By Madelyn Hoffman and Ryan Swan
From the Old Cold War to the War on Terror
The four and half decades following World War II were characterized by intense competition with the Soviet Union, which saw the cultivation of weaponry capable of ending all life on earth multiple times over. Massive resources were poured into nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems, before the Kennedy Administration’s Flexible Response Strategy shifted focus to development of advanced conventional capabilities to enable more “credible” military threats. President George H. W. Bush promised these enormous Cold War military investitures would yield a “peace dividend,” realizable upon the dissolution of the Soviet apparatus. However, this high-priced peace was to be short-lived.
The Clinton Administration quickly began to preoccupy itself with transnational organizations in the Middle East (whom the Central Intelligence Agency had provided with extensive funding during the Soviet-backed government’s control of Afghanistan). It undertook bombings in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 and, by the time the Bush Administration came to power, a new national security paradigm centered around transnational actors – dubbed “terrorist organizations” – was reaching maturity. 9/11 solidified this with President Bush proclaiming the “war on terror” to begin with al Qaida, but “not [to] end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
This opened-ended objective, given near carte blanche authorization by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), introduced the war in Afghanistan, an expansive complex of military and clandestine operations spanning more than 70 countries and revamped national security infrastructure, including introduction of the Patriot Act and creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Intelligence.
Together with the 2003 invasion of Iraq – perhaps the gravest war crime of the new millennium, the US counterterrorism paradigm has consumed the 21st century with perpetual American force employment against an expansive list of self-identified threats. The toll has been severe in terms of human life (240 thousand civilians and 15 thousand US armed service members between 2003 and 2018 just in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – not to mention innumerable more lost and affected lives in other regions scourged by US operations) and financial costs (Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates expenditures for post-9/11 wars between fiscal years 2001 and 2019 to be $5.9 trillion, with an additional $808 billion predicted over the next four years; the long term healthcare costs of the veterans of just Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to increase the tab by another $1.8 trillion over the coming years).
What has the United States gained during the past nearly 20 years of continual war – a war that former vice-president Dick Cheney predicted back in 2001 “would not end in our lifetimes?” US militarism has led to the destruction of ancient cities throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This militarism has resulted in the creation of the largest number of refugees worldwide since the end of World War II, many from nations experiencing conflict as the result of US aggression.
Millions of people took to the streets in 2002 and 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq, knowing full well that the invasion was based on lies and the violation of international law. The creation of a coalition for the operation of “shock and awe” set off a chain of events that leave us almost twenty years later wondering how to stop the on-going cycle of violence. Those who protested in opposition to these wars knew that the use of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to being illegal, immoral and unjustified, was of suspect strategic calculus given the illogic of ending “terror” through war – itself an act of state-sponsored “terror.”
Retired General Wesley Clark publicized the strategy of the Project for a New American Century described in their late 20th century publication “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” He discussed what he was told by his superiors shortly after 9/11. He reported that there were plans to replace the governments of seven countries within five years – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and finishing off with Iran.
The absurdity of this strategy was evidenced on February 26, 2021 when the Biden administration bombed Syria (a country the U.S. is in illegally and against the will of the Syrian people) in retaliation for, as stated in the official explanation, an Iranian bombing of a US military base in Iraq (another country the US is in illegally and against the will of the Iraqi people), an action that the Iranians said was in retaliation for the illegal assassination of General Soliemani of Iran while he was in Iraq.
From the War on Terror to the New Cold War
For all its overt focus on the Middle East counterterrorism wars, the Bush Administration also quietly went about needling newly Putin-controlled Russia. In 2002, it unilaterally withdrew from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to act upon a reinvigorated Reagan-era interest in extravagant (albeit operationally dubious) missile defense concepts, markedly increasing spending in this area. The claim that this new missile defense program, with installations in former Soviet bloc nations, was directed at Iran and North Korea was but a thinly veiled challenge directed at Russia and China, which viewed these systems as a direct threat. Furthermore, the Administration indulged its appetite for (selective) democracy promotion, lavishing funds on movements in Georgia and Ukraine directed against pro-Russian leaders and floating the idea of possible North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership.
The Obama Administration picked right up where its predecessors left off, only this time in less discrete fashion with unabashed enthusiasm for pro-Western regime change in Ukraine and the proclaimed “pivot to Asia” policy. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was concluded in 2011, but President Obama’s Nobel Prize-wining “Prague Vision” for a world without nuclear weapons translated in practice into the introduction of a trillion dollar nuclear modernization program, contributing in no small measure to renewed nuclear tensions with Russia and China. The stated goal of this so-called modernization program is to create an arsenal both larger and more powerful than what existed at the height of the first Cold War, at a time when the world should be headed in the opposite direction. While loudly advertising the (unrealized) objective of winding down the post-9/11 wars, the Administration effectively cemented the foundation for a return to Cold War-like rivalry with Russia, and now China.
