Given the large turnover in newly elected members of both houses of Congress and the ascent of the twenty-somethings to positions of power in the White House, it is pretty clear why American governments suffer from near fatal bouts of historical amnesia or, worse, ignorance. Understanding the past is not a panacea for predicting the future. But not every crisis or issue is tabula rosa and many have roots deep in history.
Some regard the situation in Ukraine and Crimea as a new form of political warfare. Much of this overly hyped and misinformed description is mistakenly based on former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin’s background in the intelligence service. Of course Putin has mixed propaganda, disinformation, subversion and information and cyber warfare to destabilize Ukraine and bend Kiev to his will. But what is new?
How did V.I. Lenin and his band of Bolshevik brothers and sisters manage to seize power in Russia in 1917 defeating the Kerensky government and the Mensheviks along the way? How did the fledgling Soviet Union survive foreign intervention by both Britain and America after World War I? How did the Soviet Union manage to put in place collaborators and agents virtually round the world to support the eventual triumph of communism? And after World War II, how did the eastern bloc of European states fall under Moscow’s control?
The answers are self-evident. What Putin has done in Ukraine is exactly what his Soviet predecessors attempted decades earlier. However, calling Putin’s actions a new form of political war is a bad case of historical amnesia.
Much ado about Benghazi similarly rejects any linkage with past acts of terror that killed Americans. In October 1983, 241 Marines died in the suicide bombing of their barracks in Lebanon. Later that month, U.S. forces stormed ashore in Grenada to “rescue” American students thought to be in grave and imminent danger at the hands of rebels who had murdered the prime minister.
The Beirut bombing was the subject of an intensive investigation headed by retired Admiral Robert Long. The Long report castigated the chain of command including the White House. In the wake of the botched Grenada assault, investigations ultimately led to major reforms that mandated “joint” operations to redress service “stove-piping” that had proved so counter-productive. Indeed, regarding Grenada, when bullied by Washington to accelerate the “rescue” of the endangered students, the overt reason for the invasion, task force commander Vice Admiral Joseph J. Metcalf signaled back that the medical students were “in no danger.”
Some accused the Reagan administration of using Grenada to deflect attention away from the catastrophe that befell the Marines. But no one, not a single Democrat, called for the impeachment of the Republican president or labeled either Beirut or Grenada as the biggest cover up since Watergate.
In 1979 U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph (Spike) Dubs was taken from his car at gunpoint by insurgents. Against the advice of the U.S. but supported by the Soviet Union, Afghan police stormed the hotel where Dubs was held captive. In the shoot-out, the abductors murdered Dubs. Yet no one clamored for an investigation or accused the Carter administration of cover up or the State Department of incompetence.
What has happened? The answer is painfully obvious. The American political system is not only broken. It has metastasized to the point where even a minor bite or scratch can become septic and politically fatal. Fact and truth no longer matter. Washington has become the political equivalent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where even the most ludicrous notions can be taken seriously.
Talk radio and cable television dominated by the extreme left and right amplify this nonsense. The Internet is filled with propaganda and misinformation that would make Putin and his former KGB now FSB colleagues cringe. Not only the fringe listen to or watch and consume this stuff. And few carefully vet what is being said or written. The First Amendment guarantees that.
Rabid ideologues such as Depression Years Father Coughlin and Cold War Joe McCarthy have multiplied. With voluminous stories swirling and the inability of the media to do real investigative journalism into many of these political hacks, history, truth and fact have become casualties. And virtually every political disagreement in Washington no matter how trivial is turned into a life or death matter, when it is not.
How do we extricate ourselves from this increasingly destructive cycle? It would be nice if not fantasy if both political parties could agree to a truce and perhaps even limit negative campaigning. Sadly, the Mad Hatter’s mad Tea Party ain’t likely to end soon.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group and a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He is author of the forthcoming book A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today.