Superpower Illusions

Superpower Illusions:
How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—
And How to Return to Reality

by Jack F. Matlock, Jr.

Summary Argument

Myths about the way the Cold War ended, along with ideologies divorced from reality led America into a series of blunders that drained its power and increased the dangers to its national security.

Myth #1: The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

NO! It ended well before the Soviet Union broke up.

Myth #2: Military and economic pressure destroyed Communist rule in the USSR.

NO! Mikhail Gorbachev undermined the Party’s control of the country because it was blocking the reforms he considered necessary.

Myth #3: The USSR collapsed under pressure from the United States and its allies.

NO! Internal contradictions caused its collapse, not external pressure.

These myths stem from a tendency to conflate three geopolitically seismic events which were separate, though connected:

(1)  The end of the Cold War (1988-89)

(2)  Weakening of Communist Party control of the USSR (1989-91)

(3)  Break-up of the Soviet Union (December, 1991)

The Cold War ended peacefully, by negotiation, on terms that were in the interest of a reforming Soviet Union. President Reagan had defined the terms of settlement on the basis of common interests. In time, Gorbachev accepted his agenda, since it was in the Soviet interest. As Gorbachev subsequently observed, “We all won the Cold War.”

The end of the arms race permitted Gorbachev to concentrate on reform at home, which in turn led to his ending the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, using contested elections as a major tool. President Reagan recognized, and stated publicly, that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was no longer an “evil empire.”

While the United States supported the restoration of independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, it favored Gorbachev’s effort to create a voluntary federation of the remaining twelve union republics. The break-up of the USSR, caused by internal factors, was a defeat for American policy, not a victory.

Myth #4: Russia was defeated in the Cold War.

NO! Today’s Russian Federation was not a party to the Cold War. It was part of a Communist-ruled empire. Its elected leaders in 1990 and 1991 were strongly pro-Western and aspired to replace communist with democratic values.

Myth  #5: The Cold War should be considered World War III.

NO WAY! “Cold War” is a metaphor, not the real thing. There was never any direct combat between the United States and its allies with the Soviet Union. If there had been, we would probably not be here today to write about it.

The myths are also connected with the mistaken notion of “superpower.” The United States and the USSR were considered superpowers because they had the means to destroy the world. They were not superpowers in the sense that they could change the world using their superior military power. The end of the Cold War diminished American power since much had derived from its ability to defend countries against Communist aggression and infiltration. The world did not suddenly become “unipolar;” there was not even a “unipolar moment.”  (So far as the power to destroy the world is concerned, the United States and Russia both still have that capability with their nuclear arsenals.)

While not a superpower in the sense that it could successfully rule other countries, the United States emerged from the Cold War the pre-eminent power in the world. It had the opportunity to create a safer world by strengthening international structures to deal with local conflicts, failed states, organized crime, and the threat of terrorism.  It had the opportunity to reduce its military commitments abroad (there was no longer a Soviet Union to contain) and to accelerate the destruction of nuclear weapons started by Reagan, Bush I, and Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration, lacking a coherent strategy, was drawn into local conflicts not vital to U.S. security and without UN Security Council authority.  It failed to bring Russia into the European security structure as a responsible partner but treated it as a defeated nation,  thus undermining the prospects for democracy and full cooperation in dealing with global issues.

If the Clinton administration missed opportunities, the Bush-Cheney administration destroyed them. Having ignored warnings of an impending terrorist attack on the United States—which could and should have been prevented—it invaded Iraq without adequate cause or international sanction, ignored or withdrew from treaty commitments, stalled verified nuclear arms reductions, and took a series of actions that encouraged rather than deterred nuclear weapons proliferation. It is ironic that a president who professed to admire President Reagan followed policies that were often the opposite of his, both in substance and in execution.

Myths about the Cold War and its end combined with theories taken to logical but unrealistic extremes undermined America’s strength at home. Market fundamentalism ruled the day and the loosening of controls on banks and financial markets contributed to the sub-prime bubble and a near collapse of the financial system in 2008.  Tax cuts despite two wars produced an unprecedented budget deficit and the country as a whole began to live beyond its means, even as education and infrastructure were allowed to deteriorate. The United States became the world’s largest debtor.

