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One theory on today’s global crises

Fred Kaplan

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.”

More than 100 people—mostly students—attended Tuesday's event, which was held in the Alumni Center. The event, titled “America, and the World in the Age of Obama,” was the latest installment in the Controversial Issues in Security Studies series. Photo by Matthew Modoono.

More than 100 people—mostly students—attended Tuesday’s event, which was held in the Alumni Center. The event, titled “America, and the World in the Age of Obama,” was the latest installment in the Controversial Issues in Security Studies series. Photo by Matthew Modoono.

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 Timesbest­seller 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.”


– By Greg St. Martin

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