Was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the many hot proxy wars it spawned in Asia and the Americas, a good thing for mothers and their children and other living things? That’s what Patrick Cockburn, long-time war correspondent argues in a recent piece intended to show that yet another escalated proxy war between major powers could, in fact, be great for the long-suffering people of Syrian.
A go-to expert on world affairs for center-left news organizations and British lawmakers alike — last month he encouraged the latter to quit worrying and join the increasingly crowded war on terror in Syria’s skies — the latest column from “our respected commentator,” as his employers at The Independent describe him, should call into question whether he is fact worthy of respect from those on the left. Titled, “Syria crisis: Let’s welcome Russia’s entry into this war,” Cockburn argues that the bombs being dropped by the Russian state should be welcomed by those of his readers outraged by the thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition over the last year.
The crux of Cockburn’s argument is that what the war in Syria needs is to become even more of a war by proxy between the world’s most powerful nations. He quotes U.S. President Barack Obama pledging not to let that happen — and then he proceeds to make what he believes is his killer point.
“But the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world,” Cockburn asserts. “Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit,” he writes. “Crises did not fester in the way they do today.”
That Cockburn, a respected commentator, could write the above and agree to have it published in a public forum where others can read it calls into serious question whether he is in fact worthy of respect, from those on the left and/or those familiar with the history of the world, as someone who comments on things for a living. From his comfortable perch in Britain, aided by the comforting distortion of nostalgia, Cockburn can look back on his 20s with his fondness, the Cold War characterized by bad-ass action flicks and those halcyon days of no-string college hookups.
For developing countries, though — for much of Asia and the Americas, or rather: the world — the friendly competition between the globe’s leading imperialist powers was a festering sore that promoted the forces of reaction wherever its influence was felt (“left” as well as right) and often enough led those who fought for progress and social justice to a mass grave.
The extinguishing of millions of lives was directly linked to an imperial desire not to extinguish the merest chance that people in one country might side with another. The U.S. may have cynically deployed the rhetoric of anti-communism to dispatch with anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan, but the Pentagon Papers, the classified account of the U.S. war in Indo-China, revealed that U.S. policymakers were as stupidly paranoid as their policies made them seem.
In the late 1940s, State Department officials declared in an internal memo that they had discovered evidence of a “Kremlin-directed conspiracy” in “virtually all countries.” The one glaring exception: Vietnam, the country where U.S. intelligence had itself funneled arms to the Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh, to aid his fight against imperial Japan. That lack of evidence of a Soviet connection to a former U.S. ally, however, was taken as all the more evidence that such connection existed. Indeed, “It may be assumed,” the department asserted, “that Moscow feels Ho and his lieutenants have had sufficient training and experience and are sufficiently loyal to be trusted to determine their day-to-day policy without supervision.”
Well over a million non-British, non-Russian, non-U.S. citizens died in Vietnam as a result of this festering competition in deranged paranoia. And it wasn’t just the U.S., of course, that killed because of it, though it does enjoy the ignoble privilege of scoring the highest body count.
In 1956, workers in Hungary, dissatisfied with the USSR’s shift from war communism to state capitalism, demanded a return to the Soviet-system that prevailed at the dawn of the Bolshevik revolution: workers in councils making decisions, democratically, rather than receiving dictates from an unaccountable party above. The subsequent uprising led to Hungary’s exit from the Warsaw Pact — and then the Soviet Union sent in the tanks, unwilling to lose what it saw as a defensive buffer between it the free-market capitalist West, the demands of the proletariat be damned. Hundreds were killed and thousands more detained, the workers who ought to form the basis of a workers’ state, and who if listened to may have prevented the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, dismissed as the product of capitalist subversion.
In the name of preserving relations with the West, however cold, the Soviet Union also turned its back on internationalism, urging revolutionaries in the developing world to embrace a go-it-slow approach to socialism. In Nicaragua and Cuba, for instance, armed insurrections launched by the Sandinistas and the 26th of July Movement against U.S.-backed dictators were discouraged and succeeded despite the early opposition of Moscow’s loyal Communist branches.
And when success did come in spite of Soviet opposition? The USSR’s “opposite number” swooped in to support the forces of counter-revolution, helping kill 50,000 Nicaraguans — backing a deposed dictator’s Contras in the name of democracy — and embargoing Cuba for more than half a century. At least 70,000 died in El Salvador because the U.S. preferred a military-run regime to the prospect of someone on the center-left assuming the title of president.
This is what Patrick Cockburn wishes for Syrians: For imperial powers to compete, and in effect collude, and determine the future of millions of people whose wishes and mere existence is too insignificant to note in his columns focused exclusively on the great powers and their statecraft. This sort of thinking, I would say, typifies the privilege of one for whom conflicts that kill a quarter-million people are merely fodder for columns in a British newspaper — and it belongs in a graveyard.