“Almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem”
— U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on America’s Cold War victory
NATO conducted war games in Europe at the same time each year, so the Soviets knew they were exercises rather than a real attack. But a number of factors changed in 1983, including new leadership in Moscow, different radio communications by NATO, the arrival of new Pershing II missiles in Europe, and ongoing deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations worsened by the recent downing of a South Korean airliner over Soviet air space. Consequently, the comrades entrusted with defending the Soviet Union were on edge that November before NATO’s Operation Able Archer 83. The Soviets didn’t know NATO’s mock attack was a drill and, according to some sources at least, they nearly retaliated with a real strike. They sent spy planes over Western Europe gauging the situation and the American Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Leonard Perroots, didn’t respond to that provocation. The CIA had lost some faith in their pals at British MI6 after one of their spies, Kim Philby, fed secrets to the Soviets and defected to the USSR. But “Her Majesty’s Secret Service” played a key role here because one of its double agents working in the Soviets’ London embassy, Oleg Gordievsky, warned them that the Soviets mistakenly thought NATO was launching a preemptive attack. They quickly relayed that to the U.S., who scaled down the exercise. A Presidential Advisory Board investigation declassified in 2015 concluded that Perroots made a “fortuitous if ill-informed” decision to defuse the situation. Able Archer mirrored incidents when an American technician accidentally loaded a simulated Soviet attack into NORAD’s computer system in 1979 and another in 1980 when a worn-out computer chip caused a glitch, both causing momentary panic and confusion and triggering initial retaliatory protocol (NSA archives).
Some CIA sources claimed the Able Archer incident was overblown while other spies went so far as to say we nearly had World War III on our hands and were only spared by malfunctioning equipment. If the truth was somewhere in between, this was the closest the Americans and Soviets had come to a nuclear showdown since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Or, at least it was the closest we’d come since six weeks earlier when there was yet another close call. In September, Soviet radar indicated that seven American Minuteman ICBM’s were headed for the USSR. Luckily, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov suspected it might be a false read since there would be hundreds of missiles in the event of a preemptive strike, not a handful. Instead of reporting up the chain of command, which might have led to World War III, he investigated the situation and learned that the system malfunctioned because of sun rays bouncing off a rare alignment of high altitude clouds combined with the vernal equinox and complications over their satellite’s Molniya (elliptical) orbit. Cross-referencing a geostationary satellite confirmed that there were no missiles.
In 1980, a mechanic ruptured the fuel tank on a Titan II missile at the Damascus, Arkansas launch facility merely by dropping an 8-lb. socket off a ratchet 70 feet onto the thrust mount, from which it ricocheted into the skin of the tank, causing a fuel leak that filled the silo with vapors. If heat had expanded one of the two oxidizer tanks enough to rupture it, it might’ve set off a big enough explosion to detonate the hydrogen bomb. The missile also needed enough pressure in its leaking fuel tank to prevent collapsing on top of itself, which would’ve triggered a similar chain of events. Opening the silo hatch released dangerous fuel vapors but created the possibility of accidentally launching the warhead who knows where. As it turns out, hours later an explosion sent the warhead flying into a nearby ditch but, luckily, it didn’t detonate because it separated from its power source. If it had detonated, a blast 6x larger than Hiroshima would’ve decimated Little Rock and dropped radioactive fallout in whichever direction the wind blew. America’s Titan II’s were its most powerful warheads and bargaining chips, but there were numerous incidents with fuel leaks (10 in Arkansas and 17 in Kansas), killing dozens of workers.
Just as the movie China Syndrome coincided with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident a few years before, these Broken Arrows (near accidents) preceded a made-for-TV movie about nuclear war, The Day After; except that this time the 100 million Americans terrified by the fiction were blissfully unaware of the near-misses that transpired earlier that fall and in preceding years. But Able Archer seemed to change America’s new president, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was an outspoken critic of the Red Menace, once saying “a communist is someone who reads Lenin and Marx; an anti-communist is someone who understands Lenin and Marx.” When he first ran for office in 1980, he was full of talk about the Soviet “evil empire” and almost seemed to relish an apocalyptic showdown. He purportedly believed that the New Testament Book of Revelation predicted Armageddon between the Eagle and Bear, the respective symbols of the U.S. and Soviet Union. His inflammatory rhetoric was one of the reasons, in fact, that the Soviets half-expected the Americans to launch a preemptive attack, making the near-misses all the more frightening. But Reagan toned down his rhetoric after Able Archer.
Earlier, in a 1980 interview with the Washington Post, Reagan offered a more calculating and down-to-earth reason for his strategy of dropping the détente strategy of co-existence, instead trying to win the Cold War outright: that the Soviet economy couldn’t keep up with the U.S. in another arms race. The U.S. would go into debt, too (and did), but was Reagan correct that the Soviet Union would go out of business altogether trying to keep up? The opening of Soviet archives after the Cold War revealed that, while Reagan’s arms buildup did indeed alarm the Soviets, it didn’t cause any changes in their military spending; their economic problems were more fundamental than a high military budget.
Each country was spending more than they had previously on intermediate-range missiles in Europe. America bought Pershing missiles for NATO-allied countries to oppose the SS-20 Sabers Soviets aimed at Western Europe. Jimmy Carter (D) spearheaded NATO’s “double-track” counter-move in 1979. Reagan (R) followed through with the support of conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French socialist President Francois Mitterrand, near-left German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and, after 1982, near-right Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Reagan promised to withdraw the NATO weapons if the Soviets did likewise. Though feared as too provocative by many liberals in Europe and the U.S., especially after Reagan took over from Carter, the Pershings led to a negotiated withdrawal of intermediate-range ballistic missiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain in a 1987 treaty.
As Reagan employed the peace-through-strength strategy, he also became less openly confrontational. He still liked to rattle the Soviets’ cage and, at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987, he famously told “Mr. Gorbachev” to “tear down this wall” in reference to the concrete barrier that separated Berlin’s eastern and western sectors. But, in his second term, Reagan became more measured in his speech, no longer talked about the Soviets as evil, and was more willing to talk arms reduction. Instead of sending in American troops to help the Polish Solidarity movement stand up to Soviet repression, he held back and sent money and communications equipment. Reagan’s now-iconic Brandenburg Gate speech almost never happened, as some people in the state department didn’t approve of writer Peter Robinson’s draft because it was too forceful and they didn’t want to disrupt the progress started at meetings in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1985 and ’86, when they laid the groundwork for medium-range missile reduction in Europe.
In 1985, a change in Soviet leadership opened an opportunity for more constructive dialogue than at any time since the Cold War started. In a 1987 United Nations speech, Reagan relayed that he and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed how well the two countries might cooperate if faced with an invasion of aliens from another planet. Neither the Right nor Left knew quite what to make of it all, with the Left accustomed to seeing Reagan as an Armageddon-seeking cowboy reactionary. Meanwhile, having over-learned and oversimplified the Lessons of Munich (Chapter 10), many conservatives were hesitant to endorse any foreign policy more dovish than perpetual antagonism. They leveled the same criticism at Nixon for normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s. But Reagan’s approach worked well. At the United Nations in 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviets were no longer interested in a military confrontation with the U.S. and that they were withdrawing troops from Eastern Europe.
Reagan’s peace-through-strength strategy helped pave the way for the more constructive dialogue that ensued, but the causation isn’t as obvious as it may seem. As mentioned, the Soviets were threatened by Reagan’s military build-up, but there’s no direct evidence showing that it caused them to increase their military spending or raise the white flag of surrender. The USSR was struggling mightily for other reasons, including its weak economy and misguided venture into Afghanistan. What we do know is that Reagan and Gorbachev forged a constructive relationship that helped the two powers end the half-century-long Cold War in 1989. Then the Soviet Union collapsed altogether in 1991. It was left to Reagan’s successors to formulate America’s foreign policy in the new, but still dangerous post-Cold War world. His immediate successor, George H.W. Bush, called the new dynamic and vaguely defined new policy the New World Order, from H.G. Wells’ 1940 book that promoted a global legal system to bring about world peace. In a January 1991 State-of-the-Union address, Bush anticipated a New World Order in which diverse nations would be drawn together through a commitment to peace, security, and rule of law. However, his son, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump didn’t embrace his vision of American-led multilateral alliances like the United Nations and NATO.
The Middle East, Latin America & Afghanistan
Reagan had other foreign policy concerns. He wanted to fund right-wing guerrilla armies in Central America, exercising the authority perhaps implied but not stated under Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 Corollary whereby the U.S. could overthrow and replace whichever governments it chose in Latin America to align them with U.S. interests. But Congress disagreed, wanting to avoid another potential quagmire so soon after Vietnam and blocked Reagan’s initiatives, other than an invasion of Grenada in 1983. Unlike many Cold War interventions, the Organization of American States requested the Grenada intervention and it led to constitutional government on that Caribbean island.
Additionally, Reagan wanted to pay Iranians ransom in the form of Israeli weapons to release more American hostages being held in Lebanon by a group Iran influenced called Hezbollah. The U.S., though, was formally embargoing Iran and giving weapons to its enemy, Iraq. Reagan was adamant about not negotiating with kidnappers during the 1980 campaign, but many suspected his camp negotiated with Iran even then to delay the release of the earlier, larger and more famous group of 52 hostages we read about in Chapter 20. Iran had been negotiating with Carter for their release earlier that fall and those talks broke down inexplicably, with Carter announcing they wouldn’t be released until after the election. For some reason, maybe just to punish Carter and not because of any extra deal with Reagan, Iran finally released those hostages twenty minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president in January 1981 as befuddled Americans watched both events simultaneously on a split screen. Reagan unfroze Iranian financial assets in the U.S. but Carter was also willing to do that and Carter was up all night negotiating with Iran just before Reagan’s inauguration. Reagan’s purported ploy was to prevent his opponent, incumbent Jimmy Carter, from getting an “October Surprise” boost at the polls just before the election. Reagan’s camp at the time included former and disgruntled OSS/CIA officials with good connections, including campaign director William Casey, even though Reagan wasn’t yet an elected official. Tampering with foreign policy as a private citizen, especially to the detriment of American hostages, is a serious charge — a felony under the Logan Act — that no one pinned on Reagan or his staff. In the early 1990s, both houses of Congress and several publications including Newsweek, Village Voice, and New Republic found no conclusive evidence supporting the claim and moreover debunked specific details of the October Surprise Conspiracy Theory, but PBS Frontline “debunked the debunkers” the following year, while still concluding that the evidence was murky and Americans would likely never know the full truth.
There is testimony suggesting that a deal was struck, including that from Reagan/Bush staffer Barbara Honegger and Iranians. After he was no longer under indictment and had no motive to plea bargain, arms dealer Djamshid Hashemi said he participated in the meetings, and Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr later insisted that they were negotiating with both campaigns, Carter’s and Reagan’s, and that Reagan’s camp even threatened him personally if they didn’t accept their deal of delaying the hostage release in exchange for unfreezing Iranian assets in U.S. banks and shipping weapons from Israel to Iran. The weapons deal did, in fact, happen later in the decade. Thirteen hostages sued the Reagan campaign for the delay, to no avail. Reagan said that his campaign staff did, indeed, negotiate with Iranians during the election not to delay their release, but rather to strike a deal to get them released as soon as possible. If he succeeded because he was offering weapons and to unfreeze assets while Carter was only offering to unfreeze assets, that explains why Iran released the hostages when Reagan was sworn in. In other words, Reagan’s camp might have inadvertently delayed the hostages’ release by outbidding Carter and offering a better deal even if that wasn’t their specific intention. More likely, they outbid Carter and secured the delay. Even the more innocent interpretation is a good example of why the Logan Act is wise insofar as America should discourage its private citizens from engaging in foreign policy, including the run-up to elections and interim between elections and inaugurations. Either way, serious negotiations didn’t begin until Carter lost the election to Reagan.
Whatever happened, Iran concluded that Reagan would negotiate if they took more hostages, so they subsequently aided Hezbollah terrorists in doing just that in Lebanon in 1984. These were the hostages that Reagan’s staff tried to get out by sending American-made weapons from Israel to Iran, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal. To kill two birds with one stone — Middle Eastern hostage release and aid to Central American guerrillas — the Reagan administration used a secret CIA cell to sell weapons to Iran (via Israel) in exchange for the hostages in Lebanon and payments. They laundered the money through Swiss banks before sending it to the Contra Rebels who were trying to overthrow the Sandinista socialist democracy in Nicaragua. The right-wing rebels had been relying on private funding (e.g., Joseph Coors), but Reagan went around the back of Congress and the public with the Iranian money, which didn’t make either happy when they found out about it. The Contras had a nasty reputation for kidnapping, torture, assassinations, and drug dealing, despite Reagan’s attempts to compare them to the Founding Fathers. The Contras’ opposition to democracy strained the comparison further.
