The Magazine

Cold War II

America can win another protracted, high-stakes global struggle.

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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IN HIS FINE ADDRESS to Congress, President Bush committed America to "our war on terror." But what should we call this war and how should we think of it? Already the Pentagon’s initial name for the war, "Operation Infinite Justice," has been discarded. That unfortunate moniker called to mind a never-ending war, and was too easily twisted to substantiate the terrorists’ view that this is a holy war between religions. The president has likewise advised us not to think of it merely as Desert Storm II. That war was too short and too easy. Nor is it really World War III, despite the obvious analogies drawn by the president to a second day of infamy and an enemy motivated by a murderous "will to power."

The truth is that this new war will be most like yet another war we won, although the president made only the slightest reference to it. As in our present conflict, victory came only after a sustained and often uncertain contest with a foe determined not just to seize foreign territory but to destroy America itself. In that war, there were some bloody pitched battles in far-flung places on the Asian rim and elsewhere, but much of the fighting was done in the shadows. In the end, that war was won, as this new one can be, only because the American public quickly understood the gravity of the situation and successive administrations kept up the fight.

This is the start of Cold War II. And because Americans do not really remember Cold War I, or at least do not remember it correctly, it is worth considering the analogy more closely. There are numerous parallels at the international level: evidence of a tectonic with-us-or-against-us realignment in the international community; the consequent need for adroit alliance management and the likelihood of uncomfortable marriages of convenience with unsavory allies; the seamless integration of combat, threats, and propaganda. There is even, as countless observers have pointed out, a painful connection between the two conflicts: Our enemy in the Second Cold War was nurtured by us as an ally in the First. We would do well to keep this uncomfortable fact before us as we recruit allies for the new Cold War.

The international ramifications are important, but the substance of President Bush’s address to Congress shows he understands that three parallels at the domestic level will prove most telling.

First and foremost, Americans will have to pay a heavy price to win this war. Americans paid in treasure, blood, and fear to win the First Cold War, and the Second Cold War may carry an even higher price. Not so much in treasure; even the most hawkish fiscal estimates pale beside 50 years of Cold War budgets. The United States can easily afford to pay what this new war will cost in dollars.

It is the terrible price in blood and fear that we must quickly come to terms with, and the point of vulnerability is not the arena currently receiving the most attention in the press: the public’s willingness to tolerate military casualties. Tens of thousands of American military personnel died in the various battles of the First Cold War. Since it ended, however, it has become fashionable to argue that Americans will no longer tolerate military casualties. Casualty phobia has been real, but it is largely limited to the decision-making and policy-implementing elites, not to the American public on whom it is blamed. Even before this attack, Americans gave every indication that they would support military operations that involved American casualties, provided the operations were successful. Polls since the attack confirm that the public understands American soldiers will be at risk in this war.

But do we understand that American civilians will also be at risk? During the First Cold War, Americans came to terms with American vulnerability for the first time. Because American soil emerged more or less unscathed when the First Cold War ended, we tend to forget that most people—including most experts—thought it more than likely that the United States would suffer a nuclear attack at some point. This new Cold War already has seen American citizens killed in large numbers, and there is every indication the enemy will strike again. President Bush explicitly invoked that dread: "I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat." Americans did not capitulate to fear during the First Cold War. Will they do so now?