Pankaj Mishra writes: The Cold War credentialed a kind of “thinker” who cannot think without the help of violently opposed abstractions: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, liberal democracy versus totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Forced into premature retirement by the unexpected collapse of Communism in 1989, this thinker re-emerged after Sept. 11, convinced there was another worthy enemy in the crosshairs: Islamic totalitarianism. Unchastened by a decade of expensive, counterproductive and widely despised wars, these laptop generals have been trying to reboot their dated software yet again as Russian President Vladimir Putin formalizes his annexation of Crimea.
As laments about Western weakness and spine-stiffening exhortations fill the air, it’s worth recalling the legacy of the central episode of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
The invasion was promoted by the Soviets’ serious misjudgment of the U.S.’s intentions in the region. As the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, helped consolidate history’s first global jihadist campaign, it came to be prolonged by actual American actions. Questioned in 1998 about the U.S. role in the making of Islamic extremists, Zbigniew Brzezinski could confidently retort, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
Three years later, of course, a handful of stirred-up Muslims launched the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil, provoking the George W. Bush administration into such hubristic projects as eliminating “terror” worldwide and bringing democracy at gunpoint to the Middle East.
Muslims stirred up and radicalized by these blunders have subsequently ravaged Pakistan and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. U.S. citizens, too, have had to pay a high price — the loss of civil and legal rights — to protect themselves from what was originally a small band of cave-dwelling criminals and fanatics. Meanwhile, as the events of the last month show, the Soviet empire that had allegedly collapsed has returned under a different guise.
It is very likely that Putin’s land grab in Crimea will fail disastrously. As the Russian economy slows down, capital flees the country and domestic unrest grows, Putin’s position will become less than secure. The one thing certain to keep him in power longer, as well as weaken his opponents, would be a Western overreaction like those of the Jimmy Carter and Bush administrations in 1979 and 2001. [Continue reading…]