Lessons from the Bloc

Lessons from the Bloc

Mini Teaser: What the collapse of the Soviet Union should have taught us about Iraq.

by Author(s): Robert D. English

Perhaps it is a conceit of Americans' self-image as one of the greatest powers in history that motivates comparisons with ancient Athens and Rome in seeking to explain a singularly disastrous foreign escapade. Or maybe the hubris of earlier empires really does offer better insight than the omnipresent Munich and Vietnam analogies into a folly that swiftly took us from "America's greatest strategic triumph" in the Cold War to "our greatest strategic blunder" in Iraq. Yet unexamined is still another perspective-that the Cold War's end is not just a reference point for how fast and how far our influence has fallen, but is the very episode whose misunderstanding lured us into such a colossal misadventure in the first place. Put differently, rather than the lessons of classical Greece and Rome, or of mid twentieth-century Central Europe and Southeast Asia, we might more profitably have pondered experience much closer to hand-that of contemporary central Eurasia. Instead of wondering how our leaders could have been so misguided we might instead ask, "Didn't they learn anything from the Cold War's end and aftermath?"

Indeed, better insight into communism's collapse would have cautioned against much of our Iraq folly. From the limits of "hard" coercive power and the importance of "soft" ideals and persuasion, to the real costs of "shock therapy" economics and the need to preserve vital state functions after regime change, key lessons have been on offer for over a decade. But because they contradicted triumphalist beliefs about our Cold-War victory, or drew attention to unpleasant details such as the plight of transition's "losers" or the causes of ethnic strife, they were ignored. The Bush Administration has not lacked for officials with Soviet bloc expertise. But so "militarized" was their outlook, and so uninterested have they been in the societal costs of communism's collapse or the problems of nation-building that followed, that they did not heed these critical lessons.

The Cancer of Corruption

Consider, for example, the endemic corruption that has engulfed Iraq and subverts efforts to rebuild the country, provide vital services, and improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. The single most persistent and pernicious problem across the entire post-communist area-from St. Petersburg to Sarajevo, Bratislava to Bucharest-is the public and private-sector corruption that slows growth, demoralizes the struggling poor and middle-classes, and disillusions ever more once-enthusiastic "Westernizers" in even mostly successful transition states (witness last fall's mass protests in the Hungarian capital of Budapest). In Russia, it was chiefly disgust at the rampant criminalization of the 1990s-the payoffs, racketeering and gangsterism that benefited a choice few "rent-seeking" oligarchs and "insider-trading" bankers while social services and living standards collapsed-that generated broad support for President Vladimir Putin's turn to authoritarian, state-corporatist policies.

Building on the ruins of state socialism, some of this chaos and the consequent anti-market, anti-Western backlash was probably inevitable. But even once-doctrinaire advocates of shock therapy, including some of its architects from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, now admit that their insistence on rapid privatization of state industry and social services-begun without first creating vital legal-regulatory frameworks or safety nets-led to much unnecessary waste, impoverishment and an orgy of corruption. Many non-specialists are surprised to learn that long after communism's collapse most citizens of the successor states live no better, and often much worse, than they did under the old system. From Russia to Romania, poverty, crime and corruption continue to fuel an anti-Western, national-chauvinistic force in politics. And so one is amazed to read in the new Iraq War literature not of competence guided by real-world experience, but of naivety fueled by ideology. Under our Coalition Provisional Authority, befuddled senior Republican loyalists and twenty-something political appointees tinkered with the tax code, designed a utopian private healthcare system and computerized the Baghdad stock exchange while all around them the state was looted, basic social services collapsed, and the country swiftly descended into chaos.

