Chaos and conflict on the international landscape—particularly in the Middle East—in recent years can in part be traced back to America’s victory in the Cold War, veteran journalist and Slate columnist Fred Kaplan said Tuesday at Northeastern.
Kaplan said the Cold War provided an international security system of sorts, simplistically defined by two spheres: the U.S.-controlled West and the Soviet-controlled East. This system, he explained, provided the U.S. with leverage over some countries to align with America in certain situations, even if their interests weren’t aligned, because these countries feared the alternative. But when that alternative (the Soviet Union) fell and the power structure vanished, America’s leverage was diminished.
While Kaplan admitted his theory seems somewhat paradoxical, he said the ripple effects are present today. For example, while President Obama has created a coalition of Arab nations to confront the ISIS threat, there are myriad interests in the region that are far more complex and long-term focused. “It’s good to set coalitions, but to do this we have to do it understanding that we have converging interests on some things but very opposing interests on other things,” Kaplan said. “So the expectations have to be extremely controlled, to say the least.”
“It’s very difficult to imagine that if the Cold War were still on, that something like al-Qaida could’ve gotten off the ground. It’s very difficult to imagine that the Arab Spring could even have happened,” he continued. “The point is these things would’ve been clamped down on because the Soviet Union was always very terrified of Muslim extremists in central Asia. They wouldn’t have tolerated for a second something like al-Qaida growing up right on the border.”
Kaplan served as the keynote speaker Tuesday afternoon for the most recent installment of Northeastern’s Controversial Issues in Security Studies series. More than 100 people—mostly students—attended the event, which was titled “America, and the World in the Age of Obama” and was presented by the Northeastern Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, the Department of Political Science, and the Northeastern Humanities Center. The series has previously explored topics such as the clash between Israel and Hamas, “killer robots,” and the battle for Ukraine.
Prior to joining Slate in 2002 as its “war stories” columnist, Kaplan’s worked for 20 years at The Boston Globe in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, as the Moscow bureau chief in the early post-Soviet era, and then the New York bureau chief for seven years during Gov. Rudy Giuliani’s tenure and the Sept. 11 attacks. His most recent book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, was a New York Times bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2014.
When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Kaplan described Obama as “practically allergic to mission creep,” pointing to the president’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech as an outline for how Obama views foreign policy. Kaplan suggested the speech was “the most sophisticated view of foreign policy that a president has ever given, at least since World War II.” He said it was daring for Obama, in that venue, to say military force is often necessary, and that while American force has been a positive influence, there are limits to what a power can do. “It’s an expression of international realism,” Kaplan said.
However, Kaplan posited that the current campaign against ISIS is the beginning of mission creep as the campaign has expanded in Syria and Iraq. He added, “I don’t think (Obama) will send in ground troops, but I’m not so sure about his successor. A dynamic has been put in motion.”
During a Q-and-A session, Kaplan fielded a question from a Northeastern student from Saudi Arabia who said she opposes most military interventions but acknowledged the successful one the U.S. waged in the Gulf War in 1990-91. The international affairs student noted that many people in the region don’t remember the U.S. even being there, and she asked if this success could be replicated with the U.S. response to ISIS.
Kaplan noted this was Obama’s intention. He also credited President George H. W. Bush’s administration for forming a united coalition of Arab nations during the Gulf War to push Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait and resisting extending the war further into Baghdad.
“It’s interesting to hear you say that it didn’t seem like an American invasion,” Kaplan said. “The (Bush administration) worked tirelessly to create and perpetuate that impression—and politically it was true. And that’s all that counted.”