Guest Column by R. James Woolsey
There are times these days when I really miss the Soviets.
I don’t miss their Gulag, or their massive military occupation of Eastern Europe, or many other aspects of their totalitarian and highly oppressive system. But I miss having them as our central enemy.
In many ways, they were an ideal enemy for us.
First of all, they were cynics. By the time the effects of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret 1956 speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress — laying out all of Stalin’s crimes — had spread around the world, Marxism/Leninism in its Soviet context was dying as a motivating ideology. By the ’60s, there probably were more true believing revolutionary Marxist-Leninists in the bookstores of the Upper West Side of Manhattan than in the Kremlin.
I participated in four sets of arms control negotiations. I was ambassador and Chief Negotiator in one — with the Soviets between 1969 and 1991 — and got to know a number of their military officers, diplomats, intelligence officers and scientists. Nobody was ready to die for the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or indeed, for any principle at all. They all wanted to remodel their dachas.
By at least the latter half of the Cold War, Soviet ideology had become, essentially, a cover story — but it was a cover story that interfered with their ability to run a modern and efficient economy. This also worked in our favor. Their economic stagnation gave our strategies of containment and deterrence time to work.
As time went on, the dysfunctional Soviet system finally produced a leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who wanted to fix it and save it (glasnost, perestroika), but his reforms instead brought it crashing down, and we won the third world war (this one, happily, cold) of the 20th century — in many ways just the way Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the other visionaries who set our strategy back in the late 1940s thought we would.
Flash forward to today and look at our major foreign challenges. Take Iran. Please.
Certainly there are elements of cynicism and opportunism, especially in the current infighting between the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But there is also an element of emotional — indeed, religious — motivation that is like nothing we have faced in modern times. (One can argue that during World War II, Japanese Imperial ideology had a religious element in it — and helped make possible the Kamikazes — but religious views were not central in our war with Japan.)
The nature of the religious disputes between factions in Iran are rife with charge and counter-charge, but at least the following seems clear: Ahmadinejad’s mentor is Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, one of Iran’s most powerful religious leaders, and certainly its most radical. He is a member of the Assembly of Experts, which will choose Khamenei’s successor as Supreme Leader, and many reformers fear that Mesbah Yazdi has a good chance to assume that role.
He has publicly called for Iran to have nuclear weapons and believes that enslaving infidels in order to convert them is entirely proper. He might — although this is disputed — have had ties to a particularly secretive sect, the Hojjatieh, which is focused not only on the belief that some day the 12th Imam will return to lead the battles that will end the world but the conviction that one should work to hasten that event.
Whether in the context of less activist millenarian beliefs or of the Hojjatieh effort to hasten the end of days, this constellation of views has led the great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, to write: “In this context, mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning. At the end of time, there will be general destruction anyway. What will matter will be the final destination for the dead — hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, MAD (mutual assured destruction) is not a constraint; it is an inducement.”
So could we please trade the Iranians for some good old-fashioned Soviets?
And since Iran is on the edge of becoming a nuclear power, we will doubtless see more long-range missile tests like the recent ones. We will see more regional conferences, like the recent one in Tehran that successfully demanded obeisance from the presidents of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — supposedly U.S. “allies.” And perhaps, as with North Korea, we will also see a nuclear test or two.
Iran is already far more skillful in using its proxies — Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas — to establish its primacy among its neighbors than the Soviet empire ever was. The Communist parties in Western Europe, e.g. the Italian Communist Party, were considerably less disciplined and effective instruments of Soviet power than is Hezbollah as it carries out Tehran’s orders to, e.g., stockpile missiles in Lebanon to attack Israel.
Comparatively speaking, the Cold War had a certain calmness about it, didn’t it?
Will Iran’s economy collapse as the Soviets’ did? Both the Soviet Union and today’s Iran had/have oil reserves, but Iran’s are much larger. Iran’s economy is struggling under sanctions, but if oil stays in the range of $100/barrel — far above the prices, in the teens, of the late 1980s, when the Soviets collapsed — Iran has a lot of leeway. Its natural gas reserves are also huge.
Think we’ll see $15/barrel oil any time soon?
You get the idea.
Countries and their military (and diplomatic, and intelligence) establishments are highly prone to structure themselves to fight the last war. But the next one we see may not look anything like the Cold War, Iraq or Afghanistan. It may be dominated, for example, by cyber attacks on our infrastructure, such as the electric grid, coming from Iranian hackers using Chinese servers to mask their actions, or, for that matter, from Chinese hackers using Iranian servers. It may involve Spanish-speaking Hezbollah terrorists from their major presence in the tri-state Foz do Iguaçu region coming across our southern border.
There is only one virtual certainty. Our new enemies will be shrewd, and they will not play to our strengths.
R. James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence, is a venture partner with Lux Capital and chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.