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The Next Cold War

By David Hazony



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A new Cold War is upon us. Though there is no Soviet Union today, the enemies of Western democracy, supported by a conglomerate of Islamic states, terror groups, and insurgents, have begun to work together with a unity of purpose reminiscent of the Soviet menace: Not only in funding, training, and arming those who seek democracy’s demise; not only in mounting attacks against Israel, America, and their allies around the world; not only in seeking technological advances that will enable them to threaten the life of every Western citizen; but also in advancing a clear vision of a permanent, intractable, and ultimately victorious struggle against the West—an idea they convey articulately, consistently, and with brutal efficiency. It is this conceptual strategic clarity which gives the West’s enemies a leg up, even if they are far inferior in number, wealth, and weaponry. From Tehran to Tyre, from Chechnya to the Philippines, from southern Iraq to the Afghan mountains to the madrassas of London and Paris and Cairo, these forces are unified in their aim to defeat the West, its way of life, its political forms, and its cause of freedom. And every day, because of this clarity, their power and resources grow, as they attract allies outside the Islamic world: In Venezuela, in South Africa, in North Korea.
At the center of all this, of course, is Iran. A once-friendly state has embarked on an unflinching campaign, at considerable cost to its own economy, to attain the status of a global power: Through the massive infusion of money, materiel, training, and personnel to the anti-Western forces in Lebanon (Hezbollah), the Palestinian Authority (Hamas and Islamic Jihad), and the Sunni and Shi’ite insurgencies of Iraq; through its relentless pursuit of nuclear arms, long-range missiles, and a space program; through its outsized armed forces and huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; through its diplomatic initiatives around the world; and through its ideological battle against democracy, Zionism, and the memory of the Holocaust. For the forces of Islamic extremism and political jihad, Iran has become the cutting edge of clarity.
 
The West, on the other hand, enjoys no such clarity. In America, Iraq has become the overriding concern, widely seen as a Vietnam-style “quagmire” claiming thousands of American lives with no clear way either to win or to lose. (As the bells of the 2006 Congressional elections continue tolling in American ears, it is hard to hear the muezzins of the Middle East calling upon the faithful to capitalize on Western malaise.) Europeans continue to seek “diplomatic solutions” even as they contend with powerful and well-funded Islamists in their midst and their friends among the media and intellectual elites—forces that stir public opinion not against Iran and Syria, who seek their destruction, but against their natural allies, America and Israel. Throughout the West we now hear increasingly that a nuclear Iran is something one has to “learn to live with,” that Iraq needs an “exit strategy,” and that the real key to peace lies not in victory but in brokering agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and “engaging” Syria and Iran. The Israelis, too, suffer from a lack of clarity: By separating the Palestinian question from the struggle with Hezbollah and Iran, and by shifting the debate back to territorial concession and prisoner exchange, Israelis incentivize aggression and terror, ignore the role Hamas plays in the broader conflict, and send conciliatory signals to the Syrians. Like the Americans with Iraq, Israelis have allowed themselves to lose sight of who their enemies are, how determined they are, and what will be required to defeat them.
The greatest dangers to the West and Israel, therefore, lie not in armaments or battle plans, but in our thinking. Like World War II and the Cold War, this conflict cannot be won without first achieving clarity of purpose. Even the most urgently needed actions, such as stopping the Iranian nuclear effort, require leaders who understand the nature of the threat and have sufficient public support to enable them to act decisively. To achieve this, however, requires a major, immediate investment in the realm of ideas—a battle for understanding that must be won before the battle for freedom can be effectively engaged.
Israel, in particular, has a pivotal role to play. As the front-line state in the conflict, and the lightning rod of Islamist aggression, the world looks to Israel to see how it will respond. From its birth, Israel has served as a model to the West: In deepening its democratic character while fighting a series of wars; in fighting terror effectively, from the defeat of the PLO in the early 1970s in Gaza, to the Entebbe raid in 1976, through Operation Defensive Shield in 2002; and striking preemptively against enemies who combined genocidal rhetoric with the acquisition of sophisticated weapons, as with Egypt and Syria in 1967, and Iraq in 1981. Israel can again serve as a model of a state proud of its heritage, a democracy that knows how to fight against its tyrannical foes without sacrificing its own character. But to do this will require that Israel, too, disperse the conceptual fog in which it has been operating, recognize the strategic costs of ambiguous outcomes such as with the Lebanon war last summer, and adopt a clear and coherent vision and plan of action. If the West is to act decisively and with clarity, it may need Israel to show the way.
 