When news got out about the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986, Reagan’s approval ratings plummeted, just as his own mental health was beginning to deteriorate with the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan either authorized the plan, meaning he’d deceived the public, or he didn’t know about it, meaning he wasn’t in charge of his administration. In March 1987, Reagan addressed the nation, saying “a few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” The Reagan faithful pinned the blame on his VP, George H.W. Bush, contributing to a rift between the Reagans and Bushes. Like Watergate, some of the culprits involved with the scandal used the exposure from the controversy to catapult their careers, including Marine officer Oliver North, who went on to become a popular conservative commentator, author, politician, and president of the NRA.
In 1983, the Reagan administration supplied Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with weapons in his war against Iran. It was common for the U.S. to sell weapons to both sides in a war, the justification being that, if they didn’t, someone else would anyway. The chart above shows that the U.S. remains active in arms sales. Hussein was a dictator who’d alienated the West by nationalizing his country’s oil in 1972, meaning they booted out western oil companies and took over production. As director of the oil program, he skimmed profits and used them to systematically eliminate his rivals. The British and French had created Iraq arbitrarily on a map during World War I with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, partly to develop its oil. Britain was updating its Royal Navy from coal-fired steamers and needed oil it didn’t otherwise have much of. In the 1980s, common enemies made for strange bedfellows, and the U.S. supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, even supplying Saddam with chemical weapons to supplement those they’d manufactured on their own.
Further east, the U.S. was doing what it could to help Afghans repel the Soviets. Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was famous for her doctrine of supporting any dictatorship, however brutal, as long as they shared America’s anti-communist leanings. In theory, the ally in question could eventually learn from America’s example and move toward democracy. That was in keeping with Cold War policy dating back to the Eisenhower administration and could apply to insurgents as well as dictators.
The CIA funded the Mujahideen resistance in Operation Cyclone (1979-89), one of the largest covert operations in American history. Through the back-channel dealings of Texas Congressman “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, the CIA delivered to insurgents anti-tank missiles and the handheld anti-aircraft artillery (stinger missiles) they needed to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters. The Afghans’ victory ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, though Gorbachev had already decided to withdraw Soviet troops before American aid kicked in.
But there was a fly in the ointment. The CIA had empowered anti-Western rebels that morphed indirectly into the Taliban over the next twenty years, though at first the Mujahideen fought against the Taliban. Wilson later conceded that the U.S. probably should’ve followed through in Afghanistan more after the Soviets left, developing a better relationship with the Taliban militia that took over the country in 1996 and harbored al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was a veteran of the fight against the Soviets.
Cold War Ends
Reagan bounced back after the Iran-Contra Affair by continuing to pursue arms reduction with the Soviets. He was bargaining with power, as the U.S. had modernized its forces in the 1970s-80’s and the Soviets were worried that America would develop a missile shield of lasers, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Known informally as “Star Wars,” SDI was expensive, didn’t work, and lacked popularity, but Soviets took the threat seriously. Lead scientist Lowell Wood later called it technically feasible but impractical and “mainly for show…a feint that broke the enemy’s morale and treasury” (in 2015, Wood broke Thomas Edison’s American utility patent record of 1,084). NOTE: Weapons of mass destruction in space, as opposed to defense systems, are banned per the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, while the U.S. rejected a treaty banning traditional weapons in 2008 and Russia and China rejected a similar European Union proposal in 2014. In another case of strange bedfellows, Donald Trump and liberal astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson agreed on the need for the U.S. Space Force, founded in 2019.
At home, Reagan’s emphasis on defensive weapons turned liberals into reborn advocates of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). As argued in this Rolling Stone article by William Greider in 1986, SDI might have upset the delicate balance of terror that had, in its own warped way, stabilized the world for decades, preventing major wars. Or it might lead to another arms race of new offensive weapons. Star Wars would have taken away the Soviets’ deterrent threat, especially if they didn’t share the technology. Or, if it had worked well, the Soviets might have stolen the technology the way they did with the atomic and hydrogen bombs, in which case the U.S. would have also lost its deterrent threat and we might have been back to settling our differences with machine guns, tanks, and napalm. Either way, Reagan wouldn’t back down on shelving the program and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev cut his losses as best he could.
As we saw above, the U.S. and USSR removed their intermediate missiles in Europe and agreed to the right to inspect each other’s main arsenals. Reagan and Gorbachev’s most important meeting was the Reykjavík Summit in Iceland in late 1986. The table on the left shows that the Soviets had been continuing their long-term trend of spending a lot in the arms race just prior to signing the ensuing 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington, D.C. The INF expired in February 2019 and the U.S. also pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) in 2002, ostensibly to better defend themselves as targets from countries other than Russia like Iran or North Korea.
The graph also indicates that much of the defense spending in the Reagan era was on things other than nukes since America’s overall military spending rose despite cutbacks in missile development. Reagan was also the first president since Nixon to visit Moscow. He got flak from right-wing critics for negotiating with the Soviets, but the talks were constructive and saved the U.S. money. Even more important than largely symbolic arms reduction, big changes were underway within the Soviet Union and among its puppet states in Eastern Europe.
Gorbachev opened up the press some and allowed for some free-market play in the economy through his perestroika and glasnost programs. But the Soviet economic experiment was failing, unable to keep up without profit motives or access to information technology that provided big tailwinds for the West, despite their attempts to reverse-engineer consumer technology that the KGB smuggled out of Mexico. Soviet GDP shrunk 5% annually through the 1980s amidst double-digit inflation — an extreme case of stagflation. Despite the country’s enormous size and resources, its economy was roughly the size of Denmark’s. Communist countries might include citizens that are on board, but were/are obviously doing something unpopular when they had to build fences to keep people in rather than out. And the inclusion of the terms democratic and republic in their countries’ official names/acronyms was a PR concession to the popularity of letting people vote even though theirs couldn’t (e.g., USSR and twice each in GDR, DPRK). While the Soviets kept up with America in the arms and space race and performed well in Olympic sports and the fine arts, they underestimated the pull of Western consumerism that accelerated after World War II. In other words, they could build ICBMs but had no answer for IBMs, the Beatles, Levi’s® or bootleg VHS tapes. Young people behind the Iron Curtain yearned for American and British pop culture, even as liberal Western college students gravitated toward Marxism. The Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II started to push back against communist rule in Eastern Europe, also, especially in Poland, where Protestant evangelist Billy Graham missionized in tandem with Catholics.
Communication and soft power played a role, too. Soviet citizens were aware of their government’s control of information but could pick up Western broadcasts via shortwave (ham) radio. The government did what it could to jam broadcasts, but people found guilty of listening to British or American radio were usually just fined or suffered a job demotion rather than being imprisoned in Siberia the way they would’ve under Stalin. Reagan reinvigorated this ideological battle against communism that languished during détente. When he came into office Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was still using 1940s vacuum tube technology and their towers were rusting. In the 1980s, the U.S. amplified intellectual dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Václav Havel, who later became president of the Czech Republic. Their critique wasn’t the lack of consumer goods, but rather communist totalitarianism’s corruption, lawlessness, dishonesty, and brutality. Communication always impacts politics, just as it did with telegraphs during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and social media during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Led by Lech Wałęsa’s Poland, Eastern Bloc countries Czechoslovakia and Romania cast off Soviet domination in 1989, and Gorbachev had already signaled that the Soviets would be ending their military occupation a year earlier. These revolutions culminated dramatically in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. A decade later, the European Market moved to establish a common currency, the Euro. It wasn’t simply a matter of the USSR trying and failing to hang on to Eastern Europe. Russians were as sick of the satellite countries as the satellites were of Russia because most of them were net economic liabilities. Russia subsidized them more than they contributed to the USSR, though these puppet governments did provide the Soviets a geographic buffer.
The Eastern Bloc’s disintegration was a lot to take in for the new U.S. President, George H.W. Bush — hereafter referred to as Bush 41 because he was the 41st president. But if anyone was qualified to deal with overseas affairs, it was Bush. He’d not only served in WWII but was director of the CIA and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Off the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, Bush 41 and Gorbachev discussed future cooperation and declared the Cold War over. Their meeting is sometimes called the Seasick Summit because they met on ships anchored offshore in choppy seas. After 45 years and billions spent on defense budgets, one source of apocalyptic danger, at least, was diminished. Diplomat and co-architect of the containment strategy George Kennan (chapter 13) had been right all along: the strategy of holding ground and waiting for the Soviet economic experiment to fail from within had worked.
What happened next far exceeded what seemed to be a gradual and uniform relinquishing of Eastern Europe by the USSR. The Soviet Army decided to overthrow Gorbachev and reassert more traditional communist control, undoing his liberal reforms. They failed, but the man who stood up on their tanks and gave a confrontational speech to save the government was not the Soviet leader Gorbachev, but rather Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. Yeltsin came to power through popular elections. Russia was the main country within the Soviet Union, but the USSR also included Baltic countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and big chunks of southern and northeastern Asia. As Yeltsin assumed leadership within Russia, the Soviet Union collapsed quickly and peacefully, and the rump state of Russia broke away on its own. In December 1991, ten countries within the former confederation, including Russia and Ukraine, formally announced that the USSR no longer existed, and Gorbachev resigned on Christmas. Amazingly, the CIA never saw the demise of the USSR coming, though various American journalists and academics had long predicted it. Reagan, for that matter, predicted the Soviets would be consigned to the “ashbin of history” in a speech before British Parliament in 1982.
Why it happened has been the subject of controversy ever since. Reagan supporters emphasize his hard-line stance and arms buildup, while others emphasize the structural weaknesses of the Soviet economy and, to a lesser extent, their disastrous foray into Afghanistan that lowered military morale and triggered a domestic drug epidemic. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between. More so than the wider public, professional historians are skeptical of theories that put too much weight on individual actions. They might look at the Revolutionary War, for instance, and argue that the U.S. didn’t win because George Washington was a great leader; rather, we think of George Washington as a great leader because the U.S. won the Revolutionary War for bigger reasons. Or they may look at media’s transformation (Chapter 20) and put more emphasis on technology and deregulation than individuals like Rush Limbaugh. Historians favor theories that emphasize interactions among many factors, agents, and forces, including the most overlooked factor of all: random luck. Just as the 15th-century Italian Machiavelli wrote about the tension between fortune and free will, modern historians focus on structural forces and individual agency. In this case, the structure was the long-term decline of communist economies, their lack of popularity among their own people, and their underestimation of how well capitalist democracies would appease their workers through incremental liberal reforms and compromises like entitlements, unionization, free public education, etc. Agency, on the other hand, was the individual actions of Reagan and Gorbachev. The individual agency vs. bigger context debate isn’t an either-or question, as causation runs in multiple directions. While it’s safe to say that most people outside the historical profession over-interpret individual actions to explain cause-and-effect, you can rest assured that Reagan’s liberal critics would’ve blamed him if things had gone awry with the Soviets in the 1980s. Likewise — though the topic isn’t nearly as important — conservatives quick to deny Barack Obama any credit for bringing down Osama bin Laden would’ve heaped scorn upon him had the Navy SEALs’ 2011 mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan gone awry for reasons outside his control.
Individual agency has some role in history, for sure, and, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t care who we elected. The U.S. presidency, in particular, is a powerful office on matters relating to war and foreign policy. We don’t call American presidents “leaders of the free world” for nothing. Reagan “standing tall in the saddle” (negotiating from strength) and then working constructively with Gorbachev was an important factor that influenced the demise of the USSR. Here’s more important food for thought: if Reagan’s initial hard-line “good vs. evil” stance was effective in this case, does that make it a surefire recipe for future success in other cases? If the same scenario popped up ten more times over the next few centuries, would Reagan’s work each time? On the other hand, would Kennedy’s restrained approach at the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pay off ten times out of ten? We wouldn’t know the answer even if the scenarios were exactly the same as those of the early ’60s and late ’80s, let alone scenarios that will differ in the future. You can see that a panel of the hundred smartest historians on Earth wouldn’t be able to come up with any agreed-upon formulas to guide us into the future. We’re far better off knowing history than being ignorant of the past, but be wary of commentators drawing simple analogies between past and present-day events.