How could they not have foreseen this breakdown-surely the most consequential failure of our entire Iraq escapade? How could they have failed to heed the previous decade's painful post-communist experience (along with the advice of many Iraq and Mideast experts) and not only repeated but even magnified all the recent mistakes in transition politics and economics? "Stuff happens", rationalized a dismissive Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the chaos grew. Yes it does, particularly when the old system is destroyed with little regard for the difficult work of preparing a new one and instead blind faith is placed in the gratitude of the liberated masses and the magic of the free market. The initial blunder of disbanding the Iraqi army and dismissing thousands of experienced managers in a sweeping "de- Ba‘athification" has been acknowledged. But a larger critique of numerous other reconstruction failures-from vast corruption in the oil industry, and the diversion of millions of dollars from unsupervised rebuilding projects, to the pay-offs that permeate everything from small business to national politics-still awaits. Perversely, such criticism was long deflected by the charge that it is "anti-Arab" or "stereotypes Iraqis" as culturally unsuited to free-market democracy. Yet it is simply realistic, and far more sympathetic, to appreciate that any long-tyrannized society could not adapt to Western political-economic models overnight. Imagine how much greater would have been the disorientation and chaos in Russia had it undertaken "shock therapy" not after Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalizing perestroika in the 1980s, but rather in the 1950s, immediately after two decades of Josef Stalin's terrorized totalitarianism? Yet in key respects that was just the situation confronting post-Saddam Iraq in 2003.

Ethnic and Religious Complications

Except that it was further complicated by two other factors-the dislocation of war and the cleavages of sharp ethnic, religious and tribal differences. Thus it was not only the comparatively mild transition woes of Hungary or Poland that should have been studied, but the bitter experience of war-torn Bosnia, Kosovo or Tajikistan that might have induced more caution. Of course there were signs of this danger, and it restrained the first Bush Administration from toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991. Yet even if the second Bush Administration somehow convinced itself that the likelihood of Sunni- Shi‘a-Kurdish conflict was exaggerated, they ought to have considered the Serb-Croat-Bosnian bloodletting that followed the collapse of Yugoslav central authority in 1990, or the Pashtun-Tajik-Uzbek warlordism that ensued after the fall of the Soviet-backed Afghan government in 1992. Mention of Yugoslavia and Afghanistan highlights yet another post-communist lesson that was ignored-namely, the danger of sudden regime change when there are not only sharp regional, economic or cultural cleavages present, but where there is also no critical mass of citizens who identify themselves as members of a common community or nationality. In other words, where the country is simply not a unified nation-state. Yugoslavia, as we should have learned, was one such country, and so are Iraq and Afghanistan, as we are painfully realizing today.

Yet the lessons of Yugoslavia's collapse were ignored in an arrogant disdain of Clinton-era foreign-policy experience, and the lessons of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan were mostly incomprehensible to a neoconservative ideology that brooked no parallel between Kremlin imperialism and American liberation. But for all its brutality and "revolutionary" goals, the original Soviet-backed Afghan government pursued some of the same reforms that the anti-Taliban American campaign would swiftly embrace-in particular, the liberation of women through equal educational and political rights and loosening the hold of the conservative Mullahs over the rural population. And it was popular backlash against such "secularizing" reforms-not, as the neoconservative narrative has it, simply the fact of a Soviet-sponsored regime in Kabul-that helped fuel the mujaheddin rebellion in the first place. One need not equate Soviet and American goals in Afghanistan to appreciate that there were important cultural, not just military, lessons to be gleaned from Moscow's decade-long occupation. As for those military lessons, it is true that our reliance on indigenous warlord-based forces to do most of our fighting in ousting the Taliban was tactically brilliant. But was empowering these opium-dealing power barons in Afghanistan's-or our own-long-run strategic interests?

It was also largely taboo, at least until much later, to point out that the oppressive Taliban regime was to a great extent the product of our own cynical abandonment of that heavily armed, war-torn country once it had served its purpose of bleeding Moscow into an ignominious retreat. Only when Afghanistan again became a U.S. security interest did we again embrace the cause of the long-suffering Afghan people. So is it any surprise that the warlords see their future not in cooperating with President Hamid Karzai to build a unified, democratic country but instead in strengthening their regional power bases and simply outlasting the latest American commitment? And given the evident failures of the current U.S.-led effort to bring stability and economic revival, is it any surprise that many ordinary Afghans today welcome a resurgent Taliban?

Iraq: America's Chechnya?

