Missing the Soviet Union?

It was the late 1980s in America. The Soviet empire was approaching the ash-heap of history. Not only were communists taking it on the chin but so were some of their Cold Warrior adversaries in the United States. It was said that Cold Warriors couldn’t give up the old enemy, even when they had finally won.

This accusation was often made in jest. In a way, however, we can look at our adversary today, in 2002, and feel nostalgia for the Cold War, or, more specifically, for our old enemy. As the immense difficulties of fighting a war on terrorism grow more apparent, Americans in general may find themselves longing for the old rival.

While we certainly shouldn’t miss the Soviet Union or want it back, there are plenty of good reasons to prefer our former enemy to our current. Considering just a few of these reasons is not a mere intellectual exercise. Rather, it bespeaks volumes about the monumental task we face.

Nation-state. With the Soviet Union, we knew our opponent. It was situated in a precise location. It had borders, a government, a capital, actual territory. It was what we in the field of international relations call a nation-state. In the war on terror, America faces the complexity of tackling a new foe that has no borders. We will face situations in which we desire quick retaliation without knowing the location of our target.

For over 200 years, U.S. military experience and training has been geared toward fighting identifiable nation-states. Our military academies and war colleges have been based on that thinking, as has our entire defense and intelligence apparatus. Texts contain lessons regarding nations, not mobile, transnational cells. This is a whole new ballgame.

Religion. It is truly a comment on the unique nature of this terrorist threat that we might now perceive the Soviet Union’s official atheism as near preferable to the religiousness of our current radical Islamic enemy.

The USSR launched a ruthless war on religion that destroyed countless lives. Ironically, however, fighting a foe whose instructions came from the Kremlin was easier than fighting one convinced that its murderous orders come from God. Because the Soviets strove for a communist paradise here on earth, death was not seen as desirable and was not encouraged by the promise of martyrdom.

The religious motivation of today’s Muslim terrorist is what makes fighting terrorism so frustrating. The Soviets were not suicidal and did not believe 72 virgins anxiously awaited them in the next life. We could reason with the Soviets because they wanted their rewards on this earth, believing none existed elsewhere.

Many Red Army soldiers discounted their government. The Soviet leadership, after all, was comprised of mere mortals. To the contrary, the radical Islamic foot soldier does not question Allah, who is omniscient and just; he works for God, not men.

Deterrence and rationality. Since Islamic extremists embrace death as service to Allah, no weapon can make them fear the repercussions of attacking the United States. The Soviets operated knowing that destruction loomed if they moved against America. They wouldn’t press the nuclear button. They were constrained by what they feared.

This produced a predictable degree of stability and safety. The USSR employed a cost-benefit analysis that determined that the cost of attacking the United States was not worth the price. The Kremlin was deterred based on rational calculations. It acted within reason and could be dealt with accordingly.

This is no longer true. The adversary we now face disregards such logic. Terrorists that disregard life, including their own, do not abide by the rules to which the United States is accustomed. Decades of military planning were based on assumptions now not applicable.

This poses frightening questions with no good answers. If death is not too high a price, what can restrain the terrorists’ How can we make them decide that attacking America isn’t worth it?

Oddly, the Cold War was a strategic comfort zone where we could relate to the psyche of our opponent.

To be sure, the Soviet Union was an evil empire that systematically murdered tens of millions of its own citizens and denied them the most basic rights. It championed an ideology that killed some 100 million throughout the world in the 20th century. Still, again, it wasn’t suicidal, could be deterred, and we knew what it was and where it was.

What does all of this say about our current enemy? It means we’re in for a nasty, long battle with no simple solutions. In a perverse way, we prefer the old.