Cold War & Islamic Jihadist Comparisons

by on September 13th, 2006

In an ostensibly thoughtful but ultimately unpersuasive article in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria draws an historical comparison between the Cold War and our war with Islamic terrorism. His premise is that not unlike the Cold War, our enemy in this war is not monolithic and President Bush’s comparisons to our erstwhile foe are strategically ill-advised.

Zakaria quotes State Department official Ware Adams who, in 1949, argued that U.S. policy was misguided in that it characterized all communists as one monolithic group which

has tended to force them to become or remain part of the monolith. For example, in China, the communists are somewhat pressed towards being friends of the Kremlin by the fact that they can never be friends of ours.

Forgiving, for the sake of counterargument, the hopelessly naive construction of Ware’s argument, political fissures between multiple adversaries within an apparently seamless movement ought to be fully exploited, thereby keeping all of them off balance. However, comparing China and the Soviet Union to the various fractious elements in the Middle East is intellectually disingenuous. Further, unlike the communist nations historically, the jihadists share a common belief and goal, one uniquely informed by a religion: To wit, they are convinced that Islamic law ought to prevail in the world and they are unflinching in their goal to annihilate the “infidels” to achieve it.

In fact, the Bush Administration does recognize the diversity among Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiites in Iraq and Sunnis in Egypt. Indeed, the president has not argued that they are all part of “one worldwide movement” (i.e., closely coordinated with a single, shared polity) as Zakaria asserts. Rather, Mr. Bush has focused on the statements and actions of each belligerent group and has calibrated responses designed to confront and neutralize them before they become regional or global threats.

Cold War comparisons are only apposite to the degree we correct for the obvious differences in the widely divergent manner in which the Soviets et al advanced their agenda and goals because, from a purely strategic perspective, the differences in the religious backgrounds of the jihadists and their resulting unique animosities are moot because it’s clear that their common modus operandi–asymmetrical warfare–renders them equally lethal.

While it’s always wise to take into account the unique ideological and historical differences among common foes, we must deal with this congeries of barbarians in roughly the same manner and that is to act pre-emptively, with a strong counter-insurgency focus.

Zakaria’s recommendations would doubtless have a strong United Nations focus because, in his view, each sect or entity is so vastly complex as to demand a highly nuanced dialogue. Negotiations and dialogue have their place but only when backed by the transparent and credible threat of verifiable sanctions and, ultimately, military force.

We must also scrutinize each of our enemies and exploit their vulnerabilities. However, had President Reagan not aggressively prosecuted the Cold War the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent isolation of the remaining Stalinist states would not have occurred.

The same formula applies with this enemy and getting lost in the details of the peculiarities specific to each of our numerous jihadist enemies is a benefit to them, not us.

Philip Mella