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Frozen in the Cold War

The roots of Obama’s weakness abroad

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The trendy idea at the time was support for the “nuclear freeze.” The production of intercontinental ballistic missiles would be halted. NATO wouldn’t deploy missiles in Europe. Nuclear arsenals would be reduced. It was a utopian ambition: Advocates of the freeze proposed no verification system and flirted with unilateral disarmament. The security repercussions were irrelevant to these nuclear dreamers. “The freeze is not a plan,” Charles Krauthammer wrote in the New Republic in the spring of 1982. “It is a sentiment.” And it was widely shared.

Author Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, the bible of nuclear disarmament, also in 1982. The following March, Reagan delivered his famous “Evil Empire” speech, which horrified the left, just as the Sundial was publishing Obama’s article. In June, one million people marched in New York City in support of the freeze. The fear-mongering reached its peak on November 20 when The Day After, a television movie that dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear war, aired on ABC. It is still the most-watched TV movie ever.

Few people remember either The Day After or the nuclear freeze campaign. But that does not mean they had no lasting effect. Indeed, when one examines President Obama’s foreign policy in light of his article in the Sundial, one is struck by how he continues, to this day, to fight “the war mentality.” How he continues to struggle against “the twisted logic” of the Cold War. How he continues to associate organization, negotiation, and moral suasion with “our better instincts.” No matter the results.

The Cold War of the early 1980s is more than the backdrop to President Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin. It is the backdrop to his dealings with the world. Obama is determined not to repeat what he sees as mistaken Cold War policies. He wants to move beyond the weapons and walls of his young adulthood to an era of friendship and peace. “You know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama told Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential debates. “Our approach as the United States is not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” he said earlier this year.

Tell that to Vladimir Putin. “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama admitted to Jay Leno in 2013. Times? For Russia’s president, the fall of the Soviet empire was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Putin has occupied Georgia, supported the Iranian nuclear program, propped up Bashar al-Assad, hosted Edward Snowden, sent Bear bombers to the Pacific Coast of the United States, annexed Crimea, financed, armed, trained, and directed Ukrainian insurgents, provided them the means to shoot down a passenger airliner, and organized a global campaign of anti-American propaganda. But one has the impression that President Obama is more interested in rejecting the “Cold War mentality” than he is in standing up to the Russian dictator. Indeed, he was against the “Cold War mentality” when the Cold War was going on.

Last March, in a speech to a group of European young people, Obama said, “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into.” Ukraine, he said, “does not have easy answers or a military solution.” Suggest as much—advocate the use of American airpower in Syria or Iraq, military aid to the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government, more defense spending, full-throated support for liberal democratic movements, crippling sanctions on Iran, and possible military strikes against its nuclear facilities—and the Obama administration and its allies dismiss your arguments as symptoms of the “war mentality.” You are for another Vietnam, another Black Hawk Down, and another Iraq.

It’s often thought that President Obama defines his foreign policy in opposition to President Bush’s. Bush launched the Iraq war, and Obama ended it. Bush treated terrorists like enemy combatants, and Obama treats them—the ones he doesn’t drone—like criminals. The ties between the United States and Russia frayed under Bush, so Obama proposes a “reset” with Russia. Bush was said to have neglected our allies in the Pacific, while Obama “pivots” to East Asia. Bush opened the prison in Guantánamo Bay, and Obama is trying to close it.

But that interpretation of Obama’s foreign policy may be too narrow. Maybe Obama has defined himself not only against the foreign policy of George W. Bush, but also against the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan and other cold warriors. Maybe it is not the mentality of the Cold War in itself that Obama opposes, but the mentality of Cold War hawks.

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