By Nicholas Wapshott
Suddenly, it seems, the world is at war.
In Iraq, armed and angry militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) are at the gates of Baghdad. In Pakistan, government forces are mounting a ferocious campaign against the Taliban in North Waziristan.
In Syria, the civil war drags on. These are “hot wars” involving the clashing of troops and weapons. Having escaped such “hot” conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these are the sort of war Americans have made it plain they are not prepared to fight.
But there are other wars going on. In Yemen, a forgotten war against an al Qaeda outcrop continues, largely fought with lethal US drones. In Ukraine, Moscow is undermining the Kiev government by stealth.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxious not to press his luck after successfully snatching Crimea from Kiev, is like a fox sliding through the hen coop, careful not to set off the alarm. He is being countered by targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.
These are “cold wars” – a contemporary variation on the 40-plus years of Cold War fought to a standstill by the United States and the Soviet Union.
The very nature of war has changed since the hauling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the Cold War raged with often imperceptible intensity, the two sides mounted “hot wars” by proxy in minor theatres – the most prominent and punishing for the United States being Vietnam, a “cold war” first fought with teams of US advisers, war materiel and money that became “hot”.
Before long, the heat became too intense for the American people and their children, who were conscripted to fight, and they called for a halt.
Even so, it took many years to wind down. And when the last Americans scrambled out of Saigon, the city had already fallen to the Viet Cong and been dubbed Ho Chi Minh City.
Every U.S. war since the tragedy of Vietnam has been judged against that bruising conflict. It was even assumed for a while that Washington would never take part in a hot war again.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, however, threatened the U.S. national interest, and President George H.W. Bush decided to take the oil-rich nation back by force.
With memories of our bloody entanglement in Vietnam still ringing in his ears, Bush stopped the Gulf War a little way over the Iraq border.
Rather than go all-out for Baghdad and mount an occupation by U.S. forces, Bush opted for turning Hussein’s hot war into a cold one. Financial and economic sanctions, a no-fly zone, a tightly regulated oil-for-aid market and other restrictive international measures kept Hussein trapped like a house fly in double glazing.
The Gulf War may have been the last hot war the United States ever fought had it not been for the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, and the need within the George W. Bush administration to demonstrate that America would not let such ignominious attacks go unanswered.
Afghanistan was a no-brainer: Osama bin Laden trained his terrorists there and the Taliban had allowed them safe haven. In a mood of controlled rage, Americans saw little wrong with waging a hot war against the killers who were out to get them.
Iraq was different. There is no space here to relitigate the casus belli of that war in Iraq and whether Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were real or imagined, but the upshot was that U.S. forces set out on their second simultaneous hot war.
Bush soon discovered, however, what his father already knew: involving U.S. troops in a hot war in Iraq was punishing.
President Barack Obama then rode an anti-war wave into the presidency. Ever since, a conspicuously silent Bush has left Vice President Dick Cheney to defend the unnecessary war they chose to fight in Iraq.
The heavy toll of waging two wars at the same time, and the steady stream of caskets bringing home the U.S. war dead, appear to have persuaded Americans that they are no longer prepared to take part in another hot war. That is certainly the message Congress gives whenever Obama gets close to acting militarily on his own.
When it came to deciding whether to intervene in Syria, Obama appeared weak by hesitating. His decision to let Congress take the final decision, though, confirmed what was already evident: Americans are in no mood for a hot war.
The notion of waging a cold war, however, has taken a new direction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the old Cold War, the West had limited means of exerting its influence over the economies of the Soviet Union and its satellites because the communists operated a command economy virtually divorced from the West.
The threat of economic sanctions meant little to a Kremlin that lived beyond the reach of the market.
Since the end of Soviet communism, however, globalization has changed everything.
Now instead of condemning a whole population to inconvenience, shortages and penury, targeted sanctions can make life difficult only for the people making bad decisions.
The range of the banking and financial systems now ensures that Washington can call the shots when it comes to dodging sanctions or laundering money — as Credit Suisse and the French bank BNP Paribas have learned at vast cost.
Cold wars are slow to win. But the punishment they deliver is more accurate and more effective than the old-school Cold War. Putin, for example, knows he has a limited time before he must bring his Ukraine adventure to a close and nurture a rule of law.
For as long as he persists, Russia will lose its most talented citizens as they flee arbitrary justice, lack of freedom of expression, fixed elections and all other aspects of Russian life that offends talented people.
In Soviet days, high-value Russians were confined to the Soviet Union simply by being refused exit visas.
Obama may have ridden an anti-war wave to become president.
But once in the White House, while drawing down the hot wars, he has waged cold wars with vigor — much to the dismay of many supporters.
Obama’s use of drones, particularly in North Waziristan and Yemen, has been ruthless.
He is even prepared to kill American-born terrorists with drones. In response to the Crimea annexation and Moscow’s surreptitious invasion of eastern Ukraine, he has levied stern controls and restrictions on the Russian top brass.
When European leaders meet later this week, they are expected to weigh extending sanctions to broad sectors of the Russian economy as well as wider circles surrounding Putin.
To mount a hot war has been a last resort for most presidents and it is hard to imagine what pressing circumstances today would cause a president to mount an operation as complex and dangerous as the war in Iraq.
But if the United States is to maintain its influence around the globe, and keep terrorists well away from its shores, presidents of either party must be prepared to wage endless cold wars.
To abandon war altogether would be to acknowledge that the American people’s desire for peace had left it pitiful and powerless.
Reuters’ columnist Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War Two will be published in November by WW Norton.