Vigilance Needed as Cold War II Grips US
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Vigilance Needed as Cold War II Grips US

3 December 2001

Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman christened the war aganst terrorism World War III. But that's too apocalyptic. A better name would be Cold War II.

The first Cold War was ''a prolonged twilight struggle,'' in George Kennan's famous phrase. It was punctuated with periods of hot war, in Korea and in Vietnam. But for the most part it lived up to its name - an uneasy armed peace with jittery alerts, cloak and dagger operations, and proxy skirmishes between client states.

The first Cold War also had its benefits. It stimulated myriad technological advances. Government was allowed to do things in the name of fighting the Soviets that many Americans might otherwise not have approved. These included a massive interstate highway program, the National Defense Highway Act, a federal program to promote higher education, the National Defense Education Act, as well as advances in public health and civil rights.

If we were fighting a global enemy that preached brotherhood, it wouldn't do for America to practice overt racism.

The crusade against communism also led Americans to be more generous with foreign aid to susceptible developing nations. We rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan, and sided with anticolonialists in the Third World, often against our own European allies, so that the communists wouldn't win hearts and minds.

There were also big costs. Operations mounted in the name of fighting communism infringed on the liberties of Americans. The CIA infiltrated dozens of domestic organizations, such as the National Student Association and the international department of the AFL-CIO. The FBI often had trouble distinguishing constitutionally protected speech from treason.

But it least we knew when the Cold War was over. Cold War II could drag on indefinitely.

This war will have at least as many negative domestic consequences as Cold War I, and far fewer positive spillovers. For the moment, government has greater prestige again - at least when it comes to firefighters, police, bomber pilots, public health officials, airport security officers, and spies.

But unlike World War II and Cold War I, this cold war is not doing much for civilian benefits. Instead of surtaxes on millionaires, it offers tax giveaways. Before Sept. 11, both parties were agreed in principle that local schools needed more help, that Americans deserved affordable prescription drugs, and that managed care companies needed to be reined in for the sake of patients' rights. That agenda has been buried in the rubble.

The first Cold War produced McCarthyism, but also coincided with a period of expansion of the rights and liberties of Americans. The 1960s, when American dissenters were spied upon, was also a period when criminal trials became fairer, the press became freer, and minorities won the protection of basic rights from the courts and Congress.

This new Cold War is barely three months old, and already the administration has done stunning violence to due process of law in the name of fighting terrorism.

Before Sept. 11, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were on the verge of negotiating a significant liberalization of the immigration laws. Now we are facing the most severe immigrant crackdown since the quota laws of the 1920s. Attorney General Ashcroft, with scant regard for the Constitution, has lately backpedaled a bit on his Star Chamber courts.

Some leaders of his own party, such as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector, think he has gone too far. Even former senior FBI officials have gone on the record to declare that general dragnets are of little use in cracking terrorist cells, while they violate fundamental rights.

Plainly, there is no constitutional reason why the names of detainees cannot be made public and the charges against them specified.

Despite Ashcroft's tactical retreat, this kind of inconclusive war is likely to bring a narrowing of civil liberties and an increase in presidential police power.

One constructive piece of fallout from this cold war, like the last one, is that the American role in the world is now necessarily more multilateral.

Despite the skepticism of the right, this war cannot be won unless multilateral agencies and peacekeeping forces play a very major role. This was also true of the first Cold War, which compelled a somewhat isolationist United States to stake its security on such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, and international economic development agencies.

A cold war is necessarily a time of anxious vigilance. Just as we are vigilant against terror, we need to be no less vigilant about what our own country stands for.

Robert Kuttner.
Published in the Boston Globe.
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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