DEMOCRACY….Wes Clark believes that the Bush administration has a lesson to learn from the Cold War. But they have to learn the whole lesson, not just the fairy tale version in which Ronald Reagan won it singlehandedly:

Rising Soviet defense spending aimed at competing with the United States may have hastened the economic decline in the Soviet Union, helped convince the Russian generals that they couldn’t compete with U.S. military technology, and strengthened Gorbachev’s hand as he pushed for glasnost. But this end-game challenge of Reagan’s would have been ineffective had 40 years of patient Western containment and engagement not helped undermine the legitimacy of the Communist regime in the eyes of its subjects. It was popular discontent with economic, social, and political progress, and people’s recognition of an appealing alternative system, that finished off the repressive regimes of Eastern Europe, and eventually the whole Soviet Union. No Western threat of force or military occupation forced their collapse.

….The neoconservatives persist in seeing a vast difference between Reagan’s policy of confronting the Soviets and previous American administrations’ tack of containing it. In fact, it was precisely those decades of containment and cultural engagement that made Reagan’s challenge effective.

Clark’s point is a simple one: Neither Reagan nor any of the seven Cold War presidents before him ever attacked either the Soviet Union or one of its satellites directly. This wasn’t because of insufficient dedication to anticommunism, but because it wouldn’t have worked. In the end, they knew that democracy couldn’t come at the point of a gun; it had to come from within, from the citizens of the countries themselves.

Is this right? To argue otherwise is to suggest that our Cold War strategy was also wrong. Perhaps we should have rolled our tanks across the Iron Curtain after World War II, when the Soviet Union was exhausted and weary. Or attacked China instead of accepting a truce in the Korean War. Or sent NATO troops into Hungary in 1956.

Of course not. Even if we had “won,” we wouldn’t have won. In the end, the patient strategy of military containment and cultural engagement was the right call, and it’s the right call for the war on terror as well. Too bad George Bush doesn’t seem to get this.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation