Sam Tanenhaus: Is Richard Pipes the Godfather of the War on Terrorism?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the Boston Globe (Nov. 2, 2003):

Over the past two years, the Bush administration has inspired one of the more stimulating scavenger hunts in recent memory -- the search for the Ur-theorist of its bold foreign policy initiatives. With each new turn another name has emerged. "Regime change" gave us the political philosopher Leo Strauss. The "shock and awe" campaign brought forth the Cold War calculations of military strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Hints of follow-up aggression against Syria and North Korea had some consulting Trotsky's writings on "permanent revolution."

A likelier candidate might be Richard Pipes, the eminent historian of Russia who two decades ago interrupted a thriving career as a Harvard professor to help the Reagan administration articulate an assertive foreign policy that strikingly prefigured the "Bush doctrine" of today.

Drawing on themes he first explored as a scholar in the 1950s and `60s -- in particular, the brutal top-down nature of Russian power and its ultimate fragility -- Pipes wrote hardline policy memos that gave impetus to the "second Cold War" of the late 1970s and `80s in which negotiation with the USSR was replaced by political confrontation. His influence peaked in 1981-82 when, as an official at the National Security Council, he helped steer Ronald Reagan toward the belief that the Soviet regime could and must be defeated....

All this history seems to point in one direction. Does Pipes mean to say the "second Cold War" was in fact a rehearsal for the "war on terror"?

He is carefully agnostic on the matter. But the connection is hard to ignore. "If your view is that the problems the United States faces today are analogous to those of the Cold War, that you face an organized opponent with a radically different worldview," says [Russian expert Stephen] Sestanovich, "you can then see some similarities between a comprehensive strategy to get at that worldview that was developed by Pipes during the Cold War and the strategy the Bush administration has developed since 9/ 11."

It is all the more remarkable, then, that Pipes has some misgivings about the most recent application, in Iraq, of the approach he helped formulate. "I think the war was correct -- destroying this invasive evil. But beyond this I think they're too ambitious," he says.

He bluntly dismisses the promise of a democratic Iraq -- "impossible, a fantasy" -- citing obstacles similar to Russia's. "Democracy requires, among other things, individualism -- the breakdown of old clannish, tribal organizations, the individual standing face-to-face with the state. You don't have that in the Middle East. Iraq is tribally run."

What about the constitution soon to be written in Baghdad? Pipes laughs. "Stalin had a wonderful constitution, the most perfect constitution in the world. There's a lot of naivete in that. I should think we'd be satisfied with some kind of stability, preventing Saddam Hussein from coming back. It's fantastic that we haven't caught this man. He sits there somewhere."

It is not lost on Pipes that his criticism goes directly to the judgment of the Bush team, conservatives like himself, in some cases former colleagues, most prominently Team B's own Wolfowitz. "Paul didn't have much education in history," Pipes says. "It's not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn't have a particular understanding of other cultures."

The administration official with whom Pipes is most in sympathy is its resident Russian expert, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. "She came to see me after I left Washington in 1983," Pipes says, though he has not heard from her since. Perhaps now that her portfolio has been expanded, the call will come.

comments powered by Disqus