The two world wars that transformed the world were sweeping in their magnitude. But what followed thereafter was perhaps the twentieth century’s most protracted and unconventional conflict. The Cold War, fought over four decades – precisely from the rise to power of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 to the fall of the Soviet regime in August 1991 – involving every superpower and lesser power on every continent, remains unmatched in terms of its length and complexity.
Thomas H. Henriksen’s America’s Wars: Interventions, Regime Change, and Insurgencies after the Cold War presents all the platitudinous moralism that has led America. Part of the Cambridge Military Histories series, the book scrutinises war in all its military, strategic, political and economic aspects. It is an analysis of what America did during the post-Cold War years and specially after 9/11 as it invaded nations in the name of Western-style democracy, humanitarianism, and liberal internationalism. All things considered, its moral outrage against the Russian war in Ukraine rings hollow.
In the post-Cold War era, under the watch of each administration, America did exactly what the title implies: it made covert or overt interventions, fought insurgencies, and changed regimes in places as diverse as Haiti (1994), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011), and Syria (2012). And if one begins the count since the end of World War II, the United States has set out to oust governments in the Middle East on an average of once per decade.
But at what cost and in what scale? In an earlier book titled Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2007) by Stephen Kinzer, we had a detailed documentation of American excesses. The book argued that regime change has been an integral part of US foreign policy for over a century – starting with the toppling of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He detailed the three eras of America’s regime-change century – the imperial era, which brought Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Honduras under America’s sway; the Cold War era, which employed covert action against Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile; and the invasion era, which saw American troops toppling governments in Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“The altruistic decision to wade militarily into a host of crises lay not with Pentagon,” Henriksen writes, but with White House residents, both Democratic and Republican. “These Oval Office denizens spoke of moral obligations to save, uplift, and democratise populations in unforgiving landscapes” in the smug belief that “the United States alone possesses the power, prestige, technology, wealth, and altruism to reform whole nations” and to put in place “its historically cherished rules-based international order that harkened back to President Wilson in World War I”. Such pompous high-mindedness guided America well into the first quarter of a century after the Iron Curtain was consigned to the historical dustbin.
On the ground, America either bulldozed or undermined any country and any government that stood in the way of its political and economic goals regardless of the long-term consequences. Not that such actions were without a strategic imperative. Despots such as Noriega, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, unable to grasp the new realities of the post–Cold War landscape and the primacy of American power, paid a heavy price. US moral pretensions of promoting a fair world order, however, were barely a cover for its acquisitiveness. The consequences were often catastrophic in terms of financial and human costs and, in many cases, left the countries in question worse off than they were before. The Clinton administration abandoned Somalia to the tender mercies of warlords, criminal gangs, and Salafi-jihadi militants, who exacted a high price on the Somali people. It did practically nothing in 1994 even when Rwanda’s murderous rampage ended in the death of at least half a million Tutsis. Washington did strive to pawn off the war-plagued, destitute Afghanistan to the international community, grabbing the helm of invasion without a compass for governance.
Henriksen deftly parses the book into eight chapters and subchapters beginning with his account of the Panama invasion via a detour of the Persian Gulf, of wars in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, with snatches on Afghanistan and Iraq, and its “small-footprint wars” in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, to finally zoom in on its “larger forever wars” festering in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq before drawing his conclusions. The narrative makes it clear that the wars America fought betray an uncanny similarity to how the Cold War was waged on many fronts. From the United States to Russia, from Europe to Asia, from Africa to Latin America, these wars involved many different kinds of governments: liberal democracies, totalitarian regimes, and everything in between.
As the Cold War was witness to shooting wars in Korea and Vietnam besides purges, deportations, gulags, and forced famines that killed millions of men, women, and children, America’s wars also brought much gore and bloodshed, albeit hidden by the pyrotechnics. During Operation Desert Storm, the precision of the targeting might have minimised civilian deaths but inaugurated new modes of war. “For the coalition pilots far above the fray or push-button operators in air-conditioned launch sites, the war lacked the graphic agony associated with previous twentieth-century hostilities.” However, it still meant death on the ground. In Iraq, between 10,000 and 26,000 military lay dead with some 10,000 civilians “probably” dying “mostly from bombing”.
Henriksen points out that the muscular diplomacy fronted by Russia and China is coterminous with the start of Obama’s second presidential term. With a Sino-Russian rapprochement in context, America’s unipolar moment has ceased to exist. His warning is dire: “America’s paramount imperative must be to escape from some sort of Aesopian folly of fighting a war with both China and Russia at the same time”. Its failure to stand up to Russia’s military conflict with Georgia in 2008, the subsequent annexation of Crimea and the use of force in the Caucasus, and finally the foray into eastern Ukraine in 2014 and now in 2022 is evidence of the decline, if not fall, of the American empire.
The Cold War, which officially began in early 1945 with the Yalta summit and ended on Christmas Day 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, can be traced to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin. The fatal blow to American hegemonism was delivered to America by another Vladimir. By sending troops into Ukraine on February 24 this year Vladimir Putin evangelised Russian military action – he said it was to “de-Nazify” it – in high-sounding platitudes similar to those that governed earlier American interventions. With the rise of new polarities and new antagonisms, the spectre of the Cold War will continue to haunt America.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.