Posted in Rants on December 5th, 2013 by Ed

In political science there is a shrinking but still quite depressing group of academics who studied the internal politics of the Soviet Union ("Sovietologists") and, due to tenure, outlived the Evil Empire by a couple decades. This is sad to me because these people specialized in something that has zero useful applications at this point, yet some of them are still around. The art of Sovietology involved using what little information was available to Western academics to make predictions about the heavily opaque internal politics of the Communist Party leadership in the USSR. They looked for signs that certain individuals were gaining or losing power and made educated guesses about the conflicts within the system, hidden from public view. It was, to put it mildly, an inexact science. Critics said it wasn't a science at all. But given that the entire Soviet government was shrouded in mystery to most Americans (even the intelligence services were only marginally aware of what was going on in any aspect of Soviet government and society except for the military) it was a useful effort.

When the USSR fell, ideally all of these people could have just retired or something. Some tried to transition to post-Soviet studies, but this is in fact a very different endeavor, theoretically and methodologically. Some tried to peddle their analysis for the Russian successor state ("Kremlinology") but information about Russian politics is not nearly so hard to come by as it was for the USSR. For the most part these folks, all of whom are pretty old now, are like a rotary dial telephone; a relic from a previous era, interesting but useless.

This is not unique to academia – the State Department, military, and other government agencies were full of these people in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of them are gone now. Most of the institutions of our society and government have come to grips, a quarter-century later, with the fact that the Cold War is over. But not everybody. Some people – neocons, for the most part – just can't let go. Either they are constitutionally incapable of updating any aspect of their worldview or they lack the intelligence to understand that the Cold War paradigm is no longer useful. It is not possible to keep the same framework in place and simply update the names – strike "USSR" and fill in "terrorism" or "North Korea." The world is different. Very different.

I feel the same sort of sadness when I see people like John Bolton, who recently generated some attention with an op-ed about how agreement or no agreement, someone needs to bomb Iran anyway. People like Bolton are forever stuck in 1980. The answer for everything is "Bomb it" or "Give the Pentagon more money" or ideally both. These aging Cold Warriors have been flailing around for two decades looking for an enemy, for a new Evil Empire to plug into their monochromatic worldview. But there is no modern equivalent of what the USSR was during the Cold War. It's pathetic to watch them try to make a new Soviet-sized enemy out of the table scraps available to them – an "Axis of Evil", for example, consisting of D-list wannabes that barely count as regional powers let alone global ones. Look at the dilemma this way: what would become of Superman if Lex Luthor and the other villains in that universe disappeared? Suddenly Superman would seem pretty irrelevant. He would either have to disappear or spend his time busting shoplifters and jaywalkers. And that would just be sad to watch.

It is reassuring, though, to realize that absolutely no one pays attention to these people anymore. Does anyone take John Bolton seriously? Does anyone care what he has to say about this or any other subject? The neocons had a chance to reassert their relevance in the early George W. Bush years and they blew it with Iraq. They were exposed for what they are: a sad group of people who are no longer relevant resorting to outrageous fabrications in an effort to make some third-rate dictator seem like an extremely dangerous boogeyman. Lacking what their belief system requires – a relatively equal opponent with nuclear weapons or their equivalent – they had to fabricate one. And now all but the most fact-impervious right wingers see with hindsight how little of a threat a country like Iraq posed or poses.

They're going through the motions again with Iran, and no one outside of the boardroom of the AEI appears to be buying the idea of Iran as a terrifying global menace. Deprived of a real enemy packing nukes, they're reduced to issuing hysterical warnings about countries that might be trying to build nuclear weapons – 75 years after the US, Britain, the USSR, and other true global powers did so. It's like the United States of 1950 deciding that some tiny nation posed a threat because they were attempting to figure out how to build machine guns. If the current situation with Iran is less ridiculous than that it is only slightly so.