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Letter to the Editor: The Next Cold War

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
Summer 5767 / 2007, No. 29


To the Editors:

Amid America’s troubled war in Iraq, Israel’s frustrations in confronting Hezbollah and Hamas, and Iran’s blustery belligerence, David Hazony (“The Next Cold War,” AZURE 28, Spring 2007) is right to sound the alarms and exhort the West to remain firm in its struggle against Islamic extremism. But his analysis is marred by dangerous hyperbole, prompting him to violate his own admonition that what the West most needs today is conceptual strategic clarity.

Hazony commits four intellectual errors in trying to make the case that “a new Cold War is upon us” and that today’s threat is tantamount to that posed by the Soviet bloc. First, he exaggerates the material and ideological threat posed by Islamic extremism. To be sure, Islamic extremists have plenty of financial backers and access to the weapons and explosives that they need to ply their trade. But they do not have the backing of a major industrialized state nor the vast conventional and nuclear capabilities maintained by the Warsaw Pact.

On the contrary, Islamic extremists prey on weakness and disaffection. They set up shop primarily in weak and failing states that are unable to establish effective control over their territory. Furthermore, their ranks and geopolitical footprint are miniscule compared to the communist bloc, which reached from Central Europe to East Asia and had proxies and allies in virtually every quarter of the globe. Extremist cells may be operating on a global basis, but comparing them to the Soviet Union is only to accord them the inflated status that they seek, but hardly deserve.

Second, Hazony is mistaken to claim that the disparate groups that have taken up the cause of Islamic extremism “have begun to work together with a unity of purpose reminiscent of the Soviet [Union].” Anything but. The Islamist movement lacks centralized coordination and is far from ideologically unified. Fueled by the sectarian violence in Iraq and Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, the cleavage between Shi’ites and Sunnis is growing. Tehran’s hardliners and al-Qaida’s leaders are rivals, not co-conspirators. And the divisions are not just along sectarian lines. In al-Anbar province in Iraq, Sunni tribesmen are now taking up arms against their Sunni brethren in al-Qaida.

To portray the Islamists as unified is more than an academic mistake. One of the important tools the West has at its disposal is exploiting and indeed fostering divisions within the extremists’ ranks. To assume the enemy is monolithic would be to overlook a key weapon in the West’s arsenal.

Third, Hazony overstates Iran’s power and sway when he contends that the country is “the approximate counterpart of the Soviet Union.” Iran’s material capability and political reach are paltry when compared to the Soviet Union’s. The government in Tehran is unquestionably abhorrent, but that’s one of the main reasons that Iran is today so isolated diplomatically. And, as Hazony acknowledges, the regime is hardly on stable ground. It faces “economic stagnation and ideological disaffection,” two weaknesses “which could ultimately spell its downfall.” But Hazony illogically twists this accurate assessment, contending that “it is precisely because of the Ayatollahs’ apparent frailty that the West has failed to notice the similarities between this menace and the Soviet one a generation ago.” The West has failed to notice these similarities because there are none.

Finally, in his zealous effort to convince the West to man the barricades and put “relentless pressure” on Iran, Hazony misconstrues the nature of the strategy that enabled the West to prevail during the Cold War. To be sure, coercive pressure–escalating the arms race, imposing trade sanctions, forming a network of military alliances–played a vital role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. But so did engagement. Negotiations over arms control and other policy issues, cultural and educational exchanges, and the flow of information helped undermine the ideological foundation of the Soviet regime. Exploiting splits within the communist world was also critical, with President Richard Nixon’s successful opening to China a turning point in the trajectory of the Cold War.

In similar fashion, the West needs to exhibit unstinting resolve to prevail against the forces of Islamic extremism. But as during the Cold War, what’s required is a mix of coercive pressure and deft engagement, not ideological and strategic excess. Hazony is right to call for conceptual clarity. But such clarity requires nuance and balance, not exaggerated claims that the West is now in a new Cold War. The Bush administration’s disastrous war in Iraq has made all too clear the consequences and costs of strategic mythmaking and threat inflation.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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