Sadly, so far has the situation in Iraq deteriorated that it may be the brutalized Russian region of Chechnya that now offers the most important lessons. Again, while many will reject the comparison, it is not the origins of the conflict but the present condition of the rebellious Caucasian republic-after more than a decade of efforts to pacify it-that is at issue. After Chechen insurgents battled Russian forces to a humiliating draw over 1994-1996, a ceasefire (and de facto independence) brought no calm as the republic sank into a morass of feuding clans, criminal gangs, and Islamic fundamentalism. Attacks and hostage-taking raids into neighboring Russian territory grew until Putin decided to reinvade in 1999 (suspicion remains strong that the apartment bombings that provided the casus belli were staged by Russian forces, but undisputed acts of Chechen terrorism were also numerous). Chechnya today is a festering wound, a shattered society whose continued occupation radicalizes the larger Caucasus region but withdrawal from which Moscow fears would encourage more separatism and bolder terrorist attacks. What lessons might this hold for the United States in Iraq?

First, it warns of the criminalization that relentlessly undermines stability, much less hopes for democracy. When not only politics and business but everyday life are permeated with bribe-taking and payoffs-from the courts and schools to housing and healthcare-then the occupier's struggle for "hearts and minds" is in desperate straits. Second, when rival political parties are supplanted by rival sectarian groups, which in turn break down into rival paramilitaries and criminal gangs, then warlordism has trumped the national and even religious cause and the odds of reconciliation grow very long. Chechnya today endures an ongoing "normalization" where the brutality and corruption of the occupiers rivals that of the insurgents, where the young and ambitious seek a better life abroad, and those who remain are nominally ruled by the warlord-cum-president Ramzan Kadyrov (the Moscow-backed strongman who succeeded his assassinated father, Akhmad).

Iraq (and, to some extent, Afghanistan) show disturbing similarities-from the fragmentation of opposition groups and their incipient mutation from national-sectarian parties into organized-criminal warlords, to the mismanagement and corruption of reconstruction monies. So far has the situation slipped from the occupiers' control that many of the millions allocated for stabilizing job-creation and rebuilding efforts are not just wasted, but actually serve to undermine stability by their misappropriation (to favor one feuding faction over another) or diversion (to fund or even arm rival groups). Worse, an inability to halt communal violence leads to ever-more "ethnic cleansing" and a "brain drain" abroad that, as it did in post-communist states such as Bosnia, could leave the remaining population so vengeful and so bereft of its most educated and moderate groups that the chances of postwar reconciliation and revival grow even more remote. Putin has in fact achieved a certain success in pacifying Chechnya, but only at a price in lives, resources and reputation that the United States simply cannot pay (and with a margin of public support that Bush can only envy). Of course, our tasks in Iraq (and Afghanistan) are also much more difficult-not just to neutralize a secessionist challenge and suppress a terrorist threat in a small, contiguous republic, but to build stable, independent countries in vast lands distant from the United States.

Popular Backlash and Elite Disillusion

Singularly focused on regime change, and little interested in the societal costs of the prolonged and painful transitions that ensue, our policymakers appear chronically unable to grasp the popular resentment and backlash that naturally follow. Why are so many former Soviet citizens-and not only Russians-nostalgic for the USSR? Why don't Russians protest the crackdown on entrepreneurial businessmen (the oligarchs who looted their country) instead of backing the authoritarian Putin (who at least arrested Russia's fragmentation and pays their salaries or pensions on time)? Why do so many Russians admire the genocidal Stalin (and so many Iraqis recall a better life under the ruthless Saddam Hussein)? Because for today's Russians, mention of genocide evokes not the terror of the 1930s but the misery of the 1990s, when literally millions of premature deaths caused by disease and malnutrition, alcohol and drugs, or murder and suicide resulted directly from the poverty, disorder and despair of transition. These numerous private tragedies are not so dramatic as Stalin's (or Saddam's) political killings, but they are the contemporary, not historical, experience of countless ordinary Russians. "Genocide" may not be the proper term for Russia's demographic disaster, implying as it does the premeditated destruction of a people. But it is our complacency about this tragedy-and our share of responsibility for it-that leads many Russians to use exactly that word for what they see as a deliberate Western policy of crippling their once-great country. And so in Iraq, as many thousands of "excess deaths" accumulate (over and above the numbers that Saddam regularly killed) as a more-or-less direct result of the chaos we unleashed, U.S. officials downplay or divert responsibility for the carnage while more and more ordinary Iraqis conclude that it was indeed all about oil and military bases, not "liberation."

