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ROSA BROOKS

The Cold War reheated

August 21, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

So you haven't liked the last couple of decades? Been longing for a simpler time, before text-messaging, Hannah Montana, the Global War on Terror and other total bummers?

No problem. For you, we'll make it 1981 again.

Rick Springfield, whose single "Jessie's Girl" was Billboard's No. 1 hit in August 1981, is back on the charts this week. And just for you, we've also brought back 1981 producer price index levels. According to data released Tuesday by the Labor Department, the cost of goods bought by U.S. business leaped this year by almost 10%, an Olympic-worthy high-jump of the sort last seen in ... you guessed it, 1981! July's overall inflation rate -- 5.6% -- didn't quite make it to 1981's impressive 10.35% average, but it's the highest average rate since 1982.

And that's not all. As an extra treat (and with a little assistance from Russia and the Republic of Georgia), we're bringing back the Cold War.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan began his first term as president and lost no time warming up the shivering Cold War. Remember the "evil empire," the debate about a "Star Wars" missile defense and how thrilling it was to be in a perpetual nuclear standoff with the Soviets?

Wouldn't it be great to go "back to the future," as in the 1980s hit movie? The Cold War was, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates mused in 2007, "a less complex time" for which he was "almost nostalgic." Historian Niall Ferguson shared the sentiment: "I miss the Cold War," he wrote in 2006 in the London Daily Telegraph. "Soviet wickedness made politics so much simpler."

Among neocons and assorted righties, Cold War nostalgia has been widespread lately. And no wonder: Just compare the Cold War with the Global War on Terror. "Cold War" had a real ring to it. But "Global War on Terror"? Clumsy, and what a crummy acronym -- GWOT.

The GWOT got off to a decent start, with Al Qaeda and the "axis of evil" to go after, but it turned out to be a dud. Maybe it was because having a "war" on "terror" never made much sense. Maybe it was because we quickly ran out of targets in Afghanistan and then became targets in Iraq (and now in Afghanistan too). Maybe it's because Osama bin Laden, who seemed like an excellent candidate for arch-fiend, vanished. Maybe it's because U.S.-sponsored torture didn't sit well with most Americans, who had actually taken to heart all that stuff about how we won the Cold War through the "power of our values."

Whatever. Thanks to events in Georgia, we can put the tedium of the GWOT behind us and return to the Cold War.

Time travel is easy! If you lay the groundwork, that is -- and believe me, we did.

First, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we graciously provided a little economic "shock therapy" designed to turn our "defeated" former enemy into a prospering capitalist democracy. Regrettably, we instead helped plunge Russia into an economic catastrophe. This annoyed the Russians. But we continued to help by treating Russian officials as washed-up has-beens and by expanding NATO to include most of Russia's former satellites.

In a transparent bid for attention, Russia flattened most of Chechnya. We ignored this. When authoritarian crackdowns and rising oil prices turned Russia into a repressive economic powerhouse, we still paid little attention. We pushed to include Georgia and Ukraine in NATO and proposed placing missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. When the Russians told us they saw this as a hostile act, we continued to ignore them.

Finally, the stars were in alignment. So when tiny Georgia rashly tried to seize control of separatist South Ossetia and the Russians responded with a massive military intervention, we understood that at last we had an opportunity to travel back in time -- to the Cold War.

"Carpe diem!" cried the neocons. So we demanded that the Russians withdraw from Georgia and giddily turned up the rhetorical volume (neocon pundits likened Russia's action to the 1939 and 1968 invasions of Czechoslovakia by, respectively, the Nazis and the Soviets). "Today, we are all Georgians," proclaimed a revivified John McCain.

Then, last week, we added a few sweeteners to finalize our stalled missile defense deal with the Poles and arranged to have U.S. military personnel staff Polish air defense sites oriented toward Russia (at least "temporarily.") Because the Russians apparently miss the Cold War as much as we do, a top Russia general threatened Poland with nuclear retaliation. Ain't time travel grand? Let's build some more fallout shelters, too.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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