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We don’t need to return to Cold War spending levels—we’re already there

Many analysts and decision-makers believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heralds the start of a new Cold War. If so, the Pentagon will receive more trillions of dollars over the years, along with a more assertive military posture across the globe.

It’s important to remember that the United States is already spending significantly more than it did at the height of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or, in fact, at any other point in that first Cold War before this country gives in to calls for a return to Pentagon spending in the style of the Cold War. The proposed Pentagon budget from the Biden administration (as well as related work like nuclear-warhead development at the Department of Energy) was already guaranteed to soar even higher than that, possibly to $800 billion or more for 2023. This was the case even before the invasion of Ukraine started.

Returning Pentagon funding to Cold War levels would result in spending reductions rather than increases

The irony is that returning Pentagon funding to Cold War levels would result in spending reductions rather than increases. That was not at all what many who supported such military expenditures had in mind, even before the current crisis.

In reality, some proponents of increased Pentagon expenditure have promoted numbers that are as incredible as they are stupid. Rich Lowry, the editor of the right-leaning National Review, is in favor of a trillion-dollar military spending plan. At the same time, Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council urged America to prepare for simultaneous battles with China and Russia. He also said that without taxing our resources, Congress “might go so far as to treble its defense budget.” That would equate to an estimated $1.6 trillion in yearly defense spending. Although none of those exorbitant sums is likely to be adopted anytime soon, the fact that they are even being discussed at all indicates the direction in which the Washington discussion about Pentagon expenditure is moving in the wake of the Ukraine tragedy.

We don’t need to return to Cold War

Former officials of the regime are advocating for similarly astronomical military budgets. In a recent Foreign Affairs article headlined “The New Cold War,” Iran/Contra operative and State Department official Elliott Abrams stated that “it should be crystal evident now that a bigger percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] will need to be spent on defense.” Also insisting that “we need a larger, more advanced military in every field, taking full advantage of new technologies to fight in new ways” was former defense secretary Robert Gates in a Washington Post op-ed. It doesn’t matter if the United States already outspends both Russia and China by a 10-to-1 ratio.

In actuality, the Pentagon’s current expenditure levels could easily support both a significant arming of Ukraine and a move of additional US forces to Eastern Europe. However, I don’t anticipate that kind of information to gain much traction because hawkish voices use the Russian invasion to argue for increased military spending. Cries for more are going to overpower reasonable perspectives on the matter, at least for the time being.

A new Cold War could have disastrous repercussions

A new Cold War could have disastrous repercussions in addition to the risk of going over budget and diverting funds that are urgently required to address critical issues like pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice. In order to counterbalance Russian and Chinese dominance, the United States would indeed undertake additional military operations while adopting dubious allies.

Of course, the first Cold War extended far beyond Europe as Washington supported authoritarian right-wing regimes and uprisings worldwide at the expense of millions of deaths. Washington participated in violent military coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, fought in Vietnam, and supported oppressive regimes and proxies in Afghanistan, Angola, Central America, and Indonesia, among other heinous military disasters. All of those were justified by exaggerated and occasionally false claims that the Soviet Union was involved in those nations, as well as by the alleged need to protect “the free world,” a phrase from the Cold War that President Biden all-too-ominously revived in his most recent State of the Union address (assumedly, yet another sign of things to come).

Democracies and autocracies

In fact, his framing of the contemporary international conflict as one between “democracies and autocracies” has a decidedly Cold War ring to it and is rife with paradoxes, much like the term “free world.” Even while they continue to wage dangerous wars and routinely abuse the human rights of their own citizens, all too many autocracies and repressive regimes, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates to the Philippines, already receive an abundance of US weapons and military training. Washington always bases its backing of such regimes on their alleged contributions to controlling or combating current dangers, whether they come from Iran, China, Russia, or another nation.

You can count on one thing: Washington’s backing for oppressive regimes will only increase in light of the increased rhetoric about Russia and China attempting to undercut American power. That might have devastating results, which would be disastrous.

It’s time to remind ourselves of the worldwide effects of the last Cold War before Washington starts a new one.

First World War: The Coups

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is frequently credited with ending the Korean War and denouncing the military-industrial complex. He oversaw the coups against countries allegedly leaning toward communism or even just establishing closer ties with the Soviet Union, sowing the seeds of instability and repression worldwide.

With Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA orchestrated a coup in 1953 that resulted in Mohammed Mosaddeqh’s removal as prime minister. The CIA stated the Cold War and the dangers of leaving Iran “exposed to Soviet attack” as justifications for their activities in a now-declassified paper. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979 after a coup that placed Reza Pahlavi as the country’s shah and began 26 years of oppressive rule.

Letting the economy scream

The Guatemalan administration of President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954 by a coup led by the Eisenhower administration. His “crime” was trying to redistribute to poor peasants part of the property owned by powerful landowners, such as the United Fruit Company, which has its headquarters in the US. False accusations of communism in the making and an intrusion of Soviet influence into the Western Hemisphere were made in response to Arbenz’s internal reforms. CIA Director Allen Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, had strong ties to the United Fruit Company. Still, no one in the Eisenhower administration brought this up. A terrible civil war in Guatemala that claimed up to 200,000 lives would rage for the next four decades due to such US interference.

By orchestrating a coup in 1973 that toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government and installed the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger were acting in accordance with Eisenhower’s strategy. That coup was made possible in part by economic warfare, or, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described it, “letting the economy scream,” and in part by CIA-sponsored bribery and assassinations aimed to support right-wing elements there. Tens of thousands of Chileans were tortured, imprisoned, and killed as a result of the coup, which Kissinger would defend by saying: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and let a country go Communist owing to the recklessness of its own people.”

