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?

Second, domestic political support is crucial and cannot be assumed. Partisan politics will return, and the Bush administration will have to fight this war without the unanimous support we have seen temporarily on display. To be sure, during the immediate aftermath of extreme crisis, we can count on politicians and the public to rally to the flag. The Democrats did not offer the customary rebuttal speech to a presidential address to Congress. But if Cold War I taught us anything, it is that politics does not stop at the water’s edge, at least not in a campaign that lasts more than a few weeks. While there was a bipartisan consensus on the general need to stand up to communism, there was never a bipartisan consensus on how to stand up to communism. In the same way, there will be deep and probably bitter debates over how to conduct the Second Cold War.

This truth may be particularly hard to swallow, because in the last decade we have bought into a myth about the "good old days" when Americans—Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and leftists—were of one mind on foreign policy. On the contrary, successive administrations sustained political support for the First Cold War only with exceptional difficulty, and even then in fits and starts. Anyone with an e-mail connection to the American left can attest that the Second Cold War will be like the First in this regard, with loud clamoring from the blame-America-first crowd. Many of these debates will be specious, but not all will be. Indeed, the Second Cold War may be harder to fight than the last one, leaving ample room for responsible disagreements among reasonable people. We will have to nurture those debates, learn from them, and forge the best possible policy in an extraordinarily difficult political climate.

Third, like the First Cold War, this Cold War will test the uneasy balance between national security and individual liberty—in the president’s words, whether we can "fight for our principles" as well as "live by them." Harold Lasswell, the distinguished social scientist, warned that the dictates of national security in an age of total war could turn the United States into a "garrison state"—a militarized state where basic individual liberties were systematically sacrificed and an all-powerful central government tyrannized the population. Some considered his prophecies fulfilled in McCarthyism and the rise of the military-industrial complex.

But in fact, America did not become a garrison state during the Cold War. Rights and liberties actually expanded—remember the civil rights movement—and large defense expenditures precluded neither a vast expansion of the social safety net, nor a vigorous independent entrepreneurial base. But here the Second Cold War will pose more serious challenges. The Soviet espionage threat inside the United States was real, but it never came to the blowing up of skyscrapers and the wanton killing of thousands of American citizens. The fifth columnists of the First Cold War were largely misguided intellectuals, hoping to undermine American foreign policy with bombast in between gulps of wine and brie. The "sleepers" of the Second Cold War are of an entirely different nature, and the balance between security and liberty far more precarious.

The Second Cold War will require changes in the way we do business and organize ourselves for national security, all relics of the First Cold War. Already, the Bush administration has announced the most obvious change, a new cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security. Other measures will be debated soon, such as expansions in international economic espionage and law enforcement capabilities, and possibly a dramatic reorientation of NATO. But this Cold War will be won or lost in the hearts and minds of the American people, not in the fine print of policies and programs.

One of the most hopeful signs so far has been the clarity with which the Bush administration has understood that this war will be long and difficult, involving a careful, measured, but sustained application of American power. Only the most blinkered critics of America think the president is planning a quickie retaliation of blind vengeance, in which some innocent Afghans die and nothing else is accomplished. On the contrary, the administration has repeatedly drawn attention to the costs and the long-term focus.

Therein lies the worry. Will we sustain the fight? As President Bush reminded us, "Even grief recedes with time and grace. But our resolve must not pass." Bush shows every indication of understanding that he is the first president of the Second Cold War. He recognizes the demands this war will place on the home front. Do the rest of us?

Peter D. Feaver is director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and associate professor of political science at Duke University. He is currently on sabbatical at Cambridge University.