When I read and then confirmed that Bill Clinton had pronounced global warming to be a greater threat to the United States than the global war on terrorism, I realized that the presidential campaign of 2008 is officially underway. Hoping to avoid terror entirely in the next two years, it is clear to me that one of America’s best politicians has figured a way to finesse terrorism right off the political stage.
On its face, the assertion that global warming is more dangerous than guys flying planes into buildings is pretty ridiculous, but that only proves Clinton’s political abilities. He knows as a former president that anything positive that’s happening in the global war on terror (GWOT) can’t be made public for fear of tipping off the bad guys. Thus, Clinton’s comments on global warming show that a political figure can minimize the threat of global terrorism much as his predecessors minimized the threat of the Soviet Union.
Minimizing a threat is the first step toward questioning its entire existence. As the GWOT enters its fourth year, we can use the benefit of historical hindsight of the Cold War to better understand our own predicament. While politically there was a general consensus that the Soviet Union and Communism were bad, throughout the Cold War there was a lively debate on whether this was in fact true.
Many very intelligent people at very powerful places like Harvard and Yale argued that the United States had it all wrong about the Soviet Union and that, if we could only understand their territorial ambitions in a historical context, the Cold War could finally end. In his famous “long telegram” from Moscow station, state department official George Kennan argued that America underestimated the paranoia created by the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union. Russia needed territory, he argued, to feel safe.
At the time, Republican senators like Barry Goldwater were taking the Russians at their word: the Arizona conservative actually believed Nikita Kruschev when he pounded his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, screaming “We will bury you” to the American delegation.
Goldwater understood very well what Kruschev was doing: He was being a bully and seeing if the object of his bullying would back down. Liberal intellectuals considered guys like Goldwater to be little better than simplistic cowboys who didn’t understand the nuances of the Russians. Indeed, throughout most of the Cold War, the intellectual left feared American politicians like Goldwater (and, later, Reagan) more than they did a nuclear-armed USSR. When Reagan dared call the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” liberal academics predicted the beginning of WWIII.
In the long run, we know now that most of the things the Russians were accused of doing turned out to be true. Many were much worse. After the opening of the Soviet secret archives (since closed by the “democratically” elected President Vladimir Putin), Russian scholars all over the west revised texts they’d written during the Cold War, when they lacked archival documentation.
Noted Soviet scholar Robert Conquest advised his readers that he got it all wrong. To give one example, Stalin’s elimination of millions of Kulaks, so painstakingly detailed in Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, proved much higher than the 1.3 million he claimed in his 1986 book.
The opening of the Soviet archives was the end of the debate on the merits of communism. Intellectuals who spent their entire careers defending the Soviet way suddenly fell silent, and the debates that raged across campuses and the aisles of Congress disappeared almost as quickly as they’d appeared.
Once again, the American people are forgetting lessons paid for by the lives of thousands. That this rapid collective memory loss is happening on a period as formative and complex as the Cold War makes me legitimately concerned about our country’s long-term commitment to end the GWOT. By openly questioning the threat terrorism poses to our society for political advantage is the first intellectual step toward questioning its very existence.
I wish it were true that something as far off and relatively benign as global warming were the greatest threat my kids face. Unfortunately, my youngest was up that September morning in 2001 and, like me, he saw planes fly into buildings. That threat still exists, and people in the Middle East still talk openly about killing lots of Americans.
Sorry, Mr. Clinton, that seems to be a pretty clear and present danger to me and mine.