Meanwhile what passed for political debate was reduced to distorted slogans. The very meaning of many terms came under assault. There is nothing “conservative” about running large budget deficits, invading countries that are no direct and imminent threat, and exaggerating and sometimes fabricating intelligence reports, yet political spinmasters convinced a significant portion of the public that radical, high-risk, arguably illegal policies were “conservative.”  In fact, foreign policy cannot be calibrated on a “conservative-liberal” scale, and neither can many domestic issues.

The Obama administration has made a start, turning the ship of state toward a more constructive course.  The book makes illustrative suggestions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, relations with Russia, nuclear arms reduction, missile defense, and the Israeli-Palestinian problem.   Though President Obama has, in general, set a moderate course of change, obstacles both abroad and at home are substantial. He still must deal with damage to the nation inherited from past administrations and overcome entrenched special interests—some in his own administration–that resist change.


After Words: Jack Matlock, “Superpower Illusions” interviewed by Dimitri Simes ( BookTV video) (YouTube video)

Questions Welcome

Questions and comments are welcome from registered participants who have read the book. (I don’t have time to explain again something I have explained in the book.)

53 Responses to Superpower Illusions

  1. Brian Runyon says:

    Shame you stepped down from the foreign service when you did, you would’ve made an excellent Secretary of State, or UN Ambassador. I agree with many of your points on what happened to the US after the Cold War ended.

  2. Jack says:

    Thank you for your compliments. Actually, I felt that I was more suited to be in the Soviet Union when I was than to be at the United Nations. As for Secretary of State, that is a position that normally goes to a prominent politician, not a professional diplomat.

  3. Brian Runyon says:

    Jack. What’s your opinion on the Yeltsin administration? He started well, but he did a lot of things that got Russians pretty mad at him. War in Chechnya, desolveing parliament in ’93’, things like that. He did well in foreign affairs, one exception being his actions in Chechnya.

  4. Jack says:

    Yeltsin was better at destroying Communist Party rule than in building a democratic government. He refused to create a political party and was slow to revise the constitution. His attack on the Supreme Soviet in 1993 was provoked by an attempt by a minority of deputies (representatives) to remove him by force (clearly illegal), but plunged Russia into a crisis.

    Opinions are divided regarding the first war in Chechnya. Some say he should have negotiated; others that it was right to oppose an illegal takeover. In fact, he made peace with the Chechen leaders after he won the 1996 election and they blew it by continuing terrorist attacks in Russia even when they were being left alone in Chechnya. But the second war was started by Putin, not Yeltsin.

    Probably the worst part of the Yeltsin legacy was the tolerance, at times even encouragement, of criminality and corruption. Many of the ugly features of Russia today, which has more authoritarian rule than Yeltsin’s was, can be traced back to the Yeltsin period.

  5. Brian Runyon says:

    Jack, what do you believe we should’ve done differently policy wise after the end of the Cold War? I wouldn’t have expanded NATO into the old Eastern Block unless they wanted to join.

  6. Jack says:

    I go into detail on this point in Superpower Illusions . Basically, the United States should have tried to reduce its military commitments abroad and led regional coalitions to deal with regional problems. The countries of Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) wanted to join NATO, but it would have been better to create a security structure in Europe that included Russia as well as the East Europeans. Expanding NATO without including Russia suggested to Russians that they were being treated as a defeated country. There were other ways to ensure the security of the countries in Eastern Europe.

    Also, we should not have used military force without United Nations sanction against a country that had not attacked us or our allies . If our diplomacy in the 1990s had made an effort to bring Russia into a responsible role in European security, Russia might have been willing to exert more control over Serbia, and if the Serbs were not responsive, would likely have voted in the UN Security Council to authorize force. The use of NATO as a surrogate for the UN set a bad precedent and has created many problems that still plague us today.

  7. Brian Runyon says:

    What do you think we should’ve done during the Serbian war in the 90’s? If I were Clinton, I would’ve gone to the UN and tried to establish some kind of piece keeping force, and used military force as a last resort.

