Neither the Cold War nor the War on Terror

Life was simple when the keys to the future were found in the past. When Vladimir Putin calls into question the international order in Ukraine, everyone thinks of it as a return to the Cold War. When the United States mobilizes an international coalition to fight against the jihadi of the Islamic State, it’s the War on Terror from after September 11, 2001 that one invokes.

Those who know recent history well know that the world has changed a lot and are wary of false parallels. However, the temptation remains to hold onto past experience.

Americans have a tendency to want to relive each of these two episodes because they think them to be victorious outcomes. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the hunt for al-Qaida is considered a success due to the raid against bin Laden and the impressive efficiency of drone attacks. Vladimir Putin scrupulously maintains his image as a former spy of the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency, and the RDA.* In his country, doubt is impossible; he proudly shows his desire for revenge after the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. As for the barbarians of the Islamic State group, they’re the children of al-Qaida. The new terrorists take bin Laden’s diatribes regarding the caliphate at face value and are determined to concretely realize an objective that was, until then, only imagined for the future.

Everyone understands that we’re not reliving the years between 1945 and 1989. Russia doesn’t have the power it did when it was the Soviet Union. The Kremlin isn’t at the head of any international alliances. There is no structured ideology or alternative society projects, like communism pretended to be. Russia is not proposing a new world order. Without a doubt, it would be good to take it into consideration. Instead of accumulating sanctions for ejecting Russia from modern life and reliving the faint confrontation from the previous century, wouldn’t it be wiser to do the complete opposite and multiply trading in order to comfort those who, in Moscow, can share our way of seeing? Does one really believe that in the real world, Western economic pressure will one day bring a new Gorbachev to succeed Putin?

As for the vital fight against the Islamic State group, we can’t confuse it with its sad predecessor, the War on Terror, led by George W. Bush’s America. The new jihadi have drawn from the lesson of al-Qaida’s collapse. Rather than be decimated by flying machines, they prefer to seize their territories, blend in with the population, create sanctuaries and arouse uprisings, profiting from wars, ethnic and religious conflicts and the collapse of states. Syria, Iraq, Libya: these opportunities are not overlooked.

Aerial attacks, with or without pilots, will never get it done. They can only add to the confusion, if they’re not quickly accompanied by decisive action on the ground led by local forces. Barack Obama pretends that he doesn’t want a redo of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s reproducing the exact work of his predecessor.

Until recently, the explanation was summed up in one word: the wars that we led were “asymmetrical.” We had the strength, but we couldn’t win. Now, the conflicts have suddenly become “hybrids.” Putin is an expert in that. He uses military action, camouflaged or covertly, humanitarian work, economic retaliation, provocation and propaganda: That makes him a great strategist. As for Caliph Ibrahim, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State group, he is no less of a hybrid: he plays with the horrible staging of his terror, as well as with his alliances with traffickers, community leaders and former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a word, the battles of yesterday were simple. They have become extraordinarily complex.

It would be good to get used to it. Rather than revive situations of the past, couldn’t we adapt our responses, like our opponents have, and finally engage in an advance attack instead of always being late to war?

Editor’s note: The RDA stands for the Republica Democratica Alemana or German Democratic Republic.

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