Returning to the former communist region-and examining the attitudes not just of transition's "losers" but of the more fortunate educated, professional classes-we still find a similar gulf between local attitudes and America's self-perception. Take the case of Russia, where for decades members of the "intelligentsia" were inspired to quiet reformism or even open dissidence by the ideals of postwar America-a country that stood for openness and the rule of law, defense of human rights, and a principled fight against injustice in a foreign policy notable for multilateral cooperation with other liberal democracies. Today, however, pro-American voices in Moscow are few-and not only because of the U.S. role in abetting Russia's collapse in the 1990s. In Russia and Eastern Europe too, many former liberal allies are distressed by the bald cynicism of our foreign policy-insisting on the handover to international tribunals of others' accused war criminals while exempting ourselves from the International Criminal Court, rejecting environmental protections such as Kyoto, selectively violating rules of international trade and tarnishing our reputation for honesty via such practices as the flagrant distortion of intelligence, the concealment of illegal "extraordinary renditions" and the unprecedented manipulation of the news media at home and abroad. While we tell ourselves that it is the injured pride of an ex-superpower that has caused the "defection" of so many once-liberal figures-or simply Putin's repression of "democratic" Russia-many once staunchly pro-American figures have in fact turned away from the United States in a considered response to the perceived betrayal of our own liberal principles.

Pro-democracy forces in the former USSR are also weakened by our double standard of faulting Russia's restrictions on the press or political activism while keeping quiet about nascent totalitarianism in certain resource-rich central Asian states (such as Turkmenistan) or the fully fledged dynastic rule in a key Caspian-basin ally (Azerbaijan). The relentless expansion of NATO in violation of commitments made at the end of the Cold War has provoked just the backlash that its opponents predicted. And the cynicism if not outright dishonesty at so many levels of U.S. policy further erodes our credibility, from the respect accorded State Department reports to trust in our international media such as the Voice of America. Similar examples are legion, but perhaps none reflects how far our moral stock has fallen more than our post-9/11 embrace of torture-something whose practice in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals galvanized anti-communist opinion like nothing else during the late Cold War. Use of the same Abu Ghraib prison once employed by Saddam's torturers for America's most brutal interrogations in Iraq summons a bitter irony perhaps obvious only to veteran human-rights activists-namely, of the similar recycling of infamous tsarist or monarchist prisons and camps by the secret polices of Stalin, Tito, and other communist dictators.

Forgotten Lessons of our Cold War Victory

Current U.S. foreign-policy practices are of course far from the systematic cruelty and disinformation of Soviet-era communist authorities. But much of the world sees in them mainly a difference of degree, not kind. Such policies not only diminish our international influence, they also betray a lack of understanding of the principles that gave us the high ground-and the authority to lead the liberal-democratic West-through decades of Cold War struggle. Such "ideological disarmament" in the midst of global crises, the squandering of our hard-won quotient of what in today's parlance is known as "soft power," is only comprehensible when we realize how one-sided and militarized is the neoconservative view of how we triumphed in the last great global struggle. In their version, the United States prevailed in the Cold War thanks to its "hard power"-we practiced containment (it should have been "rollback," by the way), we met Soviet expansionism with armed force, and in the end we ratcheted up an arms race that left a cash-strapped Gorbachev no choice but to capitulate. End of story.

Nowhere in this tale do there appear the decades of patient diplomacy that engaged the USSR, that doggedly opened a crack in a closed society and courted its young intellectuals, that not only showed ours as a dynamic system that out-competed them abroad but also impressed them with its commitment at home to everything from racial equality and environmental protection to decency and openness in politics. Cold War cultural exchanges, academic cooperation, and painstaking arms control talks (all derided by American hardliners at the time) in fact helped to nurture a post-Stalin generation of intellectuals, scientists, economists and foreign-policy analysts who formed a nascent group of "within system" reformers-in many cases, within the Communist Party itself. And when, in the early-mid 1980s, the Soviet system faltered, these scholars and policy analysts emerged as an influential "Westernizing" lobby that encouraged an open-minded new leader on the path of perestroika, the path of reforming, humanizing, and integrating Soviet society with the rest of the world.