The Trump Administration then officially announced the paradigmatic shift with its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review boldly proclaiming the “return of major power competition.” Established arms control frameworks were liquidated and plans for arms racing in the old nuclear and new high tech domains was openly shared. Just two months into office, the Biden Administration is making clear its maintenance of the charted course toward increasingly adversarial relations with Russia and China. This was as predictable as it is dangerous. During the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Biden criticized Donald Trump for not being tough enough on China. In addition, steady referral to alleged “Russian meddling in U.S. elections” obscures the fact that the US is the global champion in such matters and deliberately adds to the tension between the two countries. Biden’s calling Putin a “killer” without agreeing to any ensuing diplomatic discussions reflects poorly on his intentions and does nothing to de-escalate the tension.
A new Cold War with attendant arms racing in traditional and novel domains only needlessly increases the risk of confrontation (either intentional or inadvertent) involving the use of calamitous weapons capabilities (e.g., nuclear, large-scale cyber, etc.). It advances strategically suspect goals. War is not fightable between major powers without incursion of drastic costs. These costs far outweigh any possible benefits gained. Such an arms race also fails to yield durable strategic advantages – particularly between economically well-matched adversaries, like the US and China. It also results in tremendous economic waste (allocation of finite state resources to dangerous and useless means at a time when funding is desperately needed for provision of basic social services, infrastructure improvements, public health measures, and more).
In observing the impact of the US permanent war economy on the global and domestic population, the anti-war, pro-peace and justice movement in the United States proposes the following ways of stopping these endless wars:
- The US government can cut the military budget by 75% as proposed by the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins. Even with such a cut in the budget, the U.S. would still spend more on its military budget than the next 8 countries combined. These cuts should include shutting down of many of the more than 800 U.S. military bases operating overseas. With a military budget currently at approximately $740 billion, such a cut would free up $555 billion to spend on programs to help our communities in such possible areas as public education, single-payer healthcare, fighting against climate change, rebuilding roads and bridges, tuition-free college, an end to student loan debt, and a continuation of the moratorium on rents and evictions, especially during the on-going pandemic.
- The US government and the Russian government should lead the rest of the nuclear weapons possessing countries toward signing and ratifying the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became law at the end of January 2021. Over 120 countries initially supported conclusion of the Treaty and 52 have now signed and ratified it, leading to its entry into legal force. There is no good reason for the US to reject this Treaty. It works in conjunction with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to accomplish abolition of nuclear weapons, something the majority of the world’s population understands is a threat to all humanity and life on earth.
- The US needs to honor the wishes of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and withdraw its troops from both countries immediately.
- The US must not only stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, but it must make sure that the Saudi government stops the bombing of Yemen, which many international humanitarian organizations consider to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Additionally, the U.S. and its proxies, including Saudi Arabia, must withdraw their troops from Syria, where the troops are neither wanted nor needed.
- The US must also withdraw its support for the Israeli government until their brutal occupation of Palestine is ended and the practice of continuing to annex more Palestinian land ends. In addition, the creation of a nuclear weapons free Middle East could help, as it would subject Israeli nuclear weapons to international scrutiny.
In conclusion, the post-9/11 world is in dire need of redirection away from increased militarization and confrontation and more toward peace and recovery from a global pandemic. The expenditure of trillions of dollars on war and preparation for war, not only by the US, but by all who are at risk due to heightened tensions and US unilateral imposition of economic sanctions, needs to stop. Funds need to be removed from weapons development and other aggressive ends and instead used to reclaim that long-lost and much needed “peace dividend.”
For more information about these and other issues, please view the UN Green Party Peace Action Committee’s March 18th webinar titled “Post-9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective” (the video begins at about 2 minutes in).
Madelyn Hoffman is co-chair of the Green Party USA’s Peace Action Committee and was the Green Party of New Jersey’s candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020. She was the director of NJ Peace Action (formerly NJ SANE founded in 1957) from 2000 to 2018.
Ryan R. Swan serves as California Representative on the Peace Action Committee of the Green Party of the United States. He holds a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law and an M.Phil. in international relations and politics from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is an incoming researcher in arms control and emerging technologies at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.