  8. Jack says:

    We should have used our diplomacy in the early 1990s to bring Russia into effective participation in the European security system. We could have done that by using the “Partnership for Peace” for NATO military relations with the East Europeans and, if they wished, the Russians, and avoided formal expansion of NATO so long as Russia cooperated in keeping the violent elements in the former Yugoslavia under control. They could have used their influence to curb Serbian aggression, both in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and if this failed (as it probably would have) they could have voted in the UN Security Council to authorize such military action as was necessary.

  9. Brian Runyon says:

    What do you think we should do about missile defence?

  10. Jack says:

    We should do a cooperative program with Russia and, eventually, the other “legitimate” nuclear powers (China, UK and France).

    If we are to continue to reduce nuclear weapons–essential if we are to bring proliferaton under control–every nuclear power must be assured that a defensive system does not degrade their own deterrent capability.

    Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was predicated on the assumption that, if found feasible, defenses would be deployed only when nuclear missiles were eliminated. He understood–and told Gorbachev–that under certain conditions, defensive systems combined with an offensive capability would be “destabilizing,” that is, threatening.

    The only way to convince Russia to reduce their nuclear weapons further than the current agreement requires will be to give them a role in missile defense so that they can be assured that it will not be used against them. The same is true for China (and other nuclear powers) when the time comes for them to reduce and eventually eliminate their offensive weapons.

  11. Brian Runyon says:

    Besides what we’ve already done, what else do you believe we should do to improve our relations with the Medvedev administration?

  12. Jack says:

    Things are definitely moving in the right direction. The next big items will be getting the Senate to confirm the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (signed by President Clinton), and negotiating a cooperative missile defense program with Russia. Also, we should take Medvedev’s suggestions re European security seriously and discuss with him and the Europeans how to improve NATO-Russia relations. (A cooperative missile-defense program will help.)

  13. Brian Runyon says:

    The new Start treaty was ratified in last year’s lame duck Congress.

    As for the UN Security Council, do you think more permanet members should be added onto it? It’s been the same way since World War 2.

  14. Jack says:

    In theory, yes, because the current membership does not represent the real distribution of power in the world. But, in practice, it may be impossible. First, it is not a good idea to have more countries with the veto. (Of course, one could have permanent members without a veto, but that would introduce the idea of second-class permanent security council members, which might not sit well with some. None of the current permanent members(US, UK, France, Russia, China) will agree to give up the right of veto.)
    But even if this problem is solved, how to get agreement on which new members should be admitted? Japan and Germany or obvious candidates, but Europe already has two permanent members (UK and France). Would non-European countries agree to a third EU member in the Security Council? Not very likely. Would China agree to the addition of Japan, give the history of the Japanese atrocities in China during World War II? Other obvious candidates are countries like India and Brazil. But would Pakistan and other Islamic countries agree to India? Would Argentinia or Chile agree to Brazil–or Brazil to one of the others? And who would represent Africa? Egypt? (Most African countries would not agree.) South Africa–maybe, but that would have to be part of a package and the other elements are not there.

    In short, the addition of permanent members to the Security Council may be impossible politically, no matter how desirable in theory. That as why I recommend, in Superpower Illusions that we try to make do with what we have.

  15. Brian Runyon says:

    I’d like your opinion on the events in the Arag world. I say, good for the people since many of the allies we have in the Middle East have committed many human rights abuses for as long as they’ve been in power. I believe it’s time for the Arag world to change and have real democratic reforms.

  16. Brian Runyon says:

    What’s your opinion on the situation in Egypt. I’m supporting the protests. Though Mubarak is an allie, his country has committed many human rights abuses throughout the years, and he’s turned his country into a one-party state with no real elections. I’m hoping the ex IAEA head is able to become Egypt’s new President, without help from the Muslem Brotherhood.

