Who ever thought the days of the Cold War would be viewed positively? Nostalgia can do that to you—but only if the present is much worse.
And, in many respects it is.
I am referring to the new paradigm for military engagements. What the perceived threat of Isil (or Isis if you prefer) clearly establishes, if it hadn’t been realized before, is that we have moved into a new era of never-ending military engagements of one kind or another that will require every bit as much vigilance and military readiness as was ever required of the country during the Cold War.
You remember the Cold War. It was that period following World War II when the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, engaged in the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to ensure that neither country would ever become directly involved against the other in a shooting war. Yes, it was also a period marked by two bloody and costly regional wars (Korea and Viet Nam), but both were wars that were fought against Communist governments more aligned with China than with the USSR, and neither ever came close to involving nuclear weapons.
Viewed in retrospect, the Cold War years were, despite the constant sense of pending Armageddon, remarkably peaceful, at least in relation to what could have been the destruction of all civilized life as we know it.
We live in a very different world today. First of all, there is no Soviet Union. Yes, Russia is still a pain in the butt, acting like it yearns for a return to the bad old days, when over-running neighboring countries and imposing puppet regimes that towed the Marxist line was all the rage. But in truth, Putin’s Russia is a pussy cat compared to the real enemies the United States and its allies face today.
Those enemies are very different for one major reason: they are stateless. They represent the new paradigm for military engagements, the new picture of war. And they are far more intimidating for the very reason that they are far less clearly identified. Isil is a good example. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What makes them tick?
Whatever the answers to those questions may be, President Obama has determined that Isil is a threat to the United States. The validity of that assessment can be (is being) debated, but very suddenly the country is being told that it is in for a long struggle (a.k.a. war) against this new stateless enemy. Some military experts are predicting that the war won’t end without U.S. troops on the ground. In other words, get ready for another major shooting war that will last well into a new president’s administration.
And even as the first major bombing inside Syria was taking place last week, another stateless enemy emerged. The Khorasan Group, said to be an al Qaeda affiliate (whatever that means), is described as even more threatening than Isil because it has direct designs on attacks inside the United States.
And so the pattern emerges. Militant groups and sects are morphing one from the next, all with the desire to threaten U.S. interests, which is another way of saying that they aim to inflict terrorist attacks on American soil or against American property and interests. Think of it this way, today’s beheadings, grotesque and outrageous though they are, may be tomorrow’s car bombs and next year’s dirty bombs and next decade’s nuclear threats.
When you finally start to realize the enormity of the ever-present and accelerating threat that these stateless militant groups represent, you begin to get nostalgic for the good old days of the Cold War, when heads of state could rely on each other’s sanity to avert the end of civilization as we know it.
Ah, you say, but at least we aren’t faced with nuclear annihilation with the stateless enemies who threaten us now. Oh, really? Don’t be so sure. Nuclear proliferation has been a major source of concern for at least twenty years (since the fall of the Soviet Union, when nuclear arsenals became the property of the newly created independent states that had been part of the USSR). Many of those weapons are still unaccounted for, available to the highest bidder or to the entity with ideological compatibility with the rogue states that house them.
But even if nuclear attacks are far-fetched, and let’s hope they are, terrorism still lurks as a real threat to Americans both abroad and here at home. Yes, the federal government has been more vigilant since 9/11, and yes we have been spared any repeat of that horrific day, but are we really any safer when we learn that at least two new militant groups are threats to our security?
And where there are two known groups, can there be any doubt that there are dozens more that are plotting or are at least in formative stages? We are just starting to understand the existence of this new paradigm. But those who (for whatever reason) are militantly opposed to what the U.S. is and what it represents are way ahead of us. And they already understand that being stateless is the modern version of guerrilla warfare. Consider, for example, the options a U.S. president would have if another 9/11-type attack were carried out by a group that could not be identified. Or what if it were found to exist in cells in a dozen different Arab states, none of which sanctioned their existence. Against whom would that president retaliate? And how would the retaliation, whatever it was, be effective to deter future attacks?
And so the president declares that the country is again at war. And while those in Congress and across the nation rightly debate whether he is acting constitutionally (he most certainly isn’t) or wisely (debatable), whether he is being too timid or too bold, whether he has decided to act too soon or too late, the country must also become aware of this new paradigm, one of endless wars against ever-morphing enemies that, because they are stateless, cannot be defeated.
When President Bush declared a war on terrorism, he was using a phrase to rally a nation to an ill-conceived war against a nation state (actually two: Afghanistan and Iraq). Little could he have known that he was really identifying a far more serious and insidious kind of war, one that never can be won, because its enemy can never be truly defeated.
Yes, we can kill the leaders; we can even defeat the fighters in battle. But unlike traditional wars that end with a peace treaty or an admission of defeat, in the new paradigm of military engagements, there are never any surrenders and there is never anyone with whom to make peace. Today the enemy may be in Iraq; tomorrow it may be in Syria. And someday, it may be here.