Fighting the New Cold War and the Old One

No, the new Cold War is not a reference to chilly relations between Putin's Russia and the U.S., although some have warned of a new cold war on that front. The new Cold War I have in mind is the one to which Seymour Hersh refers in a scary article in the current New Yorker. Hersh explains that the saber-rattling at Iran is part of a larger Bush administration policy to side with the Sunnis against an emerging "Shiite crescent" in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon in a Middle Eastern cold war. Working behind the scenes with the Saudis, Hersh's sources say, the administration has been seeking to counter the spread of Iranian influence. The article is scary because it notes that many of the foot soldiers in the confrontation with the Shiites are al Qaeda or members of similar groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and that these people hate Americans (whom they regard as crusading infidels) even more than they hate Shiites (whom they regard as apostates). With friends like these . . . .

From a certain, reality-based, perspective, the new Bush policy is reckless bordering on insane. Even while we're battling a mostly Sunni insurgency in Iraq, and after having eliminated the most effective bulwark against Iran (Saddam Hussein), we're confronting Iran in a broader war between Sunnis and Shiites. Under these circumstances, one only hopes that this confrontation remains a cold war, rather than becoming a very hot one. (Obviously, the part in Iraq is already boiling, and the piece in Lebanon is at least simmering.)

But from another perspective, there's a certain logic to the current policy. Recall that according to Richard Clarke, in the immediate wake of 9/11 Rumsfeld wanted to go after Iraq because it had more targets than Afghanistan. (In an interview with Jim Lehrer Rumsfeld denied making this comment or says he was joking if he did or that Dick Clarke must not like him or something.) Of course, that's insane. As Clarke notes, it would be like attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. Yet if your whole approach to military strategy is rooted in the cold war (the old one, that is) then you'll see nation-states as the main threat. That's why the Bush administration came into power and immediately shifted national security attention from al Qaeda to Iraq. That's why the administration has so botched the reconstruction jobs in Afghanistan and Iraq---because they see aggressive states as posing the real threat, underestimating the danger of stateless terrorists operating out of failed states. And that's why now, even as Iraq is in chaos, the focus has shifted to the most menacing nation-state threat (assuming the North Koreans remain bought out): Iran.

Or not. Perhaps psy-ops agents within the Pentagon deliberately sold Hersh a bill of goods so as to spook the Iranians, and thus improve the American bargaining position in the "neighbors conference" that the U.S. has just agreed to join. That would at least suggest a non-insane rationality behind the current policy.