In any event, Bush 41 wasn’t sure what to do at first when the USSR broke apart in 1991. Should he formally recognize Russia or wait to see if the Soviet Union reemerged? If the Soviets reasserted power after Bush recognized Russia, he’d be in an embarrassing situation and ruin the goodwill engendered at Malta with Gorbachev. In Kyiv, he’d even given a talk nicknamed the “Chicken Kiev speech” in which he cautioned Ukrainians against seeking independence, angering Ukrainian nationalists who declared independence soon thereafter. But Bush 41 eventually threw his weight behind Yeltsin and independence for all the Soviet republics (including Russia and Ukraine), Gorbachev retreated into retirement, and the USSR (1922-1991) was no more. Former communist leaders scooped up much of the wealth — the state had owned everything under communist rule — and Russia became a capitalist oligarchy and kleptocracy whereby thieves, in effect, took over the government to loot public money and steer government contracts into their own wallets.
Former KGB operative Vladimir Putin led the oligarchy after Yeltsin’s retirement in 1999-2000. After Bill Clinton met Putin in Moscow in 2000, he warned Yeltsin that Putin didn’t “have democracy in his heart,” poking Yeltsin’s heart to make his point. By the time Yeltsin died in 2007, he realized that Clinton was right and regretted having promoted Putin by making him head of the FSB (successor to the KGB), then prime minister and president. Putin gained notoriety and masculine photo-ops putting down a separatist uprising in the Russian province of Chechnya. He blamed a deadly series of apartment bombings in Moscow on Chechens, though they were likely false flag Reichstag fires used as a pretext for Putin to consolidate power.
Post-Cold War NATO & Trump-Putin
Would the multilateral alliance that formed in 1949 to counter Soviet expansion continue after the Cold War? If so, would NATO expand to include a unified Germany and former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe? Would Germany even unify, east and west, after the Cold War? Britain and France opposed German reunification, but Bush 41 and the U.S. supported it. In 1989, Lt. Col. Vladimir Putin was a young KGB counter-intelligence officer in Dresden, East Germany and returned home after the Cold War upset that Russia had lost its stature in the world. A decade later, he wrote that his resentment stemmed from negotiations over NATO.
NATO did expand but, in Putin’s view, the West promised that it wouldn’t during the negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal from East Germany. For many years, Western leaders insisted that they promised no such thing. We now know that the subject arose in negotiations between Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner. In these talks, the West perhaps implied but did not promise in writing that NATO wouldn’t expand. West German foreign minister Dietrich Genscher said there would be no “expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the border of the Soviet Union.” Baker went furthest in these promises, guaranteeing how NATO troops wouldn’t expand “one inch” further east, but this was in the context of a February 1990 meeting specifically about if and when NATO troops would replace Soviet troops withdrawing from East Germany, not about the overall question of whether NATO would expand throughout Eastern Europe (including all the way up to Russia’s doorstep), which neither side was envisioning at the time or negotiating about. According to Condoleezza Rice, then Soviet advisor to Bush 41, the National Security Council quickly reeled in Baker after this quote, which they realized might be misconstrued. Baker later admitted that “I may have been a little forward on my skis on that, but they changed it, and he (Gorbachev) knew that they changed it.” There was never a formal deal concerning NATO expansion and, later in 1990, Gorbachev continued to negotiate on the premise that they’d never formalized a deal even about East Germany, let alone the rest of Eastern Europe. But Gorbachev, normally friendly toward the West, said later that while Baker’s “one inch” talk was understood just in the context of East Germany, broader NATO expansion into Eastern Europe “was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990.” Boris Yeltsin, also relatively pro-American, likewise called NATO’s expansion into the former Warsaw Pact countries illegitimate.
But, as Putin conceded in a 2016 interview with American filmmaker Oliver Stone, the promise to not expand NATO “wasn’t enshrined in paper.” It may go down as one of the more infamous examples of the admonition to “get it in writing” because, instead, the formal agreement gave the newly-independent countries of Eastern Europe the freedom to form their own alliances and they increasingly chose the western alliances of NATO and the European Union (EU). Putin told Stone that primitive behavior on the Soviets’ part forced the West to form NATO in 1949, but that it no longer had any purpose other than the U.S. needing an enemy and client states in Europe.
In 1993, Bush 41’s outgoing administration never told Bill Clinton’s incoming administration about the controversial verbal quasi-promise to not expand NATO at the end of the Cold War. Most Eastern European countries eventually joined NATO which, in turn, insisted that they operate under Western guidelines of open elections, free markets, and civilian-military control in exchange for protection that has given them the breathing room for internal reform while minimizing the external Russian threat. The West brought much of the former Soviet Bloc, in other words, into the Liberal International Order. Meanwhile, NATO formed various agencies that fostered goodwill with Russia (e.g., NRC), but they were ineffective. Russian president Boris Yeltsin (1991-99) and then-former Secretary of State Baker briefly floated the idea that Russia itself should join NATO, to diffuse the tension altogether, but had they done that its members would’ve no doubt eventually wondered why they still existed at all.
In 1997, Clinton’s administration moved to expand NATO into Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and, in the so-called “Big Bang,” the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) joined in 2004, followed by Albania and Croatia in 2008. NATO then pressed up against Russia’s borders, at least in the case of two of the Baltic States, but didn’t include Ukraine or Finland. As a senator and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden (D-DE) was instrumental in recruiting new countries into the pact.
In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the U.S., and Britain, Ukraine gave up ~2k nuclear warheads in exchange for a promise that Russia would respect its sovereignty, along with that of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine likely interpreted the U.S. as agreeing to defend them against Russia since the U.S. was anxious for them to give up their nukes. At the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, NATO pledged to someday include Ukraine and Georgia, leading to Russia’s brutal crackdown in Georgia, a former Soviet republic. Georgia ended up with a pro-Russian puppet government while Ukraine vacillated between the West and Russia. Eventually both sides reached an informal, unsigned accommodation whereby Putin would respect Ukraine’s independence in exchange for NATO not arming Ukraine or newer NATO states. Putin cited his NATO grievances when Russia cracked down on democracy in Georgia in 2008 and invaded Crimea in 2014 after a pro-Western government took control of the rest of Ukraine a year earlier.
Naturally, Putin would love to break up NATO and the European Union and sow as much disunity as possible in the West through soft power like social media and hacking emails and going so far as to poison uncooperative journalists. The less confidence Westerners have in their own core liberal institutions — free elections, free press, courts, etc. — the stronger Putin’s case for authoritarianism within Russia. He prefers western leaders that erode citizens’ confidence in democracy by eroding their faith in elections and the media.
George Kennan (1904-2005), the original co-author of Cold War containment policy who thought creating NATO was “over-remembering Munich” (Chapter 13), said shortly before his death that NATO expansion in Eastern Europe was unnecessary and would only provoke Russia in the future. In his diary, Kennan wrote that it was clear the “Russians would not react wisely and moderately to the decision of NATO to extend its boundaries to the Russian frontiers…I would expect a strong militarization of Russian political life, to the tune of a great deal of historical exaggeration of the danger, and of falling back into the time-honored vision of Russia as the innocent object of the aggressive lust of a wicked and heretical world environment…There will be efforts by the Russian leadership to develop much closer relationships with Iran and China with a view to forming a strongly anti-Western military bloc as a counterweight to a NATO pressing for world domination…Thus will develop a wholly and even tragically unnecessary division between East and West and, in effect, a renewal of the Cold War.” Kennan could’ve added Syria as a smaller authoritarian ally.
Kennan’s prediction was at the very least more prophetic than we’d wish, though we’ll never know whether Putin wouldn’t have invaded surrounding countries had NATO disbanded in 1991. Perhaps he would’ve still fantasized about restoring a vast Russian sphere, especially after having spent plenty of hours poring over centuries-old maps during COVID. In the 2012 presidential debates, Barack Obama stressed that the Cold War was over, but Republican Mitt Romney rightfully countered that Putin was changing tactics, hardening his anti-Western stance. Russia sided with the Iranian and Syrian regimes at nearly every turn in opposition to the U.S. and West, though they’ve also sided at times with Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia. Putin’s biggest obsession, though, was Ukraine (left, in green).
From 2015-19, Russian and rebel Ukrainian forces struggled for control of eastern Ukraine and, as mentioned, Russia conquered Crimea (in light green on the map) in 2014. In Foreign Affairs, an aging George Kennan accurately predicted that, after such aggression, proponents of NATO expansion would “say that we always told you that is how the Russians are,” thinking that danger justified expansion without realizing that NATO’s post-Cold War expansion was what caused Russian aggression in the first place — a self-fulfilling prophecy — and that very thing came to pass in 2022 when Putin invaded Ukraine. In this line of thinking, expanding NATO has undermined NATO’s purpose. Putin aired his usual grievances in 2022, vowing to kick NATO out of former Warsaw Pact countries (Eastern Europe) and vowing to get the U.S. out of Western Europe (i.e. disbanding NATO). Yet, instead of just emphasizing NATO in 2022, Putin unconvincingly and irrelevantly stressed “denazification” to justify the invasion. The revanchist Putin seemed intent, instead, on rebuilding the former Soviet empire or an even larger, historical Russian sphere, aka Russkiy Mir (Russian World), just because those territories were once Russian or its inhabitants speak Russian or similar dialects. Russian mercenary general Yevgeny Prigozhin, who contributed to the pro-Trump social media blitz in 2016 by overseeing the Saint Petersburg troll farm (IRA) and led ex-convicts into battle on Putin’s behalf, undercut all of Putin’s justifications for the Ukrainian invasion, arguing instead that it was “so a bunch of animals could exult in glory.” Prigozhin had also done Putin’s dirty work in Syria and the Central African Republic (for diamonds and gold), having his deserters beaten to death with his trademark sledgehammer.
But, in 2022, former U.S. president Donald Trump praised Putin’s savvy and genius in the run-up to the Ukrainian invasion, gloating that he’d gotten the best of Joe Biden and proudly reminding his audience that “I know him [Putin] very, very, very well.” A month into the war, Trump advised Putin to dig up dirt on President Biden’s son, Hunter. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani gushed, “They [Russia] have a president, we don’t” while Congressman Madison Cawthorn (R-FL) called Zelenskyy a “thug” and accused Ukraine of promoting “woke ideology.” Tucker Carlson promoted Putin’s fake conspiracy theory about U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine so faithfully that they re-broadcast FOX on Russian state TV, while right-wing OAN supported Putin’s theory that the hospital bombing in Mariupol, Ukraine was a hoax. At a critical point in the war, in May 2022, Rand Paul (R-KY) stalled a $40 billion (mostly) bipartisan aid package to Ukraine on a seeming technicality. Given the rarity of American partisanship spilling this far over into foreign policy, it’s worth unpacking how U.S.-Russian relations became so tangled beyond just the initial disagreement over NATO expansion after the Cold War. In 2023, Trump called for withdrawing military support for Ukraine unless Congress agreed to investigate Joe Biden’s corruption, in effect doubling-down on the ploy that led to his first impeachment (AP).
While Putin initially wanted to cooperate with Bush 43 against terrorism after 9/11, he suspected that America was meddling in Russian elections and was behind the Chechen uprisings and more Color Revolutions against Russian authority in Georgia (Rose), Kyrgyzstan (Tulip), and Ukraine (Orange) via NGO’s like the National Endowment for Democracy. George W. Bush openly promoted and encouraged democracy in Georgia. America purportedly spent about $5 billion to successfully promote democracy in Ukraine, an adjacent country that Putin sees as a virtual extension of Russia. He was also put off by the Bush and Obama administration’s support of regime change in the Middle East in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya. To Putin’s chagrin, the U.S. went around the U.N. Security Council to avoid a Russian veto of the Iraqi invasion in 2003.