  17. Jack says:

    Many Arab countries seem ripe for change, but bringing down a government is not the same as creating a liberal democracy. (Russia today and several other successor states of the Soviet Union are proof of that.) The problem is that dictatorships often do not have the institutions of a civil society–institutions independent of the ruling clique–capable of governing. Developing from scratch takes time and violent demonstrations without a clear leader make that process most difficult, if possible at all.
    As for Egypt today, the future is impossible to predict. Yes, it would be nice if the demonstrators could rally around El Baradei, but it is far from clear that that will happen. Also, we cannot know now just how much influence the Moslem Brotherhood has with the demonstrators and whether it will be possible to bring them into a responsible role in a democratic system.
    All of this provides a real problem for American policy in the area. We have been greatly hampered by being entirely too tied to Israel’s expansionist policies, and by decisions not to deal with the “Islamist” parties like the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and its affiliated Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. The same goes for the refusal to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
    Ultimately, the evolution of these countries will depend on the people of the country in question, not on the United States. But the U.S. will be severely handicapped in dealing with the situation until it persuades or forces Israel to make a reasonable deal with the Palestinians.
    Until that happens, the U.S. will pay a heavy price throughout the Arab world for seeming to support Israeli expansion.

  18. Brian Runyon says:

    What’s your view on other ex-Soviet states other than Russia. Belarus is being ruled by a dictator, at least that’s how I view Lukashenko.

  19. Jack says:

    You’re right about that! Also, none of the Central Asian countries have as much democracy as they had during the last year of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Only the three Baltic countries have evolved consistently toward democracy. As members of the EU and NATO they are doing very well, even though they have suffered from the recent recession.

  20. Brian Runyon says:

    What’s your opinion on the Iraq war. For me, it was a mistake to begin with. Taking the word of Curveball as truth, Bush and Blair used it to justify attacking a country that hadn’t attacked either the US or Britain.
    Make no mistake, Saddam was a threat, but I believe he could’ve been removed by his own people, or stepped down without military force, except as a last resort.

  21. Jack says:

    Of course it was a mistake. A bad one. I spend most of a chapter in Superpower Illusions explaining why. See Chapter 9, “Tar Baby Iraq.”

  22. Brian Runyon says:

    I’ll have to see where I can get a copy. Anyway, what’s your opinion on the situation in Libya, and, if Gadaffi is killed, who could take over?

    • admin says:

      You can get a copy from Just click on the picture of the book above!

      As for Libya, nobody can say what might happen if Qadhaffi (Gadaffi) is killed or leaves. One of the big problems Libya has is that Qadhaffi has eliminated all elements of a civil society and allowed no competing centers of power to emerge. Possibly those elements of the military that have broken with him will be the arbiters, if they win. There are some interesting stories in the New York Times today. In Benghazi, professionals like lawyers and businessmen seem to be organizing some sort of local government.

      But anything can happen, and the situation remains very confused.

  23. Ed Wietecha says:

    I read your book. I agree with almost everything you wrote. You can’t be a conservative, as I am a liberal.

    I’ve read a great deal about Russian history, the USSR and its collapse. I tried to restrict my reading to professional historians and first person accounts, while avoiding ideological screeds – although I have read a few. Your first person analysis coincides with what I think to be true. I will consider this issue settled…for now.

    I do have a few comments. I think Reagan made a big mistake by being adamant about SDI and not negotiating further strategic weapons reduction. That was a failure to understand the vulnerability of the USSR at that point in time. The reductions could have been made, and the case for SDI could have reintroduced later. This would have been logical given Reagan’s position.

    Some, including you, make a connection between nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation. That is a moral, ethical, and logical argument. It has, however, nothing to do with why some countries want nuclear weapons. They are not motivated by your morals, ethics, or logic, but rather their own. We should reduce nuclear weapons because it makes US safer; proliferation is a separate issue.

    If I were in power, I would open an office in Tehran; not an embassy – just an office. Let’s do lunch… I think W. scared the hell out of the Iranians and they have responded logically. The demonization of Iran is useful for domestic politics but it will not solve the problem. We need a more balanced approach to Israel and Palestine, but this is precluded by domestic politics. I fear that if the strategies of all parties involved do not change; there will be blood – lots, and lots of blood.

    North Korea. Are you familiar with Brian Myers; author of “The Cleanest Race”? If not, I recommend the book. He makes a very credible case that the DPRK really believes what it says. He has made some progress with State but they continue to negotiate, as that is what they do. If Brian is correct, negotiation makes the situation worse. I presume you still have contacts.