Of course the arms race exacerbated Soviet economic woes and helped persuade an aging Politburo to gamble on the untested but energetic young Gorbachev. But that is only half of the Cold War-ending equation, for without the preceding decades of détente, of steady persuasion and quiet preparation for liberalizing reforms, a different Soviet leader-following different, confrontational policies-could have taken the USSR in a very different direction. The Cold War could well have had a far more difficult and violent ending. Yet whether out of ignorance-or a tendency to emphasize proximate over distant causes, and to inflate our own role in events over the contribution of others-the standard American view of the Cold War's end stresses the role of hard military power and economic pressure to the near-exclusion of the soft power of ideas and persuasion. Not only the neoconservative "Vulcans" who pushed to invade Iraq, but also most of the "realists" who now seek an exit, recollect a Cold War triumph that celebrates only the military build-up and anti-communist resolve of Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev's idealism and principled non-intervention-as well as the skilled leadership that kept powerful Soviet hardliners at bay-are barely an afterthought.

Some, given to psychological interpretation, diagnose in today's neoconservatives a deep-seated need for enemies and longing for another epoch-defining global struggle like the Cold War. Perhaps, but it is enough to understand that many others simply drew flawed lessons from the Cold War's end. Neither should it surprise us then that, having triumphed, their belief in across-the-board American superiority was largely uninterested in the full aftermath of that victory, namely the manifest failings of the "Washington Consensus" model when transplanted to shattered, culturally distinct, ethnically divided societies. We won the titanic struggle with communism, we freed an entire region from tyranny, and it is only their fault if they have turned our gift of free-market democracy into corruption and instability. More often, however, the dark side of transition was just ignored. So when another major global challenge arose, the operative lessons were: Hard power is what really matters; allies are to be commanded and not consulted; concern for image and ideals only hampers our freedom of action; and the post-regime change will take care of itself. This is the neoconservatism that set its sights on another troubled world region, celebrated another military triumph ("Mission accomplished", declared President Bush), dismissed early signs that something had gone very wrong ("Democracy is messy"  lectured Defense Secretary Rumsfeld) and keeps faith with its historic mission by a near-Orwellian trick of turning bad news into good ("War and violence are the birth pangs of a new Mideast", said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).

So the answer to question posed at the outset-"Didn't they learn from the Cold War's end and aftermath?"-is that in fact they did. Bush Administration planners indeed drew certain lessons from communism's collapse that in turn shaped their approach to Iraq and the larger Middle East. Unfortunately, those lessons were exceedingly narrow and one-sided. Celebrating the triumph of American military power, and chanting a mantra of free-market miracles, they ignored equally important but ideologically inconvenient lessons about the critical power of ideas in shaping politics, the vital role of the state in managing transition, and the considerable weight of history and culture.

Even today's emboldened "strategic debate" about Iraq is mainly limited to tactical adjustments in our conduct of the war. Precisely because it mostly omits a larger re-evaluation of our overall grand strategy in world affairs-from an over-reliance on hard power, to soft-power efforts that are weak at best and tragicomic at worst (e.g., Bush advisor Karen Hughes' much-publicized but soon-forgotten tour of Islamic countries)-it retains the ideological blinders that guarantee further diminution of our global leadership. So long as we refuse to shed them, these dogmas not only erode our influence with traditional allies, and endanger our success in the vital but still-unsettled post-communist region, they also promise continued failure and growing backlash in our grand project to "remake the Middle East." Even the more modest goal of creating a stable regional ally in Iraq is fast fading, thanks in part to the same mistakes that helped dash earlier hopes of nurturing a strong pro-American partner in post-Soviet Russia. The costs of imperial hubris will remain high for decades to come.

Robert D. English is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and the author of Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War (Columbia University, 2000). He previously worked in the U.S. Department of Defense and the Committee for National Security.

Essay Types: Essay