Putin wanted to define the “war against terror” as including Color Revolution rebels against his authoritarianism in countries adjacent to Russia where he tries to maintain puppet regimes. But the U.S., regardless of whether or not they were aiding these anti-Russian rebels, was unwilling to group them in with ISIS or al-Qaeda. From America’s perspective, people that want a pro-Western government in Ukraine, for instance, aren’t “terrorists.” Also, NATO put medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe ostensibly to protect Europe from potential terrorist attacks from the Middle East, but Putin interpreted them as really intended for him. In front of an audience that included American politicians like John McCain and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin denounced America’s unilateral power and democratic agenda in a 2007 speech in Munich (right), also declaring his opposition to further NATO expansion. According to some reports, during the Arab Spring of 2011-12 (a series of uprisings against authoritarian rule), Putin was obsessed with footage of rebels brutally killing Libyan dictator (and real terrorist) Muammar Gaddafi, that Hillary Clinton had supported as Obama’s Secretary of State and was caught on camera in a salon chair callously laughing about, saying “We came. We saw. He died.” Obama’s administration also supported the overthrow of Egypt’s dictatorship, leading Putin to back Syria’s brutal suppression of democracy there. Putin even wrongfully feared that a potential Clinton administration would try to do the same to him. While that was no doubt paranoid (even delusional), it didn’t help matters when Oliver Stone told Putin in the 2016 interview that he had firsthand knowledge that such a coup was in the offing (Episode 1; Min. 0:50, 2.16). At the very least, Putin thought Secretary of State Clinton was behind the 2011-2012 protests against him in Moscow (featuring footage of election fraud on his behalf on social media), after which he had several unsupportive journalists killed. Putin’s work in counter-intelligence inclined him toward conspiracy theories and paranoia.
This dynamic changed with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Putin favored Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, interfering directly in the election via WikiLeaks and social media with Trump’s encouragement on the bet that Trump was willing to lessen sanctions, withdraw American support for NATO, or at least withdraw support for the new pro-Western Ukrainian government. Putin knew that Trump would weaken the western alliance and destabilize American politics because of his volatility. Trump also shared Putin’s dislike of American military interventions in the Middle East. This was the first time an American candidate openly encouraged a foreign adversary to commit espionage against a domestic opponent (7.28.16), in this case, hacking (and hopefully dumping) Hillary Clinton’s emails, though Trump later said he was joking. But Russia started hacking her emails that very day. During the campaign, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort delivered polling data to Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik. The Mueller Report (Document 6-7 or Text 14-15) on the investigation into Trump’s Russian ties suggests that Russia would help smear Clinton on social media in Midwestern swing states in exchange for the U.S. ceding eastern Ukraine to Russia, though Congress later increased American military aid to the region (javelin missiles) and then-president Trump signed off on it. The June 2016 Trump Tower Meeting pointed to a quid pro quo of sanction relief for dirt on Hillary Clinton. Complicating things further — and this is why all previous presidents had turned over tax returns and divested from any personal business that might conflict with, or compromise, foreign policy — Trump was trying to build a hotel in Moscow during the 2016 election. Donald Trump, Jr. told a business conference in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” and Trump sold a Palm Beach, Florida home to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million that he’d been unable to sell for a cheaper price.
President Barack Obama didn’t want to look like he was favoring fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton during the election, so he suggested a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY-R) condemning Russian interference, but McConnell (left) refused, saying that he didn’t believe the FBI and CIA. Coincidentally, Russia then built an aluminum factory in his home state of Kentucky as “Moscow Mitch” blocked funds for improved election security in the states. Moreover, Russians bought off the British Conservative Party, including prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Cameron merely argued for improved Russian relations in exchange for campaign funds, whereas Johnson blocked investigations into Russian interference in British elections, just as Trump tried to do in the U.S. during his presidency.
Manafort, who orchestrated Trump’s 2016 GOP convention and its surprisingly pro-Russia platform, worked as an attorney for Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the puppet pro-Russian Ukrainian government prior to its overthrow in 2014 by Petro Poroshenko, whom Barack Obama supported because of his pro-Western leanings. In their 2010 election, six years before Trump supporters did likewise with Hillary Clinton, Yanukovych supporters chanted “Lock Her Up” toward their rival, Yulia Tymoshenko (right), whom they imprisoned until 2017 on spurious charges after defeating her.
As the GOP debated its platform at their summer 2016 convention, Trump argued that Europeans should be responsible for any aid to Ukraine, that America’s best interests lay in improving Russian relations, and that the region wasn’t worth starting WWIII over (MR 133/488). Aside from his promise to lessen sanctions and potential to disrupt American democracy, Putin favored Trump because of his skepticism toward NATO. Shortly before taking office in January 2017, Trump called NATO “obsolete,” though he softened his stance and declared conditional support after he took office as long as other members started contributing a higher share to defense spending. In April 2017, Trump said NATO is “no longer obsolete,” but when he spoke at NATO headquarters in Brussels the next month, he avoided underscoring the an-attack-on-one-is-an-attack-on-all commitment of Article 5, instead berating the other leaders for not contributing their fair share. While there’s no evidence that Putin encouraged Trump to delete the “27 words” that reaffirmed American military commitment, the speech dovetailed well with Putin’s goal of sowing discord within NATO. Member countries have agreed to move toward a goal of each spending 2% of GDP on defense, but only the U.S. (3.6%) and four of the other 28 countries currently do: Great Britain, Greece, Estonia, and Poland. There is no group fund, however. The following month, pressured by his advisers, Trump reiterated American commitment to Article 5. In December 2017, Congress passed the aforementioned legislation sending javelin weapons to eastern Ukrainians fighting against Russians — more than the Obama administration had done — and Trump signed off on it under GOP congressional pressure, also perhaps trying to distance himself from Russia amid the Mueller investigation. However, in 2018, Trump told journalist Tucker Carlson that NATO was for the Europeans’ benefit, not America’s. Outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelley said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talked Trump out of withdrawing from NATO though Trump purportedly called the staff who gave him a crash course in the western alliance “dumb” and “babies.” John Bolton called it likely that Trump would’ve followed through on disbanding NATO had he won re-election in 2020 and that “Putin was waiting for that.”
In the meantime, Putin’s popularity crept up among conservatives in America (right). Setting aside the fact that Ukraine is striving to become a pro-Western democracy while Russia is a de facto dictatorship, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter and longtime commentator Pat Buchanan called Putin the voice of “conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries” who were standing up against “the cultural and ideological imperialism of . . . a decadent West.” In short, by 2016 the U.S. didn’t really know who they supported in the rivalry between Ukraine and Russia. Democrats, establishment Republicans, hawkish Republicans (e.g., John Bolton), the State Department, FBI, CIA, and both parties in Congress favored Ukraine, whose pro-Western government wanted to join NATO and the EU, but Trump seemed to lean toward authoritarian Russia. Trump joked that he’d like to deal with critical journalists the way Putin did (kill them). Republicans in Congress were caught in between, favoring Ukraine and sending javelin missiles — after having criticized Obama for not doing enough on its behalf — while catering to Trump voters. Putin got a boost in 2020 when KCXL Kansas City starting broadcasting six hours of translated Russian propaganda (Radio Sputnik) per day, defined as “the things that the liberal media wont [sic] tell you.”
Trump didn’t allow his own aides in on the 2018 Helsinki Summit with Putin and even his translator had to burn her notes. When the CIA, FBI, NSA, and five European intelligence agencies accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Trump sided with Russia and, at Helsinki, he publicly backed Putin’s denial, leading the normally humorless Putin to nearly burst out laughing in the lectern next to him and the White House staff to later claim that he misspoke. Meanwhile, at home, he obstructed and discouraged Robert Mueller’s investigation (MR Volume 2). Later, after the House chose not to take up impeachment charges because of the Mueller Report’s lack of “smoking gun” (and AG William Barr didn’t suggest they do so), Trump and House Republicans hoped to frame Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine instead as having interfered in the 2016 election, a theory that American intelligence labeled a hoax (Wiki). When the Ukrainian government wouldn’t go along with that conspiracy theory (why would they’ve conspired against Clinton when they favored democracy and wanted her to win?) or agree to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden (who’d worked for a Ukrainian energy firm and whose father, Joe, Trump anticipated running against, and who really was likely corrupt), Trump withheld military aid for their fight against Russia, pleasing Putin while undercutting Zelenskyy, and leading to Trump’s first impeachment hearings in the House in 2019. When a whistleblower leaked the extortion plot, they released the funds and Trump instructed his staff that there was no quid pro quo, but numerous witnesses testified that there was prior to the leak. Though whistleblowers aren’t spies and these ones (e.g., Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman) followed protocol, Trump implied that they should be executed for treason: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right?” In Russia, they still can.
Cold War Coda
Let’s backtrack to 1989-91. No one who lived through the Cold War ever imagined it would end so quickly and peacefully, but its conclusion didn’t rid the world of danger. Would Russia have good relations with the U.S. and Europe? What about the soldiers and weapons, including nuclear warheads, located in all those former Soviet countries besides Russia? What about the experts who knew how to use them? They would be up for sale to the highest bidder. With the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar Act, the U.S. quickly moved to curb nuclear proliferation as best it could, hoping to keep nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of the hands of people who dislike America, aka rogue states. What, in general, would this “New World Order” be like?
America isn’t perfect but, if someone must fill the power vacuum, it’s far preferable to Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia — all recent contenders for the role of top dog. And if the billions spent on America’s military budget helped stave off WWIII, then it was money well spent, especially for its allies that got free protection under the nuclear umbrella. Others argue that all the madness of the Cold War was a colossal waste of money that, unnecessarily, nearly caused WWIII while wasting our resources. Most historians who criticize the overall agenda of the Cold War are left-wing, but not all. Conservative John Lukacs disagreed with New Left historians that the Cold War was America’s fault, but also argued that Eisenhower missed a chance to end it in 1953 when Joseph Stalin died.
These are all speculative theories that can’t be proven one way or another. This much we know: by 1990 the U.S. stood as the lone economic superpower and top military power and had to decide what it would do with that opportunity. Would it work to make the world a better place? Would it just look out for its own interests? Would it work together with its allies? Would America go it alone? These were challenging questions for the post-Cold War administrations of Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama — in some ways more complex than what Cold War presidents had to deal with. Their world was frightening and challenging, but simpler. For the post-Cold War presidents, the agreed-upon goals included curbing nuclear proliferation and continuing to protect American oil interests in the Middle East.
On the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) pushed through the non-proliferation act and led efforts to buy uranium from Russia to use in American power plants. Between the end of the Cold War and 2013, the Megaton to Megawatts program shipped enriched uranium from Russian decommissioned nuclear weapons to American power plants. For twenty years, an astounding 10% of all electricity on the American grid was powered by uranium from former Soviet nukes.
Jimmy Carter had succinctly expressed America’s Middle East policy in a 1980 State of the Union address. “Let our position be clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The dynamic changed some between the Carter Doctrine and George H.W. Bush’s presidency. During the Cold War, the heavy hands of the U.S. and Soviets had at least served to keep smaller wars from escalating. Now that dynamic was gone with the USSR’s collapse and countries like Iran and Iraq no longer felt as though they were on either the American or Soviet leash. Iran threatened shipping lanes out of tiny oil-rich Kuwait, resulting in the U.S. flying the American flag over Kuwait’s ships. That led, indirectly, to the USS Vincennes accidentally shooting down an Iranian airliner (Iran Air Flight 655) in 1988, killing 290 passengers.
Meanwhile, desperate to pay off debts run-up in their 1980-88 war against Iran, Iraq rolled into Kuwait in 1990 looking for oil and port access to the Persian Gulf, claiming American support. Either Saddam Hussein misread the signals or the U.S. changed its mind and withdrew the go-ahead shortly thereafter. That’s unclear and revolves around the diplomacy of ambassador April Glaspie, who Iraq claimed expressed American neutrality. It may have taken the U.S. and others a while to digest the economic ramifications of Iraq’s invasion. Iraq already controlled 10% of the world’s crude oil supply and a Kuwaiti takeover would’ve given Saddam unacceptable leverage in world markets. Whatever the initial U.S. reaction was, American allies weren’t happy with the Kuwait invasion, especially Saudi Arabia (just south of Kuwait), Western Europe, and Japan, who relied on Middle Eastern oil.
Neither was al-Qaeda, comprised mostly of Saudi Arabians who wanted to repel Saddam themselves, without U.S. help and without the U.S. using the occasion to beef up its Saudi bases. The argument over who would have the honors of removing Saddam from Kuwait caused the initial rift between the U.S. and its old ally from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Osama bin Laden, though no one in America took notice of it at the time.
The U.S. has enjoyed a mutually beneficial and reasonably stable oil-for-protection relationship with Saudi Arabia since Standard Oil of California (later Chevron) discovered rich deposits in the Ghawar Field on the country’s eastern shore in the 1930s. FDR sealed the alliance with the House of Saud shortly before his death in 1945. Osama’s own family was a direct beneficiary of the relationship though they made their fortune in construction rather than oil. As we saw in Chapter 19, the U.S. has juggled Israeli support and Saudi relations in order to keep the oil flowing. Saudi rulers have gotten rich, but the country still has a sizable population of Muslim fundamentalists who resent the American ties and despise Israel. In Osama bin Laden’s case, that resentment even spilled over into one of the families in the ruling oligarchy.