    Finally, I would say that I hope that everyone in the American Foreign Service has your insight and knowledge. As a CSPAN junky, I doubt that it is so, but I hope.

    • Jack says:

      As for “conservative” and “liberal,” I don’t believe foreign policy issues can be calibrated that way. Too many complexities.

      As for Reagan and SDI, I am not convinced that the proposals that were almost agreed at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev would have worked. I discuss this in detail in Chapter 11 of Reagan and Gorbachev. See especially page 241. And it was not just a matter of Reagan being “adamant” about SDI: he proposed that both sides eliminate ballistic missiles, which Gorbachev refused even to discuss. (This would have met Gorbachev’s concern that a successful SDI could be part of an offensive strategy; without ballistic missiles, neither side could threaten the other.)

      Nevertheless, a lot of things not mentioned at Reykjavik would have had to come together to make the sort of agreements discussed feasible. We might have been able to move in that direction more quickly of the whole Iran-Contra scandal had not removed some of the key people in the U.S. government who might have supported it. Again, I explain this in Reagan and Gorbachev.

      As for Iran, we can have a better dialogue without people actually in place. Since the hostage crisis, we have not actually sent American diplomats there, but the Swiss embassy represents our interests. There are ways to initiate a dialogue without a resident mission. We made a very big mistake in 2003 in not taking seriously a proposal by the previous government, much more moderate that the current one, to mend relations. Of course, our leverage was much greater with Iran before we invaded Iraq and removed Iran’s most powerful local enemy.

      Unfortunately, we are at a great disadvantage now in talking to Iran since we have been serving their interests very well even though that was not our intent. We removed their enemy Saddam Hussein and installed a government in Iraq much more friendly to Iran (some would say under effective Iranian control once we leave). We have continued to tolerate and sometimes even endorse Israeli excesses which gives the Iranians openings for influence with groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. We are fighting the Taliban, an Iranian enemy, in Afghanistan. Since we we already seem to be doing everything we can to serve many of their interests, what do we have to offer by negotiations? Ahmadinejad doubtless feels he has more to gain by keeping America an enemy (in order to justify his tyranny at home) that making a deal with us. We have already given him free most of what he wants!

      As for North Korea, I haven’t read Brian Myers. I do believe that we have paid too much attention to the outrageous tantrums the Kim Il Jong regime has been guilty of. They are not going to use those crude nuclear devices they have developed against others, and we shouldn’t let them have the illusion that it gives them negotiating leverage. Their supply of nuclear technology to others is, however, a problem. We should put most of the burden of keeping them under control on the Chinese.

      As for nuclear proliferation, I have never thought that other nations acquire weapons just because the U.S. and Russia have large arsenals. You are quite right that there are many unrelated motivations. (I wrote an essay on this a couple of years ago in a volume published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford.) However, the Non-Proliferation Treaty is based on the commitment of the nuclear powers to reduce their nuclear arsenals, with a goal of zero, as one of the trade-offs for other countries deciding not to go nuclear. If we don’t continue good faith reduction of the large arsenals we still have, it gives the proliferators an easy excuse, even a pretext, for violating the treaty. Ultimately, we cannot tell other countries that they can’t have nuclear weapons if we insist they are essential for our security. Why do we have a “right” to have them and try to deny this “right” to others? Not accurate reasoning, but psychologically powerful.

      Obviously, avoiding further proliferation will take much more than just reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals. But that has to be part of any successful strategy.

  24. Brian Runyon says:

    Jack. What in your opinion were some of the worst foreign policy moves post cold war leaders have made?

  25. Jack says:

    Clinton Administration: NATO expansion; Bombing Serbia without UN approval.
    George W. Bush administration: Invading Iraq, Leaving ABM Treaty; Endorsing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia; Approving and encouraging Israeli aggression.

  26. Brian Runyon says:

    I do support the state of Israel, but not all of it’s policies. Blockading Gaza, firing on an aid shipment last year, they’ve done some foolish things while attempting to protect their security.

