The New York Times reports that the American commander in Afghanistan is being replaced in order to bring a new approach to "a worsening seven-year war." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/world/asia/12military.html?hp
This comes on the heels of several recent articles in the same newspaper about chronic corruption in Afghanistan, the importance of drug production to the economy and politics of the country, and unreliable Afghan security personnel. News from Iraq is continued problems of suicide bombers, while in Pakistan the worry is the spread of Taliban influence, and even the possibility that it will take over the country and its nuclear weapons.
It is appropriate to think in terms of a confrontation equivalent to the Cold War. That lasted for 40 years from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, and still lurks in tensions between Russia and the United States.
We can date the confrontation of the United States with Islamic violence from September 11, 2001, or from the attack on a Marine base in Beirut that killed more than 200 Americans in 1983.
The United States again is leading a coalition. It is similar in composition to the coalition of the Cold War, and again does not always row in concert. France took its forces out of NATO in the Cold War; Germany is reluctant to give up its commercial options with Iran. Russia is enough of an outsider to wonder if it is a member of this coalition, despite its problems with Chechnya and other Muslim regions.
The enemies in both were defined by the intensity of their ideas, either Communism or Islam. Social democrats could join the coalition against Communism, just as a number of Muslim states and individual Muslims feel threatened by Iran and its satellites.
Neither conflict was all-out, or total. There was intense fighting in Korea and Vietnam, but not overt warfare with the Soviet Union. Now the American coalition is battling in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan might become the equivalent of Cambodia. Israel is doing its part against Iran's satellites. So far no one is taking on the Iranians directly or announcing a region-wide crusade against religious extremism, and certainly not against Islam.
There are domestic issues today that might be compared with Loyalty Boards and extensive requirements for loyalty oaths in the United States. They include expanded monitoring of communications, as well as escalating inspections at airports and border controls. Complaints of harassment by Muslims, or individuals who look Middle Eastern, resemble complaints by people claiming to be unfairly as labeled loyalty risks decades ago.
Politics as well as warfare marked the Cold War, and this conflict. Summit meeting, both one-on-one and larger conferences played their part, as well as protracted negotiations, agreements, claims that each side was not living up to them, saber-rattling, and actual fighting on the fringes. In both the Cold War and the fight against Muslim extremists, there are persistent efforts to broaden one's coalition. The Cold War saw competition initially for Italy and Greece, and later for countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Now the competition is for Muslim states that may be kept in the moderate camp. Especially sensitive are Lebanon, Iraq, and some of the Gulf states with substantial Shiite populations actively courted by Iran.
Coalitions in the Cold War were not solid, and they are not in this conflict. Yugoslavia left the alliance of the Soviet Union. China occasionally displayed its independence. Numerous countries of the Third World sought to play off the coalitions in the hope of richer gifts. Currently the most prominent competition is between ostensible governments and armed others in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with the United States seeking to prop up and maintain the loyalty of those it supports. Media broadcasts resemble Radio Free Europe. There are overtures to opponents of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, either those in country, or exiles hoping for places in a new government. Overseas Syrians and Iranians bear some resemblance to the Cubans of South Florida.
The collapse of the Soviet Union took the West by surprise. Until then the Cold War seemed likely to go on and on, hopefully without a nuclear exchange. The battle with Muslim extremism is already toward the end of its first decade, or somewhere in its third decade, depending on accounting. The conflict may be escalating, as Iran seems intent in pushing toward a nuclear option and neither it nor Syria seem inclined to end their support of client troublemakers. The Taliban's successes in Pakistan may be opening one new front, Sudan's cooperation in the movement of arms from Iran to Gaza may be opening another, and Syria's nuclear efforts a third.
Israel has been a hopeful outsider in both conflicts. In the pre-state and early state period some suspected it of becoming a Soviet satellite. Then it emerged as an anti-Soviet outpost in the Middle East. This time it is closer to the center of the conflict, but is still not at the center. It manages its own problems with Palestinians, Lebanese, and maybe Iran, without being certain of its support by the United States. American Jews are more plugged in than in the 1950s or 1960s, but they are not in Israel's pocket. Israeli prime ministers know they are not equal partners with the White House.
Israel also illustrates the concern of coalition partners for the leader's steadfastness. The United States had to prop up Germans concerned about their vulnerability. JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner was only one of numerous overt demonstrations of support by US presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense, and junketing legislators. Today's equivalents are assurance of Israel's security by American presidents and others, seldom enough for Israelis worried about other comments that press them to make concessions for the sake of the coalition.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science