In 1990, Bush 41 employed his New World Order plan of strengthening collective security, hoping to beef up the United Nations (U.N.) now that the Cold War was over and have the U.S. lead the world multilaterally through its allies. He worked overtime on the phone, getting Coalition Forces arrayed against Iraq, though Israel was excluded at Saudi Arabia’s insistence. Still, Israel loomed large: Hussein signaled his willingness to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait if Coalition leaders agreed to a conference on the future of Palestine, but the U.S. was unwilling partly because of its alliance with Israel (see Chapter 19). Bush followed the recommendation of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, to use overwhelming aerial bombardment early and they destroyed Iraq’s Air Force as their first order of business. As a Vietnam veteran, Powell formulated his namesake Doctrine aimed at winning wars early and decisively with full public support, while always maintaining exit strategies.
Desert Storm Map
In the 1990-91 Gulf War (aka First Persian Gulf War or Operation Desert Shield), the U.S. decimated targets with precision lasers, sometimes from control centers miles away, and ran the Iraqi ground troops out of Kuwait, mowing down those who didn’t surrender, which many of Saddam’s elite forces did. Iraqis fought back with Scud missile attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel but never broke out chemical weapons in retaliation. Coalition Forces’ use of Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) provided early warning against Scud missiles and helped in coordinating the “Left Hook” picture above. Many U.S. troops suffered a mystery illness that chemicals may have caused, though others suggest it was a natural airborne virus. Others argue that afflicted troops correspond with where the U.S. used depleted uranium weapons. Iraq had no nuclear weapons, partly because Israel preemptively bombed the Osirak plant near Baghdad in 1981. The facility may have been intended as a power plant, but was most likely for weapons.
Having kicked the Iraqis out of Kuwait during the Gulf War, the U.S. and U.N. had to decide whether or not to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam. At first, Bush encouraged protesters against Saddam to rise up in Iraq, but then he changed his mind. Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, opposed the move, hoping Saddam could serve as a bulwark against Iran. When the U.S. changed its mind, Saddam slaughtered the Shias and Kurds who rose up against his Sunni Ba’ath Party. In his 1998 memoir A World Transformed, Bush 41 explained how overthrowing Saddam would have overstepped the United Nations mandate to simply protect Kuwait. It would have left the U.S. “occupying a hostile country with no viable exit strategy” and they might have had difficulty apprehending Saddam. In most ways, his concerns proved prophetic, the only exception being that U.S. forces were able to apprehend the fugitive dictator during the Iraq War of 2003-2011 when the U.S. decided to overthrow him (more below).
For Bush 41, the prevailing historical lesson was Vietnam, where the U.S. had jumped in without thinking through an exit strategy, finding itself in a quagmire. On the important matter of whether to work with others or go it alone, Bush 41 and George W. Bush (Bush 43) mostly parted ways with their multilateral and unilateral approaches. Bush 43, and the later incarnation of Dick Cheney, his vice-president, mostly preferred the go-it-alone unilateral strategy, with the exception of Britain and Spain, who allied with the U.S. in the Iraq War after experiencing terrorist attacks on their own soil, and Poland. In his 2015 biography, Bush 41 tore into Cheney’s role in his son’s administration, criticizing the VP’s “iron-ass” philosophy of “using force to get our way” [in Iraq]. Even in the case of the Bush 43 team, though, they worked with NATO, the old North Atlantic Treaty Organization set up in 1949 to blunt the communist threat in Europe. NATO has been more active than the U.N. in the War on Terror, used for training in Iraq and part of the coalition that fought in Afghanistan. NATO was also active in the Balkan Peninsula in the 1990s.
Balkans & Rwanda
The end of the Cold War had immediate ramifications beyond the threat of proliferation and Iraq. After 1948, communism helped cohere Yugoslavia, the country created after WWI on the Balkan Peninsula. After the Cold War, the area now known as the Former Yugoslavia, or Yugosphere, experienced hyperinflation and broke apart into its traditional divisions. The Balkan Peninsula sits on the traditional fault-line of the Christian and Muslim worlds and tends toward conflict and fragmentation. In fact, the word balkanized has come to mean fragmented. The religious tension is really more of a triangle, though, between Roman Catholic Croats, (Eastern) Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks. All three groups are South Slavs, ethnically, but fighting has characterized the region since the Middle Ages. WWI occurred for bigger, structural reasons, but it was triggered by tensions in the Balkans after the Ottoman Empire lost control of the region, and post-Cold War Europeans didn’t want to see that happen again after Yugoslavia’s breakup.
Consequently, when Bosnia and Croatia spiraled into the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-95 (see map), NATO intervened to break up the wars and prevent their spread into northern Europe, ultimately segregating the three religious groups in Bosnia. Sadly, NATO and U.N. forces couldn’t prevent numerous incidents of ethnic cleansing (genocide) in the Balkan Wars. Irregular Serb forces murdered 8k Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica, in July 1995 for instance, the worst violence in Europe since World War II. A second round of warfare broke out in the Balkan country of Kosovo in 1998-99. Forgotten by many militant Muslims and Americans alike, the U.S. and U.N.-NATO fought to save Muslims both in Bosnia and in Kosovo from slaughter at the hands of Serbian Christians. Serbia was trying to take over Kosovo and a majority of Kosovo Albanians are Sunni Muslim. In these conflicts, Serb leader Slobodan Milošević tapped into what psychiatrist Vamik Volkan called chosen trauma — a key “marker” or ingredient in group identity — by rekindling Bosnian memories of the mostly forgotten 1389 Battle of Kosovo. By blaming 20th-century Muslims for a 14th-century war, he fueled hatred that helped solidify his rule and gave his followers a new identity in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse (hatred and shared victimization are probably the most important of all ties that bind groups together). The U.S. ended the small-scale genocide in Kosovo through aerial bombardment. It was one of the only times in history anyone had success exclusively through that method. American intervention in Kosovo alienated Russia since they supported the Slavic Serbians, just as they had in WWI.
Genocide also reared its head in the African country of Rwanda in 1994, the worst slaughter since the Holocaust, but the West failed to act because it saw no compelling interest. The U.S. had been burned on its previous humanitarian mission to Africa, when their attempt to feed starving Somalis under Bush 41 and Bill Clinton in 1992-93 ended in murderous thugs shooting down an American Black Hawk helicopter in the streets of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. That convinced many Americans that purely humanitarian missions weren’t worth the trouble, though Clinton later wished they’d intervened in Rwanda, calling it the biggest regret of his presidency.
Bill Clinton held the status quo in Iraq of maintaining American control over the air space (the no-fly zone), embargoing Iraqi oil, and monitoring U.N. inspections for nuclear weapons. He cited future regime change as the ultimate U.S. goal and referred to the country as an “Axis of Evil,” a term later used more famously by Bush 43. Derailed at home by the Monica Lewinsky scandal late in his second term, Clinton tried to re-capture the magic of Jimmy Carter’s Camp David summit between Israel and Egypt in 1978. Clinton was trying for a lasting land-for-peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Muslims who live within and around Israel. This Two-State solution would create an autonomous Palestinian state and, in turn, Palestinian Muslims would recognize the existence and legitimacy of Israel. Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat from the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) to Camp David in 2000. He held a similar summit between Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat in Oslo in 1993 that granted Palestinians some control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Oslo Accords laid out a general framework for peace but no comprehensive agreement. Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing fundamentalist Israeli in 1995 and renewed violence by the Palestinian Hamas terrorist group (e.g., mass-murdering commuters on rush-hour buses with suicide bombers) led to the election of Israeli-American Benjamin Netanyahu from the center-right, uncompromising Likud Party. The West considered the PLO merely a terrorist organization in the 1970s and 80’s, but since the Palestinians had no country, they had no option but to deal with their leader, Arafat, if they wanted to deal at all, and the PLO was at least less militant by the late 20th century than Hamas.
Netanyahu and Clinton didn’t get along and, as a veteran of Israel’s wars against Arabs, Netanyahu only dealt with Arafat reluctantly to preserve Israel’s American alliance. Clinton was anxious to redeem Rabin’s legacy and the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak’s election in 1999 opened a new window of opportunity (Barak was also a decorated veteran). At Camp David, Clinton seemed to have a land-for-peace agreement in reach, with Palestinians recognizing Israel’s existence and the Palestinians getting their own country carved out of eastern Israel. But when the leaders returned home, Arafat changed his mind. Why, exactly, no one knew. Even before they left Maryland, Arafat expressed reservations about the agreement’s continuation of Jewish control in Jerusalem, telling Barak that he’d “walk behind his [Arafat’s] casket.” Maybe Arafat wasn’t prepared to lead during peacetime, or maybe his followers were unhappy with the Swiss Cheese-patterned way the Palestinian map was drawn. The map left the Israelis with control over Palestinian utilities and retained existing checkpoints used to interrogate Palestinians as they traveled in between their autonomous pockets.
The dialogue window closed amid a renewed round of violence known in Arab as an intifada, after which Israeli military and Shin Bet (internal security) limited Palestinian mobility even more than before. When Barack Obama came around in 2009, he struggled with the reelected Netanyahu, who resisted Obama’s efforts to make accommodations with Palestinians or Iranians and joined with American Republicans to subvert those overtures. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he pledged support for West Bank settlements and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where the capital is. In late 2016, shortly before he left office, Obama ordered American ambassadors to abstain from voting rather than veto the standard UN resolution condemning (post-1967) Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Trump’s attempts, via his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinian Muslims was a non-starter as they simply took a hard-line pro-Israeli stance in negotiations. However, Trump’s administration negotiated peace deals between Israel and two neighboring Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in the Abraham Accords. But renewed violence in 2021 between Israel and Hamas created the impression that the idea of a two-state solution has become a placeholder, or excuse for inaction, as Israel perpetuates the status quo in the territories it has occupied since 1967. If Trump’s supposed deal-making expertise didn’t translate into good deals with North Korea, China, or Iran, it at least gave him insight into Israeli-Palestinian relations: “I don’t think Bibi [Netanyahu] ever wanted to make peace…I think he just tapped us along…after meeting with Bibi for three minutes, I said, ‘Bibi, you don’t wan’t to make a deal do you?’ and he said, ‘well, uh, uh, uh’.” If accurate, the quote indicates that Trump’s administration would’ve been interested in some constructive deal. But, as we saw in Chapter 19, Trump cut off American communications with Palestinian Muslims and Joe Biden said the “the ground is not ripe” for a two-state solution in 2022. Biden expressed support for Trump’s Abraham Accords. The logic behind the accords was to improve relations between Israel and neighboring Arab countries first, united in their shared opposition to Persian Iran, then work back toward better relations with Arabs within Israel.
Bill Clinton’s other concern was the rising tide of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden (right). They claimed to have learned from the suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983 (that killed 63 diplomats, Sailors, and Marines) and the withdrawal from Somalia in 1993, that Americans were easily convinced to retreat if attacked. In 1993, led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, they tried but failed to bring down the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City’s Wall Street financial district with a truck bomb parked in the basement lot, killing six people and injuring over a thousand. Al-Qaeda was initially thought to have bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 killing 19 American servicemen, though authorities later blamed it on a different organization. Al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, in Tanzania and Kenya. Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have first crack at pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 and thought the U.S. would just use the Persian Gulf War as a pretext for building more bases in his homeland of Saudi Arabia.
Clinton and the CIA decided that Osama bin Laden didn’t qualify as the type of political leader Presidents Ford and Reagan had ordered the U.S. to stop assassinating. Multiple times the CIA put the hit on Osama but either missed or were held back by bad weather. At other times, Clinton didn’t authorize strikes to avoid killing innocent people. Once, they had Osama bin Laden’s camp in Khost along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in their cross-hairs and didn’t fire to avoid killing children on a playground above it; a second time they abstained to avoid killing the visiting prince of the United Arab Emirates. A third time the CIA shot and hit the target killing numerous terrorists, but Osama had left just minutes before. The inability of Clinton’s administration to assassinate bin Laden looks especially bad with the benefit of hindsight but, of course, we view that through the lens of 9/11, which they had no knowledge of (see #28 in the Rear Defogger tab above).