Vietnam’s Legacies

The disastrous US participation in Vietnam was undoubtedly the most tragic example of a war justified on anti-communist grounds during the Cold War. More than 500,000 American soldiers would be sent there, more bombs would be dropped there than the US did during World War II, large portions of the Vietnamese countryside would be destroyed, villagers in My Lai and other villages would be massacred, 58,000 US soldiers would perish, and up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians would also perish—all. At the same time, Washington systematically lied to the American public about the “progress” of the war.

During the administrations of Presidents Harry Truman and Eisenhower, the US began to actively engage in Vietnam as Washington funded a French colonial campaign there to quell an independence movement. Following the disastrous French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States assumed control of the conflict, first through covert operations and later through counterinsurgency initiatives supported by the John F. Kennedy administration. Finally, Washington began an all-out invasion and bombing assault under President Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to being a massive international crime, the Vietnam War would turn out to be highly anti-democratic, as it became a Cold War pattern for Washington. Undoubtedly, Ho Chi Minh, the independence leader, would have prevailed in the national election mandated by the 1954 Geneva Accords, which were signed after the French defeat. Instead, the Eisenhower administration supported a right-wing, undemocratic government in South Vietnam because it believed the “domino hypothesis,” which was then popular, would cause other nations to collapse under the sway of the Soviet Union if communism were to succeed anyplace.

Vietnam Syndrome

In fact, that far-off conflict would ignite a burgeoning antiwar movement in this nation and give rise to the “Vietnam Syndrome,” or widespread opposition to military engagement worldwide. That led to an increased reliance on the CIA, but it also helped keep the United States out of major battles involving boots on the ground until the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The post-Vietnam “style of war” would instead be characterized by several proxy wars supported by the US in other countries and the widespread arming of oppressive regimes.

The Nixon Doctrine, which avoided large-scale action in favor of supporting American proxies like the Shah of Iran and the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, was born partly due to the failure in Vietnam. Those two autocrats frequently oppressed their own people while attempting to quell social unrest in their areas. In the instance of Indonesia, Suharto presided over a violent conflict in East Timor that was sanctioned by the Nixon administration and given financial and material support.

The “Freedom Fighters”

Following his election as president in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s administration started to promote aid for the organizations he notoriously referred to as “freedom fighters.” These included the Nicaraguan Contras, Jonas Savimbi’s forces in Angola, and radical mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The US funding and arming of such organizations would have disastrous effects in those nations, paving the way for the emergence of a new generation of corrupt regimes and arming and educating people who would later join Al Qaeda.

The Contras were a right-wing armed rebel group that the CIA pieced together, supported, and equipped. America’s Watch charged them with rape, torture, and the murder of civilians. Due to the Boland Amendment, Congress forbade the Reagan administration from paying them in 1984. (named for Massachusetts Democratic Representative Edward Boland). Officials from the administration then looked for a solution. In the end, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, came up with a plan to provide Iran with arms while giving the Contras the excess money from selling those weapons. The incident, which came to be known as the “Iran/Contra controversy,” showed how far enthusiastic Cold Warriors would go in order to defend even the worst offenders as long as they were on the “right side” (in every sense) of the conflict.

Free world

The United States reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one of the nation’s worst mistakes during the previous Cold War, and it is still an issue for the country today. President Jimmy Carter’s government increased weapon deliveries through a clandestine arms pipeline to a loose alliance of dissident militants known as the mujahideen in response to worries about that invasion. In 1983, President Reagan intensified his support for the mujahideen, including hosting a meeting in the Oval Office with their commanders. Naturally, that alliance would turn out to be disastrous as Afghanistan fell into civil conflict following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal. Some of the “freedom fighters” Reagan had extolled were instrumental in the formation of Al Qaeda and, ultimately, the Taliban. Although the mujahideen in Afghanistan were not entirely the fault of the United States, it does carry some blame for all that happened after.

The Biden administration should closely examine the Cold War strategy of striving to widen the definition of the “free world” as it works to operationalize its policy of democracy versus authoritarianism. Only three of the 28 attempts at regime change in the United States would result in the establishment of a lasting democracy, according to a study by political scientists Alexander Downes and Jonathon Monten. However, although being implemented under the pretense of fostering “freedom” in “the free world,” most of the Cold War initiatives mentioned above would destroy democracy.

One more Cold War?

If Cold War II breaks out, it is unlikely to simply repeat the events of Cold War I in Europe or elsewhere in the world. However, the harm caused by the “good versus evil” paradigm that guided Washington’s policy during the Cold War should serve as a lesson. In a world where Washington’s failed war on terrorism has never really ended, there is a significant possibility that the next period will be distinguished by ongoing US intervention or interference in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in order to fend off Chinese and Russian influence.

With the exception of Antarctica, the United States already maintains 750 military sites abroad, more than 200,000 soldiers on active duty, and ongoing terrorist operations in 85 nations. The US military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere should have drastically decreased with the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the substantial curtailment of US operations in Iraq and Syria. It’s possible that Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may now prevent the military from making the necessary cuts.

The language of “us versus them” and the international military maneuvers that are anticipated to take place in the upcoming years offer a threat to deflect focus and resources away from the greatest dangers to humanity, particularly the existential threat posed by climate change. Additionally, it might draw attention away from our country, which is on the verge of disintegrating. The decision to start a new Cold War at this time should be viewed as first-rate foolishness, not to mention a failure to learn from the past.

Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network

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