  27. Brian Runyon says:

    You haven’t replied to anything for sometime. Now Seria’s joining the club of Arab countries that want a real government.

  28. Brian Runyon says:

    What is your opinion on Russia and China vetoing the UN resolution that would’ve stopped the current Serian Civil War?

    • Jack says:

      First, the resolution would not necessarily have ended the bloodshed in Syria. It would have demanded that Assad step down and open the door to a coalition government headed by Assad’s vice president. Assad could have refused, and probably would have.

      However, the Russian and Syrian veto did provide political encouragement to Assad and may have increased the likelihood of an escalating civil war. (Conditions already approach that of civil war.)

      Why did they veto? Both Russia and China had their reasons, which were not necessarily valid. But in both cases there is a charge that the U.S. is trying to rule the world with its military muscle, and also that our support of “democratization” threatens regimes that do not follow our lead. Both Russia and China have internal opposition forces and suspect (often without basis) U.S. support, and interference. Furthermore, they charge that the vote in the UN to allow the U.S. and its allies to protect civilians in Libya became a license for “regime change.” a direct attack on the Qadhafi government. They say they don’t want to see a repeat.

      Russia also has special interests in Assad’s Syria: a naval base on the Mediterraean and also arms sales. (Syria is an important customer for the Russian arms industry, one of the few with export potential.)

      If Assad is eventually toppled, Russia and China will be viewed as having acted on the wrong side of history. But, even then, they may calculate that any successor regime would benefit from relations with them and that any negative fallout would be shortlived. We won’t know for a while who (if anyone) is right in their calculations, but it is clear that the Assad regime is guilty of mass murder, which continues.

  29. Brian Runyon says:

    The countries that stand with the opposition movements must do more to prove their worth to the rebels to let them know they are serious about helping them.

  30. Jack says:

    One problem is that the rebels are not united. (The same is true in Libya.) We should not forget that when the borders of the countries that replaced the Ottoman Empire were drawn up by outside powers, mainly Britain and France, in the early 1920s., many of the borders did not conform to ethnic realities. (Indeed, ethnic and religious groups were so mixed, particularly in cities, that it was quite impossible to draw borders that included only one group.) The “peace” that resulted has been termed by one preceptive historian “the peace that ended all peace.”) The principal motivation of the British and French following World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire was to divide up the remains of that empire outside Anatolia between client states of one or the other. Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq British; Lebanon and Syria French, and so on. This is not the only factor, of course, and outsiders should not be blamed for the tendency of one ethnic or religious group to dominate the others in their midst, or the local demogogues who resort to violence, but the fact is that it is not at all clear that a movement toward “democracy” interpreted as free elections can produce a society that protects minority interests. And history also offers a cautionary tale about outsidea powers who intervene to favor one side or another.

  31. Brian Runyon says:

    I’m surprised that many in the Arab League are not helping the current Serian government. Iran may be sending troops in according to a Chinese newspaper.

    • Jack says:

      The Arab League has opposed Assad’s crackdown. The UNSC resolution vetoed by China and Russia was based largely on an Arab League proposal. As for Iran, it is now Assad’s only friend in the region.

  32. Brian Runyon says:

    Assad is a very stubborn person. He claims his country is under attacks from terrorists. An obvious lie.

  33. Jack says:

    For those interested in Russia’s motivation regarding the revolution in Syria, Gordon Hahn’s explanation is quite accurate, in my opinion. This is not to say that the Russian policy is right, but that Dr. Hahn describes accurately the way the Russian government views the situation.

  34. Brian Runyon says:

    I feel the Arab Spring is being hijacked by the Muslem Brotherhood, and other radical Islamic groups. It began with college students and others, it should’ve been them who took power in Egypt, not extremests.

  35. Jack says:

    The military is still in control in Egypt, but you are correct that the Muslim Brotherhood won more votes than other parties. I believe we need to maintain a dialogue with the Islamic groups which may turn out to be more moderate that many have thought. Those in Tunisia seem to be quite responsible, so far.