In 1997, a deal fell apart between the Taliban that controlled Afghanistan and bankrolled al-Qaeda and an American company Unocal to build a pipeline across the country to connect Turkmenistan to Pakistan. It’s unclear, though, whether or not those broken negotiations contributed to, or resulted from, the Taliban’s increasingly anti-American sentiment. In October 2000, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber killed 17 Sailors aboard the USS Cole in the Yemen harbor. When Clinton left office, he impressed upon incoming president Bush 43 the importance of al-Qaeda in their transition meeting. National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Advisor Richard Clarke felt likewise and, since he stayed on in his capacity, he continued to emphasize that view within the Bush administration throughout 2001. Clinton later wrote that Bush seemed unconcerned, indicating the new administration’s emphasis would be on regime change in Iraq. Officials at the CIA’s Alec Station in charge of tracking bin Laden confirmed that the terrorist wasn’t on Bush 43’s radar prior to September 11, 2001 (9/11).
Regime Change In Iraq
The reason that Bush 43 wasn’t focused on al-Qaeda, if Clinton and the CIA’s testimonies are correct, is that his primary focus coming into office was Iraq. Over the course of the 1990s, many American strategists grew impatient with the no-fly zones, oil embargo, and weapons inspections over, on, and in Iraq, arguing instead for a takeover and regime change. Dick Cheney, for instance, who’d argued against overthrow at the end of the Persian Gulf War as Secretary of Defense under Bush 41, changed his view during his tenure as board chair and CEO of Halliburton, a Dubai- and Houston-based energy infrastructure firm that included a subsidiary, Kellog, Brown & Root, that stood to gain from contracts in Iraq. Cheney (right) was Bush 43’s vice-president and, on matters both domestic and foreign, perhaps the most influential VP in American history. In the 1990s, before fracking transformed domestic oil and gas drilling, Cheney and many experts feared that Peak Oil would cause shortages and spikes in fossil fuel prices, destabilizing the world economy and weakening vulnerable Western countries. The key wasn’t necessarily outright ownership of mineral rights by American companies, but at least access to dependable, cheap oil from some stable source. At a petroleum conference at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1999, Cheney asked, “Where is the oil going to come from? The Middle East with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.”
After the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. had come to view its former ally Saddam Hussein, who’d nationalized the country’s oil reserves in 1972, as clearly undependable. Aside from being a brutal dictator — ruthless toward the country’s Shias and Kurds –, he’d scared most of his petroleum engineers into emigrating to the West and Iraq was actually a net importer of oil even before the embargo, despite having the 4th-most oil of any country.
In 1993, the Iraqi Intelligence Service attempted to assassinate Bush 41 during a visit to Iraq, likely adding further motivation to Bush 43’s desire to overthrow the country’s leaders when he later became president. A bipartisan group of neoconservatives who advocated more aggressive foreign policy formed a think-tank called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) that pushed for regime change in Iraq. The group had idealistic dreams of capitalism thriving in a post-Saddam Iraq, with American chains lining the streets of Baghdad, but mostly they were concerned with the pragmatic need for mineral rights and with stabilizing the region through democratic revolutions. In 1998, they wrote an open letter to President Clinton urging regime change. Neocons, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, formed the foreign policy team around Bush 41 when he came into office in 2001. By mid-2001, months before 9/11, a behind-closed-doors Energy Task Force comprised of various departmental secretaries had set a policy that included further developing domestic infrastructure, subsidies for fossil fuel companies, continued investment in alternative/renewable energy, and covetous maps of Iraqi oil fields, with a list of potential foreign firms to develop them (primary sources).
Just as Franklin Roosevelt hoped for war with Germany but got attacked by Japan, the Bush administration hoped for war with Iraq but was attacked by Afghan-based terrorists. Along with the lack of quality evidence, that is reason enough to dismiss Truther conspiracy theories that Bush’s team was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda hijackers launched a coordinated attack on American soil — the first since Pearl Harbor — with 19 terrorists hijacking four commercial airliners flying out of Boston, New York, and Washington. Two planes (AA 11 & UA 175) flew directly into the WTC towers, including the north tower they truck-bombed in 1993. By chance, a French crew doing a documentary on a nearby firehouse captured footage of the first plane hitting the north tower, and news crews covering that seemingly accidental first crash filmed the second plane flying into the south tower. Hijackers flew AA 77 into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and UA 93 crashed before flying into (presumably) either the Capitol or White House. Heroic passengers aware of the first three attacks stormed the cockpit and overcame the hijackers, downing that plane in Pennsylvania and killing everyone on board. The four attacks killed nearly three-thousand Americans, including hundreds of firemen, and injured another six-thousand. Al-Qaeda didn’t intend for the two WTC planes to bring down the buildings, but the heat from the planes’ molten aluminum combined with the exploding fuel tanks created enough heat down their elevator shafts to melt their steel frames, causing them to collapse and pleasing the terrorists’ smug, righteous leader, Osama bin Laden.
While Afghanistan’s Taliban government harbored al-Qaeda, the 19 hijackers hailed mostly from Saudi Arabia (15) with four others from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon. The main organizer of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (right), was Pakistani, while the group’s leader bin Laden hailed from a wealthy Saudi Arabian family that made their fortune in construction in the years after U.S. firms developed Saudi oil. The jihadist bin Laden hoped to lure the “infidel” West into a war with Muslims reminiscent of the medieval Crusades mostly forgotten in the West. The government’s 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the CIA and FBI both knew a lot about the impending danger but would’ve been better off communicating with each other rather than siloing their information. While it’s true that their secrecy prevented them from “connecting the dots” in this case, it’s also true that, the more intelligence agencies talk to each other or within their agencies, the greater the susceptibility to espionage and leaks.
Thus commenced what was/is known variously as the War on Terror or Global War on Terror (GWOT). It’s a war with a starting date (2001), but will seemingly never end because its goal is to oppose an ongoing tactic of asymmetrical warfare rather than a particular enemy. We might end up dating the official phase to 2021, when the U.S. finally pulled out of Afghanistan. Navy Seals killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and Mohammed remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay (aka “Gitmo”) on America’s naval base in Cuba, while al-Qaeda now shares space with the loosely-affiliated and unrecognized Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, IS, or, more commonly, ISIS) that spun out of the post-war chaos in Iraq and the Syrian Civil War (2011- ). ISIS wanted to establish a caliphate and harbor a murderous policy toward non-Muslims and the large majority of peaceful, non-jihadist Muslims. By 2017, the caliphate dream was dead but ISIS remained in terrorist cells. The War on Terror included enhanced domestic security; expanded federal bureaucracy and spending, especially the Department of Homeland Security; compromised traditional Fourth Amendment protections with the government filtering phone, text and email meta-data; and was/is waged by soldiers and spies across the globe, including Pakistan, North Africa, Horn of Africa, Philippines, Yemen, and Europe. America’s Southeast Asian anti-terrorism unit operates out of Thailand, an ally and staging base during the Vietnam War. There are more Muslims in South and Southeast Asia than in the Middle East and, like the former, only a tiny percentage of Asian Muslims support violent jihadism. Initially, though, the War on Terror focused on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Though VP Cheney said, “we must go over to the dark side” (referring to torture) and some Americans lashed out at Muslim Americans and mosques, Bush 43 didn’t endorse religious bigotry. The administration chose to proceed militarily rather than treat 9/11 as criminal attacks, but Bush 43 and his successor Barack Obama emphasized that America was fighting against terrorists, not Muslims generally. Bush said “We reject bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith…America welcomes and values people of all faiths — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country.” Most controversially, the Bush Doctrine declared that the U.S. had the right to intervene preemptively to topple regimes friendly to terrorism, which opened up a lot of countries for potential attack insofar as almost any country could be spun as one that later might be dangerous.
Operation Enduring Freedom was successful in routing the Taliban and taking over Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, and chasing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces into the mountains and over the border into Pakistan. Establishing a stable regime to replace the Taliban proved difficult, though, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, the Afghan Northern Alliance, and NATO and U.S. forces were never able to fully vanquish the Taliban. NATO and American forces used interpreters to juggle relations with factional warlords and foster relations with villagers while rooting out enemy sanctuaries. Allied forces nearly captured bin Laden near Tora Bora in December 2001, but the military didn’t fully trust CIA intelligence and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t want to commit more troops (including, critically, special forces) to surrounding al Qaeda, content to let them slip across the border into Pakistan. The Army rejected the CIA’s request for Rangers. One American reporter said, by then, there were more western journalists than troops in Tora Bora.
As in Vietnam, it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, as enemies blended in among the civilian population and people changed sides. The Taliban had outlawed opium so, likewise similar to Vietnam, aiding our enemy’s enemies inadvertently increased drug trafficking, spiking the heroin supply globally (including the U.S.). Meanwhile, Karzai’s regime was corrupt and undependable. Sometimes Afghans that cooperated with NATO/American troops were later killed. Geography posed a challenge as well, though of a different sort than Vietnam. Afghanistan is mostly rugged, desolate terrain, as Soviet troops discovered in the 1980s and the British, Chinese, and countless other invaders discovered over the centuries. For good reason, Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires.” And anyone that could tame Afghanistan wouldn’t be rewarded with oil, which no doubt lowered its appeal in Bush’s cabinet, even if subconsciously.
Also as in Vietnam (LBJ in particular), Rumsfeld was considerably more optimistic with the press than in private correspondence, where he was pessimistic all along that the U.S. could permanently secure the country. Bush 43, Obama, and Trump were all skeptical about the end-game, and with good reason, but all could wax optimistic in speeches if needed. Meanwhile, Douglas Lute, who served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan (aka “war czar”) under Bush and Obama, said “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan…we didn’t know what we were doing.” Central Commander Tommy Franks no doubt wondered at times whether or not it would’ve been better to forego nation building (leave the Taliban in place) and go directly after terrorist criminals with the CIA and Special Operations Forces like the Green Berets and Navy Seals. Franks said of Afghanistan, “the military is a hammer, but not everything is a nail.” For military historian Thomas Ricks, Franks was typical of modern generals with his focus on narrow tactics rather than politics or even broader military strategy. Speaking at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island after another failed attempt to pin down al Qaeda forces in Operation Anaconda in 2002, a student asked about the overall nature of the war in Afghanistan. Franks replied, “that’s a great question for historians” before honing in on details of some operations. Ricks called this a sergeant’s answer, not a general’s. In the overall War on Terror, troops were led by ten commanders in ten years with seven different ambassadors. When the U.S. diverted its efforts to Iraq in 2003, the military and CIA didn’t have the bandwidth to effectively fight in both countries simultaneously.
The Taliban gradually won back territories around the periphery of the country while the U.S., also as in Vietnam, was more likely to accidentally kill or at least alienate the civilian population the longer they stayed. A convoy accidentally ran over dozens of Afghans in 2006, an Air Force gunship mistakenly bombed the neutral Kunduz Trauma Center in 2015 with no Taliban inside, instead killing/injuring patients and medical staff (the Afghan military requested the target because they’d discovered that neutral Doctors Without Borders [MSF] had earlier treated Taliban patients). These mishaps continued through Obama’s stepped-up drone attacks, as did (briefly) the torture of prisoners, and were no doubt an inevitable result of long-term occupation. Meanwhile, the Taliban broadcast fake news of exaggerated U.S. atrocities and, in 2016, bombed the American University in Kabul where female students were taking courses in violation of their interpretation of Sharia law.
Donald Trump promised a total withdrawal during his 2016 campaign, but the Pentagon convinced him of another 4k troop surge for Fall 2017 — a move [contractor] Blackwater founder Erik Prince called an “Obama-lite policy” in reference to the 2009 increase of 30k troops. He renewed the torture of prisoners, arguing that it was an effective means of interrogation. In 2017, the U.S. had 12k troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100k. The U.S. also hoped to pressure Pakistan to provide more support against terrorist sanctuaries along the border under threat of withholding aid, however it had no ambassador to Afghanistan to help broker negotiations. With the Taliban now in control of 40% of the country, the goal of keeping a small number of troops in Afghanistan was to avoid what Trump called “a vacuum for terrorists” of the sort that filled Iraq after 2011. In 2020, President Trump acquiesced in partial Taliban rule, negotiating an agreement whereby the U.S. would withdraw all but 2500 troops and release 5k Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban promising not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. In a hurry to promise a withdrawal before the 2020 elections, Trump just got that vague promise and didn’t secure a ceasefire as pre-requisite. More importantly, they didn’t even bother inviting the allied Afghan government in on the negotiation, undercutting their authority. One of the biggest mistakes of Joe Biden’s early presidency was not revising the terms of Trump’s agreement, perhaps insisting on a ceasefire from the Taliban or looping in the Afghan government, even while sticking with the withdrawal plan. Biden chose to not “kick the can down the road” any further and to avoid the sunk cost fallacy. He withdrew altogether in 2021, resulting in a full Taliban takeover and their seizure of billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons intended for the previous government (similar to what happened in China in 1949). Biden’s administration underestimated how quickly their Afghan allies would capitulate and allow the Taliban to overrun the country, but he was unwilling to sacrifice any more American troops to prevent what he saw as a lost cause, though 13 died in ISIS-K suicide attacks during the hasty withdrawal. The shambolic Fall of Kabul was reminiscent of the 1975 Fall of Saigon (Chapter 18) except even quicker, damaged America’s credibility with future allies, and emboldened the Taliban. However, the Taliban no longer harbors al-Qaeda or ISIS forces.