What would such a struggle look like? We should not fear to call this conflict by its name: It is the Second Cold War, with Iran as the approximate counterpart of the Soviet Union. Like the USSR, Iran is an enemy that even the mighty United States will probably never meet in full force on the battlefield and instead must fight via its proxies, wherever they are found. Like the Soviet Union, the Ayatollahs’ regime is based on an ideological revolution that repudiates human liberty and subjects its political opponents to imprisonment and death, a regime which, in order to maintain its popular support, must continue to foment similar revolutions everywhere it can, to show that it is on the winning side of history. And like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Iranian regime today has two clear weaknesses, which could ultimately spell its downfall: Economic stagnation and ideological disaffection. With unemployment and inflation both deep in double digits; an increasing structural dependence on oil revenue; a negligible amount of direct foreign investment; and a stock market that has declined over 30 percent since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s heavy investment in other people’s wars and its own weapons and terrorist groups must in the end exact a price in terms of support for the regime. Today, moreover, the great majority of Iranians do not identify with the government’s Islamist ideology, and among young people the regime is widely derided. (On this, see Marla Braverman’s review of two new books on the subject, on p. 132 in the current issue.)
Is it possible to bring about the fall of revolutionary Iran? Despite the obvious differences, there is a great deal the West can learn from the way victory was found in the first Cold War. Led by the United States, Western countries in the 1980s mounted a campaign on a wide range of fronts—military, technological, diplomatic, public relations, and covert operations—to convince the Soviet elites that their regime was failing at every turn, and was headed for collapse. By deliberately escalating the arms race and through trade sanctions on the Soviets, America increased the pressure on the Soviet economy. By supporting dissident groups, sending radio transmissions into the Soviet Empire, and making dramatic pronouncements such as Ronald Reagan’s famous Berlin Wall speech in 1987, the West emboldened the regime’s internal opponents. And by supporting anti-Communist forces around the world, from Latin America to Africa to Western Europe to Afghanistan, the West halted the expansion of the Communist bloc and even began to roll it back. In all cases the goal was the same: To make it clear to the ranks of Soviet elites, upon whom the regime’s legitimacy continued to depend, that they were on the wrong side of history.
When taken in combination with the Soviet Union’s failing economy and widespread ideological disaffection among the populace—much as we see in Iran today—it was possible for the West’s multi-front strategy to bring about the downfall of what was, during the time of Jimmy Carter, believed to be an unstoppable, expanding historical juggernaut for whom the best the West could hope was “containment” and “détente.” Its vast nuclear arsenals, its pretensions to global dominance, its coherent world-historical ideology–none of these could protect it against the determined, united efforts of the free world. But it required, above all, a spiritual shift of momentum which began at home: A belief that victory was possible, that the Soviet Union was impermanent, and that concerted effort could change history. It required a new clarity of purpose.
 
By most measures, Iran is an easier mark than the Soviet Union. It does not yet have nuclear weapons or ICBMs; its Islamist ideology has less of a universal appeal; its tools of thought control are vastly inferior to the gulag and the KGB; and its revolution is not old enough to have obliterated the memory of better days for much of its population. In theory at least, it should be much easier for the West to mount a similar campaign of relentless pressure on the regime—from fomenting dissent online, to destabilizing the regime through insurgent groups inside Iran, to destroying the Iranian nuclear project, to ever-deeper economic sanctions, to fighting and winning the proxy wars that Iran has continued to wage—in order to effect the kind of change of momentum needed to enable the Iranian people to bring their own regime down the way the peoples under communism did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet 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. For despite their weakness on paper, the forces of jihad are arrayed in full battle armor, and are prepared to fight to the end. What they lack in technological and industrial sophistication, they more than make up for in charisma, public-relations acumen, determination, ideological coherence, and suicidal spirit. Above all, they possess a certainty, a clarity, and a will to sacrifice which will greatly increase their chances of victory, and of continued expansion, until they are met with an equally determined enemy. 
The fall of the Iranian regime will not end the global jihad. Beyond the messianic Shi’ite movement, there is still a world of Sunni and Wahhabi revolutionaries, from al-Qaida to Hamas, determined to make war on the West even without Iran’s help—just as anti-American communism did not end with the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet there can be no question that today, it is Iran that has earned the greatest admiration, given the global jihad its greatest source of hope and funds, and racked up the most impressive victories, taking on the West and its allies throughout the Middle East—and especially in Iraq, where its proxy insurgencies have frustrated American efforts and even brought about a shift in the internal politics of the United States. Iran is not the only foe, but it is the leader among them. It is only through Iran’s defeat that the tide of the Second Cold War will be turned.
 
David Hazony
March 15, 2007

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