Heart of Empire — December 12, 2014, 4:46 pm

Borderline Euphoric

Cold War II gets a bipartisan welcome

The notion that Washington politics are dominated by bitter partisan rivalry between the parties is conventional wisdom these days. In reality, on important matters such as measures desired by major banks or the defense industry, the parties are happy to cast aside petty differences in pursuit of a higher good—not to mention campaign contributions. For a recent example of comradely bipartisanship, look no further than House Resolution 758, passed on December 4 with an unequivocal majority of 411 votes to 10.

H.R. 758 strongly condemned “the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination,” charging the evil empire with “invading” Georgia, in 2008, and Crimea, in 2014, as well as imposing “trade barriers as weapons to apply economic and political pressure.” The bellicose measure passed with little debate, though Californian Republican Dana Rohrabacher, one of the five Democrats and five Republicans who dissented, has since denounced the resolution as being “tantamount to a declaration that Russia is America’s enemy” with wording that “spilled over with uncommon vitriol and inaccuracy.”

Money speaks louder than words, and a few days later, Congress endorsed a $554 billion defense-spending bill that included $810 million for the “European Reassurance Initiative,” requiring that “not less than $175 million be spent in support of Ukraine and the Baltic nations.” That “not less than,” according to expert defense budget analyst Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, should be translated as, “hook up hose to Treasury, suck out as much as you want.”

In short, in the immortal words of Diane Sawyer (quoted in my piece on this topic in the January issue of Harper’s Magazine), it’s “game on” for the U.S. and Russia, again. Other signs of a Cold War reprise may be less obvious to the general public, but they evoke heartfelt nostalgia among defense insiders. One may recall that, during the Cold War, the capabilities of Soviet defense technology were regularly inflated to frighten lawmakers into consigning our hard-earned dollars to the tender mercies of the military-industrial complex. Generals and admirals regularly attested to the miraculous powers of newly spotted Soviet tanks, aircraft, and submarines. Once in a while a defector would turn up with an actual specimen, often an unwelcome intrusion, since these usually turned out to be underperforming clunkers that belied the inflated threats of budget-hungry Pentagon chieftains. (My favorite was the allegedly fearsome T-72 tank that nonetheless displayed an unwelcome tendency to load the gunner into the main cannon.)

Now, like the first signs of spring, Russian weapons systems are once again being brought out of the shadows to enjoy glowing praise. “The Russian Bear Roars in the Sky. Beware the SU-35 Fighter,” wrote a defense-aviation specialist in a recent article for the National Interest, which ascribed near-miraculous capabilities to this new Russian warplane. “It’s a great airplane, and very dangerous,” declared one U.S. defense official quoted in the piece, while others spoke gloomily about the threat it poses to its latest U.S. equivalents.

In truth, the SU-35 is another clunker. Pierre Sprey, co-creator of the USAF’s F-16 and A-10 fighters, has analyzed the plane’s performance parameters and told me that it’s a “turkey” and a “pig in maneuverability.” “The Air Force and Navy threat-inflators,” he said, “are happily engaged in touting the imagined wonders of Russian and Chinese fighter technology and producing heaps of horseshit not seen since the glory days of the CIA and DIA lying about the Mig-21.”

It is not just the Air Force and Navy that are looking to resurrect the Russian Bear. There’s plenty in it for the Army too. “Vladimir Putin has solved the sequestration problem for us because he has proven that ground forces are needed to deter Russian aggression,” declared Congressman Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican and chair of an important defense subcommittee, at an October forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a growing presence among the stews of Washington think tankery.

Only one thing could mar this Cold War renaissance: noncooperation by the other party. To be sure, Putin has done all the right things so far, such as looking mean and annexing Crimea. But his interventions in eastern Ukraine have been markedly timid. Despite alarums from the likes of John Kerry, the Chauncey Gardiner of international diplomacy, who warns of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers committed to the fight, the largest force Putin has sent into action is a mere four battalions, at Novo Azovsk in the summer, since withdrawn. More recently there have been signs that any plans Moscow harbored for hiving off portions of eastern Ukraine are being abandoned. In any case, the oil price collapse, as generated by our good friends the Saudis in hopes of neutering our own resurgent oil industry, is putting paid to any projected Russian defense buildup.

Nevertheless, with budgets and political ambitions at stake, Cold War II is too big a prize to be discarded lightly. Defense-industry lobbyists greeted the Crimea takeover with “borderline euphoria,” according to a friend of mine who observes them at close quarters. As the vote on House Resolution 758 indicates, the mood won’t be allowed to pass anytime soon.

Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine today and receive instant digital access to “Game On”—plus our entire 164-year archive.

Single Page

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the October 2019 issue

Power of Attorney

Can progressive prosecutors achieve meaningful criminal-justice reform?

From the June 2019 issue

The Military-Industrial Virus

How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces

From the March 2019 issue

No Joe!

Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today