The war in Afghanistan provided a telling litmus test measuring support for small-d democracy and liberalism in the bigger, international sense of the word. Journalist Michelle Goldberg noted the shift in the New York Times: “Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States embarked on a war that would, in time, sell itself as a battle for democracy. Back then, liberal democracy was almost universally venerated in America, which is one reason we had the hubris to think we could export it by force. Many, especially on the right, worried about the threat that jihadism posed to a modern, open society. The tragic journey of the last two decades began with the loudest voices on the right braying for war with Islamism and ended with a right-wing vanguard envying it.” Matt Gaetz (R-FL) Tweeted® that, like Trump, the Taliban was more legitimate than the (western-allied) Afghan government or the current government here [Joe Biden’s administration]. In 2001, only far-right American radicals supported the Taliban but, by 2021, mainstream conservatives could at least empathize with aspects of their culture. On Fox, Tucker Carlson observed: “They don’t hate their own masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neo-liberal program is grotesque.”
Obama, Trump (early on), and other commentators were right about the vacuum — the upside of having American troops in Afghanistan was displacing terrorists — but it was untenable short of colonizing the country and staying there forever. The Taliban had a message for the U.S. that translates to “you have the watches, we have the time.” Simply put, they just waited us out. Overall, Americans in Afghanistan suffered ~ 20k casualties, with over 2k killed, and 18k wounded in the longest war in U.S. history.
Saddam Hussein, despite his copious misdeeds, wasn’t a terrorist in the strict sense of the word and never threatened Americans other than those fighting in the Middle East. But the context of the War on Terror was useful in selling a war that the Bush administration had already hoped for. As early as November 2001, they were making initial plans to shift resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, despite the fact that Afghanistan’s Taliban had been directly responsible for harboring al-Qaeda, and they seemingly had them on the ropes and bin Laden on the run. This is an example of where chronology matters to historical interpretation, because al-Qaeda didn’t arrive in Iraq in big numbers until after Americans, in January 2004.
That Iraq had chemical weapons at some point is certain because, as we saw above, the U.S. gave some to Saddam to use on Iranians in 1983 (he also used them on his own Kurds). And we saw that Iraq built a nuclear power plant at Osirak that the Israeli Air Force destroyed in 1981. However, the country was subject to inspections after the Persian Gulf War and United Nations inspector Hans Blix claimed there were no nuclear, chemical or biological WMDs, or weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration argued that they didn’t want any hostile country defying the U.S. post-9/11, even if it wasn’t directly tied to terrorism, but one poll showed 66% of Fox viewers convinced by 2002-03 that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Years later, Donald Trump premised his theory that American intelligence was untrustworthy on the idea that the CIA was wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, but there was never a consensus in the CIA. And when the NSC’s Richard Clarke argued that there were no actual WMDs in Iraq, pro-war politicians and hawkish press smeared him as having mental health problems. The CIA was told to investigate for WMD evidence in Iraq and when they reported back that there was none, Dick Cheney essentially told them to go look harder.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s talk of (nuclear) “mushroom clouds” helped sell the case for war and a bipartisan Congress authorized an invasion. In the joint Iraq Resolution of October 2002, the House voted in favor 296-133, the Senate in favor 77-23. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joe Biden (D-DE) voted in favor of war while Barack Obama (D-IL) voted against. Britain, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, supported the Iraq invasion along with Australia and Poland, while most other countries that supported the war in Afghanistan condemned it. Left-leaning newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post took the Bush administration’s bait of “leaked information” of WMDs, also supporting the war.
The Department of Defense said taking over Iraq “would be a cakewalk” and Rumsfeld said it “could take five days or five weeks or even five months, but certainly no longer.” VP Dick Cheney said Americans would be “welcomed as liberators.” Secretary of State Colin Powell, despite (or maybe because of) being the administration’s biggest critic of diverting money, soldiers, money, weapons, and focus away from Afghanistan, made the case for war in Iraq to the United Nations, including WMDs and a false link between Hussein and al-Qaeda. Bush and Cheney knew he was their most respected voice, internationally. Powell later called it the greatest regret of his career. Meanwhile, on C-SPAN, Rumsfeld said that it was “nonsense” that invading Iraq had anything to do with oil.
Alas, there were no WMDs to be found. Nonetheless, Operation Iraqi Freedom was successful in the short term insofar as well-prepared American forces quickly toppled Saddam’s Ba’athist regime in March-April 2003, later finding and executing the dictator. Moreover, unlike numerous escapades covered in earlier chapters in which the U.S. supported dictatorships over democracies rather than vice-versa, the U.S. established a coalition government with an eye toward transitioning to a sovereign Iraqi republic. The devil was in the details.
Administration neocons put former Royal Dutch Shell (U.S. Division) CEO Philip Carroll in charge of working with the new Iraqi Oil Ministry and Gary Vogler of Exxon in charge of rebuilding oil infrastructure. The Army established bases for Exxon and Shell (Majnoon, Basra) while Marines guarded the oil ministry, which ceded 80% of Iraq oil to foreign companies. Long, narrow pipelines are notoriously difficult to protect, but the British and Polish were chomping at the bit for oil and many countries critical of America’s war aims eventually won contracts, including France (Total), China (PetroChina), and Russia (Lukoil). However, the Defense Department’s Future of Iraq Project included plans for education, water, farming, environment, and humanitarian goals along with energy (State Department Archive). Under America’s nation-building, Iraqis would even get socialized medicine. Envoy Paul Bremer, a former ambassador (to the Netherlands) and Henry Kissinger aid, was in charge of the temporary Coalition Provisional Authority.
Bush 43’s infamous May 2003 “mission accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was premature. Al-Qaeda flowed into the country to help fight Americans along with other extremists — further confusing (or vindicating for those that ignored the chronology) the idea that the Iraqi invasion was part of the War on Terror — and bogging America down in a bloody eight-year quagmire. There were some al-Qaeda troops in Iraq prior to 2003, but not many. In August 2003 militants blew up the Red Cross and United Nations offices and, by the time Bremer arrived, under instructions to transition the government as quickly as possible, much of Baghdad was on fire, with no police or fire departments.
Even more than Afghanistan, Iraq exposed the weakness of American commanders focusing purely on narrow tactics without considering broader strategy or political context. At a loss, the main word Coalition Ground Commander Ricardo Sanchez got from Secretary Rumsfeld was: “when are you going to wrap it up?” Rumsfeld never had any interest in nation-building and naively hoped that the country would stabilize on its own once the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein. Sanchez’ replacement George Casey, Jr., who’d never led troops in battle, was tasked with minimizing casualties and shifting as much fighting as possible to Iraqis, similar to the Vietnamization under Richard Nixon. While Sanchez and Casey, Jr. were in over their heads, the real problem was lack of direction from the top with Rumsfeld and Bush 43. As Carl von Clausewitz argued in On War (1816-1830) and Americans learned from bitter experience in Vietnam, wars are always both military and political. Although Abraham Lincoln never read Clausewitz, the Civil War Commander-in-chief understood this intuitively and argued constantly with generals like George McClellan about keeping their eye on the big picture rather than winning battles. Franks, Sanchez, and Casey, Jr. had no Lincoln.
As is always the case, it was easier to overthrow one government than to replace it with another. Stability has proven elusive for the U.S. in its nation-building efforts in South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Americans often see democracy as a panacea for progress, not realizing that, as in our own country’s early history, majorities can choose to discriminate against or even wipe out minorities. When law and order break down, as they do during transitions such as Iraq’s, people use the temporary political vacuum to settle old scores unrelated to the bigger picture, spiking crime. The new Iraqi government — backed not only by the U.S. but also by Shia Iranians who liked seeing Saddam toppled — failed to incorporate Sunnis after the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni Ba’athist Party. Al-Qaeda never really joined forces wholesale with Sunnis, but rather blew up the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra hoping to incite civil war between Sunnis and Shias. What about Saddam’s Ba’athist army? They were dismantled by the time Bremer arrived — understandable on the surface because they’d fought Americans in the initial invasion — but that only drove them into the resistance to oppose the Americans, coalition Iraqis, and British. Anti-American Shia forces, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, also fought the coalition and fought the Sunnis. For a while, American troops and personnel largely holed up in the fortified Green Zone in the center of town as civil war raged around them. When they did venture out to engage the enemy, the Qatari Al Jazeera network showed all the images it could to underscore American malfeasance against civilians and mosques burning even though Americans couldn’t blow up mosques for that very reason, which is why Sadr used them to stash weapons.
A key figure in the Shia-Sunni civil war was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Sunni jihadist, who joined al-Qaeda in 2004. He declared all-out war against Shias while also organizing suicide attacks against American troops and contractors. This drew U.S. troops out, away from the “Light Footprint” policy that characterized early attempts to stay mostly on bases and turn fighting over to coalition Iraqis. Zarqawi’s Sunni insurgency was centered in the city of Fallujah, where U.S. Marines fought a ten-day battle to secure the city — the most intense urban combat U.S. forces had seen since Hue, Vietnam in 1968. Victory in the Second Battle of Fallujah tamped down Sunni strength for a while, but Zarqawi and most of the non-local Sunnis escaped and regained control of the country’s Al-Anbar western governorate, of which Fallujah is a part. Zarqawi died in a U.S. Air Force targeted killing (assassination) in 2006.
The U.S. military eventually concluded that disbanding the Sunni Ba’athist Army they’d fought against in the initial invasion was a mistake. Under U.S. Central Commander David Petraeus, they incorporated Sunnis — bought off over 100k anti-al Qaeda “Sons of Iraq” Sunnis for $400 million without asking Bush 43 or approval from the Pentagon, to be precise — in a 2007 (troop) Surge that briefly stabilized the country, leading to a 90% reduction in violence. Petraeus had already tried this Sunni alliance strategy in Mosul in 2003-4 as commander of the 101st Airborne Division (also without approval from his superiors), tamping down violence in the notoriously unstable northern part of Iraq. Now, as new American commander, Petraeus’ troops tried as best they could to distinguish between the “reconcilable” Sunnis from the “irreconcilables” and allied forces also defeated Iranian-trained Shias in Basra and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. Intercepted documents revealed that al-Qaeda was defeated, as well. While it shouldn’t have taken years of school to see the logic of co-opting moderate Sunnis, it’s not coincidental that Petreaus had a Ph.D. in International Relations from Princeton. However, the peace did not last after America withdrew most of its troops from the country.
As Americans handed over the reins to Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (left) disenfranchised Sunnis, helping to perpetuate the chaos that later resulted in ISIS, as many Sons of Iraq drifted into the opposition. Even before their disenfranchisement, most Sunnis weren’t voting anyway, and a Sunni finance minister resigned. Maliki purged Sunni military commanders and soldiers as he increasingly feared a coup, unraveling Petraeus’ successful Surge coalition. The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was skeptical of the new Iraqi president but there weren’t any obvious alternatives. Bush 43 told Maliki skeptics in his cabinet to “go sit under a tree until that notion passes.” U.S. leaders don’t always have detailed knowledge of our own history and system, whereby the Founders wisely set up a republic in which minority rights are protected from the majority rather than a simple majority-rule democracy. Bush 43 gave Maliki video conference lessons in leadership, but neither Maliki nor his American mentors had read the Federalist Papers No. 10 in which James Madison explained the desirability of competing, peaceful factions in a republic (i.e., the Sunnis), or maybe Iraq’s factionalism was just too volatile to contain a peaceful, diverse republic. There’s a reason unstable regions tend toward authoritarian rule. In July 2017, The Economist wrote:
The bloodbath in the Middle East consists of many conflicts: revolts against oppressive rulers who failed to earn legitimacy or foster prosperity; struggles over competing forms of Islam; regional contests between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey; and rivalry between America and Russia. At its heart is Sunni Arabs’ sense of dispossession, of which ISIS is the most grotesque manifestation.