    In any event, if you believe that democracy is important, it is not up to us to decide who represents the people of a given country. And it is best not to demonize groups a priori. A share of real power can sometimes (though not always) bring on a greater sense of responsibility. The main force behind the Islamic parties in many Arab countries is economics not religion. People vote for them because they think they will improve the lives of ordinary people, who have been forgotten or sidelined by most previous rulers.

  36. Brian Runyon says:

    The problem with a lot of Islamic parties is they turn out to be extremeests. We have to keep a close eye on the new Egyption parliament.

  37. Brian Runyon says:

    I’ve done research on Libia. Let’s hope the new government let’s political parties form. Under Gadaffi, or however you spell his name, there were no political parties allowed at all.

  38. Brian Runyon says:

    For some reson, you replied to this, but it’s not showing up on the page.

  39. Jack says:

    Things in Libya seem very confused indeed, with groups forming private militias and a weak or non-existant central government unable to establish control. Not a good sign, but maybe better than the exploitative dictatorship they had.

  40. Brian Runyon says:

    Much better I’d say. Egypt could possibly be headed for Islamic control isf theMuslem Brotherhood man wins the Presidency in May. The Arab spring appears to be being hijacked in some countries by radical Islamists, except in Tunesia, where the moderates are in control, and a human right activist is the new President.

  41. Jack says:

    Yes, Tunisia is the brightest spot among the countries most affected by the Arab spring. I visited Tunis briefly last December and was impressed by the determination of the people I met to build a free democracy.

    Given its size and population, Egypt is the most important of the countries that have given the boot to an authoritarian leader. Yes, the new president was a member of the Moslem Brotherhood and it will be interesting to see to what degree Islam affects his policies. Actually, he will be judged by most voters as to whether he can bring about better economic opportunity to the majority. Therefore, we may see him move toward cooperation with secularists and others in order to wrest power from the Egyptian military, who can still call the tune if they choose.

    In my opinion, it would be a mistake to refuse to deal with political leaders from the Islamic groups. They are more likely to move in a hostile direction if they are shunned. Basically, their members are not looking for an Iranian-style rule by Islamic clerics but for economic development and opportunity for ordinary people.

    The position of women will also be an important issue. Women played a major role in Tunisia and have that potential in Egypt.

    In sum, there is hope in most of the countries that have experienced the Arab spring. Syria is the great exception where things are going from bad to worse. But I don’t believe that outside intervention is going to be useful, except perhaps to limit Iranian support for the Assad regime and Iraqi complicity with Iranian efforts to do so.

    • Brian Runyon says:

      Libyia also is doing quite well for itself. Many people seem to fail to understand what a tyrant Gadaffi or whowever the heck you spell his name was. The country seems eager to break with its past.

  42. Jack says:

    The problem is that Libya is not a united country. The history and culture of Tripolitania is quite different from that of Benghazi, and both differ from that of the still nomadic peoples in the south. Qadhafi (spelling depends on how you transliterate Arabic) did have support from his own tribe, which he favored, and that tribe dominates in many areas of Tripolitania. Building a coherent government is going to be quite difficult. Although it should help that Libya has oil, it is not equally spread through the country and thus satisfying everybody with its proceeds is going to be next to impossible.

    We can hope for the best, but it would be naive to think that everything will just fall neatly into place.

    Another downside: Qadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons program under our pressure. If he had kept it, there would have been no outside military intervention. Other dictators notice this. What would be a rational conclusion?

    Having said all that, I believe that Obama handled Libya well, “leading from behind.” By getting a UNSC resolution and following the British and French lead–after all, they are much closer to Libya than we are–I believe he did the right thing. But we should not paint too rosy a picture. It is much too early to determine how governance in Libya will evolve. In the final analysis, people there will have the last word, not any of us outsiders.

  43. Brian Runyon says:

    What do you believe should be done in the situation in Syria?

  44. Jack says:

    I believe we are right to support efforts by the Arab countries and others in the region (such as Turkey) to end the violence. We should do what we can to assist the refugees from the fighting, mainly in Turkey. But I do not favor military intervention by the United States except as part of a UN-sanctioned operation (which will not happen because of Russian and Chinese opposition).

