Questioning Clark

Jeff Fein

Wesley Clark got a standing ovation after he spoke in the Chapel last week. He deserved it. The second half of his talk on national security was first-rate.

It’s too bad the first half was so cryptic and misleading.

When it came to America in 2007, Clark made a lot of sense. He explained the obstacles we face in the twenty-first century if we are to maintain our economic might and our national security. He even offered solutions.

But when it came to America’s past-the “how we got here” portion of his speech-Clark grossly oversimplified facts that didn’t fit neatly into his thesis, which stated, in layman’s terms, “The knuckleheads in Washington have ruined the wholesome America we once knew.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to foreign policy, America has never been all that wholesome. A more suitable thesis might have been, “The knuckleheads in Washington are just as bad as they’ve been for the last half century, maybe even worse.”

Clark kept talking about the Cold War like it was the good old days. He spoke glowingly of our grand strategy to fight Communism hither and thither. He even mentioned Vietnam as part of a strategy that “worked.”

The few years I lived during the Cold War were spent crying and peeing in my pants, but even I know that saying the United States’ Cold War strategy “worked” is like saying Anna Nicole “had issues.” It’s a huge generalization to explain a very complicated matter.

Not only were many aspects of the United States’ Cold War policy questionable (at best) from a moral point of view, but our method of fighting Communism at all costs actually helped precipitate the two great quagmires of the present day, still raging in Afghanistan and Iraq.

From 1945 to 1989, the U.S. government stuck to what History Professor Andrew Rotter calls our “us versus them mentality.” Rotter told me nostalgia for the Cold War like that expressed by Clark probably stems from that era’s predictability. Many feel we understood our enemies better then than we do now.

Yep. Those were the good old days, back when there were regular drills in schools to practice what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Back when we supported anyone willing to disavow Communism, which meant overthrowing a democratically elected government in Chile and instating a dictator named Pinochet. It meant installing a similar right-wing junta in El Salvador. And in Grenada. It meant fighting an unnecessary and ghastly war in Vietnam.

We were involved in the affairs of too many foreign countries to list them all here, but let it suffice to say that, during the Cold War, the United States was mad sketchy.

Did our strategy work? Well yeah, it worked in that nuclear apocalypse was averted. It worked in that the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, though there were of course many factors involved in its downfall besides its struggle with the United States.

So yes, America’s Cold War strategy “worked,” except…we supported Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein!

Back before Saddam was the so-called greatest threat to our national security, and long before he was hanging by the gallows in a good ol’ fashioned American lynching, we gave him all kinds of aid during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s with full knowledge that he was using chemical weapons to fight it. The only WMD’s Saddam ever had were the ones we helped him pay for. Our ultimate goal of preventing Iran’s extreme brand of Islam from taking hold in the Middle East makes sense. But that we supported Saddam right up until 1990 (when he invaded Kuwait) cannot be ignored.

More strikingly, beginning in 1979, the United States supported Osama bin Laden, the number one enemy of freedom himself, and other extremists in their struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. A 2005 New York Times Magazine article called that conflict “Washington’s first Afghan war, the decade-long, C.I.A.-financed jihad of the 1980’s against the Soviet occupation.” The Tora Bora mountains complex, where bin Laden escaped U.S. forces in 2001, was first converted into a base for Afghan rebels during their war with the Soviets.

United States support for both Sadamm and Osama during the Cold War helped empower them to become leaders of the of the forces that members of our military die fighting every day in the Middle East.

Mr. Clark had a lot of earnest and important things to say about how we should deal with our new foes. He stated the need to establish a dialogue with extreme Muslim regimes like Syria and Iran, and not just label them as “evil.” He said we need to use extreme caution when wielding our military force and abide by the Geneva Conventions and other pillars of international law. He said we can’t beat Muslim extremism by invading countries, because that sort of unrestrained agression creates sympathizers and even more anti-Americanism (along with plenty of dead innocent people, I might add). He even mentioned a serious push for alternative energy research, which could intervene with our addiction to Mideast oil.

All of that seems logical. But there is a serious disconnect between Clark’s vision for the future and his interpretation of the past.

The perceived monolithic threat of the Cold War led us down many ugly roads in our effort to defeat the Soviet Union. It is important to acknowledge our missteps if we are to avoid repeating them. Like the Cold War, the War on Terror is full of inconsistencies. Here’s to hoping we aren’t aiding our enemies of tomorrow in senseless struggles today.