Why I Miss the Cold War

By Glenn Sacks

I miss the Cold War. Like a pedestrian who congratulates himself for nimbly avoiding an on-coming bicycle only to find himself in the path of a truck, the US rid itself of one enemy—the USSR—only to find itself at war with an enemy far more dangerous and far less reasonable. Comrades Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev—please, come back! All is forgiven!

America’s new war is far colder than the Cold War ever was—cold as in September 11’s cold-blooded murder. With the Soviets, at least we always knew who was in charge and that we couldn’t be attacked without his orders. In fact, we had a direct line to him, instituted by President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, to provide instant contact at the first hint of problems. By contrast, on Tuesday we lost thousands of people, and we’re not even sure who did it.

With the Soviets, a war would only have come after an escalation of tensions. In our new, post-September 11 era, an attack could come at any time, without warning.

As French leader Charles De Gaulle realized, though most Americans did not, by the 1950s the USSR’s leaders weren’t red firebrands hell bent on claiming a world for communism. They were traditional, even conservative leaders who sought to resolve their country’s economic problems, gain influence in the world, and protect their own precarious position. If they ever really became demanding or intransigent, they could usually be pacified or bought off with promises of American trade or technology, which served to help their economies continue to function without threatening their rule.

By contrast, America’s new enemies seem to have no demands. They can’t be bought, bribed, or even blackmailed. They only want to strike a blow at any cost. And if a suicide hijacker or bomber really believes that by dying in his jihad (Muslim holy war) he’ll go straight to heaven and Allah’s loving embrace, what earthly reward could the US or anybody else possibly offer as a substitute?

It has been said that all generals make the mistake of preparing to fight the last war instead of preparing to fight the next one. I can’t help but feel that way about some of our latest anti-terrorist preparations. Certainly airport security needs to be strengthened, and the re-institution of the Sky Marshal program—putting armed undercover security officer on flights—would also be a positive move. But I have the nagging suspicion that the next attack won’t be by "suicide hijackers"—it will be something even worse. I see two principal dangers:

  1. a nuclear weapon or device acquired from the collapsed Soviet empire used by a terrorist or terrorist group against American civilians
  2. chemical or biological weapons

Though the West still fails to recognize it, in many ways the fall of the Soviet Union created far more security risks than the Soviet Union itself did. After the Russians embraced the free-market, their economy collapsed and their society was pitched into chaos. Since 1991, Russia has lost half of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and three-quarters of the its population now lives at the subsistence level.

With the collapse of their economy has come the collapse of many of their military and scientific institutions. Nuclear physicists who in earlier times were among the world’s leaders in scientific advance have been forced to moonlight as street corner ice-cream vendors in order to feed their families. Tens of thousands of Soviet defense industry personnel—many of whom had access to powerful and even nuclear weaponry—have been laid off or forced to go long periods without pay. Countless common soldiers have been left destitute. Any terrorist in search of advanced weaponry and in possession of a little cash would take a keen interest in such people.

Also, the roughly 8,000 mafia gangs who control much of Russian economic life see arms traffic—particularly the advanced weaponry which only advanced countries like the former USSR had—as an extremely profitable business. Reportedly materials used to make nuclear weapons or even some nuclear weapons themselves are currently unaccounted for.

Equally vexing and a product of the same problems is the possibility of a chemical weapons attack upon the United States. There have been reports, some of them confirmed, that Hezbollah guerillas, Chechnyen terrorists, and international arms traders have acquired chemical weapons from Russia and other former Soviet republics. According to Chemist Kathleen Vogel of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, "once chemical weapons are in the hands of a terrorist group, carrying out an attack on an unsuspecting civilian population could prove to be simple. There are a variety of chemical munitions that are relatively small in size, making them easy to conceal and transport."

Large civilian targets could be devastated by chemical or biological weapons no bigger than a backpack. Yet the post-Soviet collapse is so complete that American experts have found that Russia is apparently incapable even of fixing the holes in the fences around many chemical weapons storage facilities!

Who would be most likely to use nuclear or chemical weapons against the US? Apparently Osama bin Laden and his group of fanatics. And who got them started by training them and providing them with weapons? The United States.

When the Soviet army went into Afghanistan in 1979 to save its allied government from falling to the Mujahedin (Afghan rebels), the US showered the rebels with billions in aid. US intelligence, along with the Saudis, Pakistanis, and others, recruited Muslim militants, including bin Laden, to help the Mujahedin.

The Soviets argued that their military intervention was justified because, in addition to its security concerns, the Soviet-backed government offered Afghans—particularly female Afghans—a better way of life.

In this the Soviets were right—their allied government had granted new and extensive rights to women, helped the Afghan poor, and had begun to modernize a backward society. It promoted education for girls, distributed land to the impoverished peasants, and restrained the power of the mullahs, the Muslim clergy. But for Cold War reasons the US chose to back the Mujahedin—Muslim fundamentalist extremists, many of whose soldiers later came to form Afghanistan’s current, brutal leaders, the Taliban.

Under US pressure, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out in 1989. Despite pitched battles and stiff resistance from Afghans who supported the now abandoned leftist regime, the Mujahedin won and took over Afghanistan in 1992. What followed there has been a nightmare worse than anything the Soviet-backed government ever could have brought to Afghanistan.

That nightmare has now been brought to our shores. America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union and wanted Osama bin Laden & Company to help us do it. As they say, be careful what you ask for—you might get it.

This column was quoted extensively by U.S. Brigadier General (retired) Russell D. Howard, a veteran Special Forces officer, in his co-authored books Homeland, Security and Terrorism and Terrorism and Counterterrorism.

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