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A Long-Term Plan? Look to the Cold War

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

September 30, 2001|WILLIAM SCHNEIDER | William Schneider, a political analyst for CNN, is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — How united is the country? President Bush's job-approval rating in recent polling has hit 90%--the highest ever recorded for any president. He's even got the support of 84% of Democrats. Public support for military retaliation is also nearly unanimous, and Americans say they are willing to endure losses and setbacks.

But whether they are also willing to endure politics remains to be seen. Americans believe wars should have a clear military objective--to win. They do not have much patience for getting involved in other countries' politics.

That was the problem in Vietnam, where the U.S. was fighting to win people's "hearts and minds." That was the problem in Somalia, where the cause of that country's famine turned out to be politics.

How does the U.S. avoid politics when its objective is not to defeat other countries but to persuade them to share our values and cooperate with us? In last year's campaign, George W. Bush complained that the Clinton administration was too quick to involve the U.S. in foreign conflicts with no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. Well, guess what? In the new war on terrorism, there is no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. For Americans to accept that kind of open-ended political strategy will be the toughest test of all.

Do Americans have the stomach for a costly, long-term conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future? They've done it before.

The closest analogy is the Cold War. In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and declared that the U.S. was willing to assume the burden of leading the free world in the struggle against communism--an open-ended conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future.

The enemy was an "ism": communism. It was a global confrontation. The U.S. divided the world into our side and their side. And now? Our new "ism" is terrorism, and the president has clearly laid out the us-and-them nature of the conflict: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he said on Sept. 20.

Now the U.S. is obsessed with the threat of terrorism. Then we were obsessed with the nuclear threat. Americans are pursuing airport security with the same zeal with which they once built fallout shelters and practiced "duck and cover" exercises. The closest parallel to the fear Americans have felt over the last three weeks was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the country was on the brink of nuclear war.

The Cold War was intensely political. The U.S. was trying to persuade other countries to share our values, not theirs. It became controversial only when actual shooting broke out, first in Korea and later in Vietnam, and Americans expressed a deep distaste for fighting wars with limited political objectives. But the Cold War was always bipartisan. It originated with Truman and was sustained by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who repudiated his party's isolationist tradition.

The Cold War taught the U.S. some valuable lessons, which are being applied to "America's new war." In the early days of the Cold War, Americans were obsessed with "the enemy within." When he addressed Congress, President Bush said, "I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here."

It took a long time for the U.S. to figure out that communism was not monolithic. We had to learn to make distinctions. Bush is already doing that in the war on terrorism. He defined the enemy as "every terrorist group of global reach." He defined as hostile "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism."

The early years of the Cold War were marked by the unsubtle and inflexible "brinkmanship" diplomacy of then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Bush seems to understand that the war on terrorism will be fought in a world of complex competition and shifting allegiances. Notice how quickly the U.S. lifted its anti-nuclear sanctions on Pakistan. We are even contemplating an opening to Iran, if that regime will help us.

The Cold War lasted 45 years. It was costly, difficult and sometimes controversial. When it began, there was considerable doubt that the American people would have the stomach for a massive, open-ended, global struggle. But through it all, the country sacrificed and endured. In the end, communism collapsed, owing in no small measure to the relentlessness of U.S. opposition.

For President Bush, the war on terrorism is his generation's call to arms. "We have found our mission and our moment," the president said. "We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail."

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