    While the situation is terrible, outside military intervention is likely to make it worse and we should not take responsibility for a shift in power that could turn out to be worse than Assad. (This is a real possibility. Sunni domination could look a lot like Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda is among the forces opposing Assad.)

    Basically, I do not think we should imagine ourselves the world’s policemen, particularly when the world has not asked us to be. I grieve for the more than four thousand Americans who lost their lives in Iraq, and the many thousands more who have their lives maimed by the war there. Yes, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, but at what cost? Not only to us, but to them! Hundreds of thousands dead; more than a million displaced! Is the current Iran-friendly regime in Iraq, which seems determined not to share power with the Sunni minority or the Kurds and other minorities worth the sacrifice of lives and treasure (a trillion dollars or more to the U.S alone, if you count the care for wounded veterans)?

    I believe that John Qunicy Adams showed great wisdom when he observed (in a speech in the 1820s) that America would be a friend of freedom everywhere, but would not “roam the world seeking monsters to destroy.” America, he felt, should be a guarantor only of her own freedom, not that of others. (I quote from memory; this is the gist, if not literal.) I also believe that when it comes to other people’s fights, and to the preservation of human rights, the first rule of outsiders should be that of the physician: “Above all, do no harm.”

    Limitless harm can be done with the best intentions when one resorts to violent methods in an effort to force others to solve their own problems.

  45. Zubair Qamar says:

    Dear Mr. Matlock,

    I hope this message finds you well. I am reading your book, Superpower
    Illusions, with great interest. Thank you for sharing your very interesting

    I have 2 questions that I hope you can kindly answer: The
    ‘Neoconservatives’ describe the Cold War almost exclusively as a war
    between “ideologies”, and that US ideology (liberal democracy) defeated
    Soviet ideology (Communist), which resulted in the “US victory” against the
    Soviets and the end of the Cold War.

    My questions:

    1) Do Neoconservatives overstate the role of “ideology” (even if ideology
    was still important) in defeating the Soviets?

    2) Even if the Soviets had a (Communist) ideological view of the world,
    how much did US (liberal democracy) ideology contribute to defeating the
    Soviets and “winning” the Cold War?

    Thank you and I really appreciate your responses that are important to me.

  46. Jack says:

    The differences in ideology were important in fueling the Cold War. After all, the Marxist-Leninist idea that the Soviet Union should support a “proletarian revolution” throughout the world was bound to seem aggressive to non-Communist countries. That is why I place the end of the Cold War in December, 1988, when Gorbachev officially renounced that theory as the basis of Soviet foreign policy.

    Nevertheless, it was the application of theory that caused most of the tensions of the Cold War–the military occupation of Eastern Europe; the support for insurgent movments throughout the world, the arms race with the U.S. and NATO. These phenomena took on lives of their own in Soviet practice, with the ideological component largely absent. The split with Yugoslavia and China showed that factors other than ideology were dominant.

    In fact, following World War II, most Soviet leaders thought little of ideology. We could have ended the Cold War and the Soviets could have kept their ideology at home if they stopped trying to establish control of others by force and subversion.

    At home in the Soviet Union, however, a dysfunctional and oppressive system had been created by Stalin, based on the same ideology. When Gorbachev abandoned the ideology and removed the Communist Party from total control of the USSR, he was unable to reform the country before it fell apart.

    Ideology was an important element in all of this but not the exclusive one by any means. The application of the ideology led to a dysfunctional Soviet system and a foreign policy that was damaging to the well-being of the Soviet people until Gorbachev tried to change it. The Cold War ended on terms that made possible an attempt to reform the Soviet Union. That failed, but more for practical than ideological reasons since, following 1988, Soviet domestic and foreign policy was no longer based on Marxism-Leninism.

    The application of Marxism-Leninism in the USSR was a failure. But ending the Cold War without a hot war was a benefit to everyone. That is why I do not speak of victory of one country over another. So far as ideology is concerned, the history of the Cold War suggests that an open, mixed economy based on market principles is superior to a state-controlled economy that tries to defy market principles.

    In short, there is more than ideology involved, but the ideology was an important element.

Leave a Reply