While the vast majority of American troops behaved admirably in Iraq, it’s always the case that occupying forces tend to wear out their welcome, just as Americans had in Vietnam. In this case, American troops had far better cultural training than they had before Vietnam. Even so, it’s always as if an hourglass gets turned over and an invading army has to provide stability before their time is up as a few bad apples spoil the barrel. For every ten soldiers that behave — in this case guarding voting booths, building infrastructure, clearing unexploded ordnance and shrapnel, handing out toys and candy to children, not showing the bottom of their feet, not addressing women in traditional Muslim garb without speaking first to a male relative, etc. — the one knucklehead that misbehaves undoes their good deeds and gets press, especially in the occupied country. In Iraq, operations involved door-to-door interrogations that were intimidating to civilian families even in the best of circumstances. It didn’t help that Rumsfeld effectively encouraged the mild torture and abuse of POWs — Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’ “freedom tickling” — which became widely known after soldiers leaked photos from the Abu Ghraib prison showing soldiers denigrating Iraqis sexually. Some prisoners were chained up naked in dog collars. The “Gitmo-ization” of Iraqi detentions centers after 2003, named for tactics pioneered at America’s Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, included forcing prisoners to roll around in their own feces and desecrate the Koran, with the U.S. arguing that the Third Geneva Convention protocol didn’t apply to terrorists, only actually military prisoners. Many Iraqis were grateful to see Saddam Hussein go and opposed terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, but Abu Ghraib prison abuse damaged American credibility in Muslim eyes, fueling recruiting efforts of militant terrorist groups, especially at the POW camps. Relations began to improve after Petraeus’ Surge in 2007, but many Iraqis distrusted America after some had risen up against Saddam in 1991 at Bush 41’s behest only to be abandoned, while others didn’t appreciate foreign invaders, regardless of their motives.
Ultimately, Saddam Hussein’s unpopularity didn’t translate directly into the appreciation for American liberators that neocons had assumed, and Bush 43 and Maliki signed an agreement whereby American troops would withdraw starting in late 2007 and leave altogether by 2011. That transition was part of the original plan, anyway; it just happened later than hoped for. In his last trip to Iraq, a reporter angry that 100k civilians had died in the war threw a shoe at Bush. While he got back on the plane a bit deflated, Iraq was relatively stable by the time Bush left office.
Hoping to divert military resources east in an Asian Pivot (later blocked by Congress anyway during the 2013 budget crisis), incoming President Barack Obama was especially anxious to close up shop in Iraq, instructing his ambassadors to take a hands-off approach. Military brass advised scrapping Bush’s agreement and staying past 2011, but Obama rejected their advice in a meeting at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In negotiations with Maliki, Obama insisted that any residual/skeletal American troops left behind permanently have legal immunity (as they do in 40 other countries), but Maliki wouldn’t agree to it and many analysts think Obama knew he wouldn’t agree when he asked. The day after the last American troops left, Maliki arrested Iraqi’s Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. He escaped to Turkey but has been sentenced to death five times in absentia in Iraq. After the 2011 withdrawal, Obama had to send 5k American troops back into Iraq within a year to try and prevent ISIS from taking over the entire country.
While the situation proved unstable in the long term, the U.S. accomplished its goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, just as they overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan. Due to improved battlefield medicine and rescues, American troops didn’t suffer high death rates, but there were many traumatic injuries, concussions, and amputations caused by Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, aka “roadside bombs,” along with conventional fighting. Overall in Operation Iraqi Freedom, ~4.4k dedicated Americans gave their lives, with 32k wounded. In Afghanistan and Iraq combined, ~ 7k Americans gave their lives with over 50k injured. However, over 100k veterans committed suicide, at a rate of ~20 per day — double that of young civilian males. The Pentagon hasn’t supported a draft since Vietnam, but in both Afghanistan and Iraq America’s all-volunteer forces were stretched thin, supplemented by the Active Guard Reserve and private contractors. Thousands of men and women served in multiple deployments and, like all wars, victims of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and moral injury have struggled to transition back into civilian life. The government’s controversial Stop-Loss policy required many troops to do extra tours beyond their initial end of term of service (ETS) date. The Department of Veterans Affairs (1930- ) — already understaffed to deal with aging veterans of previous wars — was overwhelmed and unable to provide consistent access to physical and mental treatment at their hospitals and clinics. These costs will continue to rise as there’s usually a 40-50 year lag between a war’s conclusion and peak costs at the VA (World War II peaked in 1986 and Vietnam costs are still growing).
As of 2017, Americans were still of two minds as to their international role. Many still wanted to assert global dominance and military strength, but Americans had grown weary of “boots on the ground” wars in far off places and complicated attempts at nation-building. Consequently, Obama’s two terms were ones of retrenchment, likened by historians to Eisenhower’s post-Korea and Nixon’s post-Vietnam policies of relative disengagement. This sentiment informed Obama’s clean break exit from Iraq (already agreed to by Bush before he left office, as we saw above), his gradual troop reductions in Afghanistan (after an initial surge in 2009), and his controversial decision to not intervene substantively in the Syrian Civil War when rebels rose up against Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. There, he feared that American arms would end up in the wrong hands (especially since ISIS was also fighting Assad), and CIA analysts thought arming rebels wouldn’t have much impact on the ground war. Obama was elected to dial down overseas and once described his foreign policy, off the record, as essentially avoiding “doing stupid s**t.” While this strategy had its critics in elite circles, the truth is that the Americans across the political spectrum were tired of sinking blood and treasure into unwinnable wars and failed attempts at nation-building. Obama’s neocon Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, disagreed with the Syrian decision, contributing to her resignation, and new CIA Director David Petreaus also favored intervention.
While Obama was probably right that America couldn’t have easily influenced Syria’s complicated civil war, it’s also true that the war there has turned into a bloody and intractable humanitarian tragedy that’s led to over six million refugees while ISIS took advantage of the chaos for territorial gain. Russia’s Putin also benefited from the chaos in Syria because the flood of refugees from Syria helped destabilize European politics. That’s one reason why Putin threw his support behind Assad: to help trigger a humanitarian crisis that would encourage a conservative turn in European politics.
While Iraq showed the downside of American overreach, Syria showed the downside of underreach. Donald Trump capitalized on Americans’ conflicted mood in the 2016 campaign by condemning “stupid,” costly overseas wars while simultaneously promising to exert American power by “bombing the s**t” out of anyone like ISIS who crosses America. Trump is not the first to promise more and less simultaneously on foreign policy and he won’t be the last, but that’s easier to talk about in campaigns than to pull off in practice. Richard Nixon recalled Winston Churchill saying: “One can have a policy of audacity or one can follow a policy of caution, but it is disastrous to try to follow a policy of audacity and caution at the same time. It must be one or the other.” Yet, all foreign policy, including that of Nixon’s and Churchill’s, has necessarily been some combination of the two. While Obama and Trump seem as different as any two American presidents, there was similarity between their policies insofar as both wanted to disengage in the Middle East while still fighting ISIS. They differed on Israel and Iran, though, as Obama favored compromise in Israel and negotiating with Iran whereas Trump was unabashedly pro-Israel and promised a better deal with Iran.
Nuclear Proliferation: Iran & North Korea
The problem of nuclear proliferation persists, especially with Iran and North Korea. The Obama administration, in conjunction with other countries including Russia and China, forestalled Iran’s progress on processing uranium for ~ 20 years in exchange for unfreezing assets locked in American and foreign banks and easing economic sanctions. Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — a losing proposition for the U.S. because then Iran has their unfrozen assets back but could resume building a bomb as Trump wasn’t able to rally the other countries to join him in a new round of sanctions to renegotiate a new deal. Disagreements over verification of the Iranian deal and the wisdom of withdrawing led Trump to sever the cord with his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The CIA and Pentagon agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was complying with the deal and thought it was in America’s best interests to use the time the JCPA bought. As for going to war and trying to rebuild Iran’s government from outside, that’s the sort of venture Trump pledged to avoid during his campaign. New National Security Advisor John Bolton, a veteran of the Bush 43 administration during the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, favored a more aggressive approach toward Iran and had been accused of fabricating evidence against Iran the same way that he and Cheney fabricated evidence against Iraq fifteen years earlier (American Conservative). When Joe Biden was elected in 2020, Israel assassinated Iran’s leading nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, presumably to preclude Biden from renewing the JCPA.
The standoff in North Korea has been ongoing for years, with the Korean conflict never having officially ended (the two sides declared an armistice in 1953). Leader Kim Jong-un defiantly develops missiles and bombs with enough range to threaten South Korea, Japan and, increasingly, the United States. Under a series of presidents, the U.S. essentially paid off North Korea to abstain from more arms buildup in what historian Sue Mi Terry called a “provoke-and-get paid” cycle despite each incoming president promising to “get tough.” North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons is understandable. In the recent past, hostile countries that lack WMDs have been conquered: Iraq by the U.S., Libya by NATO-backed rebels, and portions of Ukraine by Russia (Ukraine got rid of their WMDs when it ceased being part of the USSR). The U.S. wants China to bring North Korea to heel, but the Chinese like having a communist buffer state between themselves and U.S.-backed South Korea and Japan, and moreover fear a flood of refugees across their border if North Korea collapses. The notion that North Korea is merely a pawn between China and the U.S. is mistaken, as documents reveal that they’ve been independent actors for a long time, and even during the Korean War theirs was a marriage of convenience. The U.S. should work with China as best it can regarding North Korea, but should be prepared to negotiate or act on their own.
The Iranian and Korean situations are connected as North Korea (or China, who is most important for sanctioning) might suspect that America isn’t trustworthy since they pulled out of the Iranian deal. However, renewed sanctions against Kim Jong-un spearheaded by Trump were effective enough to force him to the negotiating table, and Kim and Trump met in Singapore in June 2018 for a summit (above). Without coming to any firm agreements and without North Korea agreeing to any IAEA-type inspections, they laid out a broad framework for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in exchange for American troops withdrawing from South Korea. Trump blindsided the Pentagon by calling off joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Though North Korea has betrayed such promises before and never denuclearized as promised — and other countries point out that the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids new countries from developing the bomb but also calls for countries that already have it, like the U.S., to denuclearize — the meeting was at least an aspirational first step and a welcome pull-back from the jingoist debates of previous months. However, a follow-up meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t go well, with Kim denying that he’d agreed to anything by signing a contract and the U.S. unable to produce any such contract. The Hanoi Talks of early 2019 never got off the ground. North Korea wanted an end to sanctions and an official end to the Korean War, but they only ceased tests temporarily rather than actually getting rid of weapons and they resumed testing in 2020 and continued to stockpile their arsenal. In the meantime, the U.S. has maintained sanctions.
The 9/11 Commission Report
Melvyn Leffler, “Reagan & the Cold War,” UVA Miller Center (6.5.18)
Robert Divine, “Could 9-11 Have Been Prevented?” HNN (5.2002)
Anne Applebaum, “The Bad Guys Are Winning,” Atlantic (11.21)
Mark Rice, “NATO’s New Order: The Alliance After the Cold War,” Origins (4.16)
Mary Elise Sarotte, “A Crash Course In NATO History,” NPR Podcast: 45 Min. (3.17.22)
Peter Baker, “In Ukraine Conflict, Putin Relies On A Promise That Ultimately Wasn’t,” New York Times (1.22)
David Frum, “Trump’s Plan to End Europe,” Atlantic (May 2017)
Stephen Sestanovich, “The Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy,” Atlantic (5.17)
Mitch Lerner, “China Can’t Tame North Korea. The U.S. Has To,” Washington Post (7.5.17)
Aaron David Miller, “What Kushner’s Leaked Speech Gets Wrong About Mideast Peace,” Politico (8.1.17)
Susan Glasser, “Trump, Putin & the New Cold War,” Politico (12.22.17)
Julia Ioffee, “What Putin Really Wants,” Atlantic (1-2.18)
William O. LeoGrande, “Washington Has Meddled In Elections Before,” Conversation (2.26.18)
Casey Michel, “Russia’s Long & Mostly Unsuccessful History of Election Interference,” Politico Magazine (October 2019)
Ron Elving, “Fear of Foreign Interference In U.S. Elections Dates From Nation’s Founding,” NPR (6.14.19)
Gareth Porter, “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign For War With Iran,” American Conservative (3.22.18)
Robert Draper, “Colin Powell Still Wants Answers,” New York Times (7.16.20)
Brief Review of M.E. Sarotte’s Not One Inch: America, Russia & the Making of Post-War Stalemate (Foreign Affairs, 11-12.21)