ever greater reliance on the CIA, it also helped keep the U.S. out of full-scale boots-on-the-ground conflicts until the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead, the post-Vietnam “way of war” would be marked by a series of U.S.-backed proxy conflicts abroad and the widespread arming of repressive regimes.

The defeat in Vietnam helped spawn what was called the Nixon Doctrine, which eschewed large-scale intervention in favor of the arming of American surrogates like the Shah of Iran and the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Those two autocrats typically repressed their own citizens, while trying to extinguish people’s movements in their regions. In the case of Indonesia, Suharto oversaw a brutal war in East Timor, greenlighted and supported financially and with weaponry by the Nixon administration.

“Freedom fighters”

Once Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981, his administration began to push support for groups he infamously called “freedom fighters.” Those ranged from extremist mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan to Jonas Savimbi’s forces in Angola to the Nicaraguan Contras. The U.S. funding and arming of such groups would have devastating consequences in those countries, setting the stage for the rise of a new generation of corrupt regimes, while arming and training individuals who would become members of al-Qaeda.

The Contras were an armed right-wing rebel movement cobbled together, funded, and supplied by the CIA. Americas Watch accused them of rape, torture, and the execution of civilians. In 1984, Congress prohibited the Reagan administration from funding them, thanks to the Boland amendment (named for Massachusetts Democratic Representative Edward Boland). In response, administration officials sought a work-around. In the end, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a Marine and member of the National Security Council, would devise a scheme to supply arms to Iran, while funneling excess profits from the sales of that weaponry to the Contras. The episode became known as the Iran-Contra scandal and demonstrated the lengths to which zealous Cold Warriors would go to support even the worst actors as long as they were on the “right side” (in every sense) of the Cold War struggle.

Chief among this country’s blunders of that previous Cold War era was its response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a policy that still haunts America today. Concerns about that invasion led the administration of President Jimmy Carter to step up weapons transfers through a covert arms pipeline to a loose network of oppositional fighters known as the mujahideen. President Reagan doubled down on such support, even meeting with the leaders of mujahideen groups in the Oval Office in 1983. That relationship would, of course, backfire disastrously as Afghanistan descended into a civil war after the Soviet Union withdrew. Some of those Reagan had praised as “freedom fighters” helped form al-Qaeda and later the Taliban. The U.S. by no means created the mujahideen in Afghanistan, but it does bear genuine responsibility for everything that followed in that country.

As the Biden administration moves to operationalize its policy of democracy versus autocracy, it should take a close look at the Cold War policy of attempting to expand the boundaries of the “free world.” A study by political scientists Alexander Downes and Jonathon Monten found that, of 28 cases of American regime change, only three would prove successful in building a lasting democracy. Instead, most of the Cold War policies outlined above, even though carried out under the rubric of promoting “freedom” in “the free world,” would undermine democracy in a disastrous fashion.

A new Cold War?

Cold War II, if it comes to pass, is unlikely to simply follow the pattern of Cold War I either in Europe or other parts of the world.  Still, the damage done by the “good versus evil” worldview that animated Washington’s policies during the Cold War years should be a cautionary tale. The risk is high that the emerging era could be marked by persistent U.S. intervention or interference in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the name of staving off Russian and Chinese influence in a world where Washington’s disastrous war on terrorism has never quite ended.

The United States already has more than 200,000 troops stationed abroad, 750 military bases scattered on every continent except Antarctica, and continuing counterterrorism operations in 85 countries. The end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and the dramatic scaling back of American operations in Iraq and Syria should have marked the beginning of a sharp reduction in the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Washington’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine may now stand in the way of just such a much-needed military retrenchment.

The “us versus them” rhetoric and global military maneuvering likely to play out in the years to come threaten to divert attention and resources from the biggest risks to humanity, including the existential threat posed by climate change. It also may divert attention from a country — ours — that is threatening to come apart at the seams.  To choose this moment to launch a new Cold War should be considered folly of the first order, not to speak of an inability to learn from history.

Copyright 2022 William D. Hartung, Nick Cleveland-Stout, and Taylor Giorno


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