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The Good Old Days

This column was written by Alan W. Dowd.

The headlines make the faint-of-heart yearn for the good old days, when things were stable and simple. The bad news is literally everywhere:

Moscow is blustering about retargeting missiles on America's allies in Europe, buzzing U.S. aircraft carriers, and building up its military.

Washington and Europe seem to be drifting in opposite directions. In fact, American facilities are being torched in Europe.

The Middle East is bloodied and bruised by terrorism, rocked by wars and bracing for a nuclear showdown. The revolutionary regime in Iran is defying America's will, and Afghanistan's chaos is spilling into Pakistan. Speaking of which, a respected Muslim head-of-state is assassinated one day, another narrowly escapes the next.

And in our own hemisphere, South America seems to be sliding backwards. One South American regime is even threatening to invade a neighbor.

If it seems like the world is coming apart, it isn't - because the world has weathered all of this and worse. In fact, these headlines - and some scarier ones - come not from 2008, but rather from a 15-month period spanning January 1981 and April 1982.

Moscow may be stretching its wings with joy rides above U.S. battle groups and threatening Poland for daring to act like a sovereign nation, but it pays to recall where things stood in 1981.

Today, we fret over North Korea's eight nukes and Iran's nascent nuclear program - and rightly so - but in 1981, the U.S.S.R. had 30,000 nukes; an empire that dominated half of Europe and much of Asia, with outposts in Central America, Africa, and the Pacific; the capacity to block America's will; and the means to threaten America's very existence.

As a result, it was a hair-trigger world, teetering on the edge not just of global war, but global annihilation.

Although the Cold War between Moscow and Washington never turned hot, the two waged bloody and costly proxy wars against each other. Between 1945 and 1990, these spin-off wars claimed some 20 million lives, perhaps more. On the heels of Moscow's proxy war against the United States in Vietnam, for instance, Washington was waging its own proxy war against Moscow in 1981, this one in Afghanistan.

And back then, Moscow occupied the very places it now merely threatens - namely Eastern Europe.

That brings us to the troubles in Europe. Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be frustrated with NATO - and the NATO secretary general frustrated with Gates' frustration - but the transatlantic waters were far choppier in 1981.

As Derek Leebaert explains in his 2002 book "The Fifty-Year Wound," by Carter's presidency NATO had devolved into "a military museum, and one with a poorly run endowment." And as Reagan came into office, NATO leaders wobbled as millions of Europeans protested Washington's slow-motion deployment of Pershing missiles along the Iron Curtain in response to Moscow's deployment of SS-20s.

If you think the Serbian rioters who torched the U.S. embassy in Belgrade to protest Kosovo's independence are cause for concern, consider this: In 1981, as Leebaert reminds us, anti-American elements in West Germany car-bombed Ramstein Air Base and launched rocket attacks against Americans in Heidelberg. By 1984-85, they were carrying out a full-blown "terrorist offensive" against American facilities, bombing a U.S. air base in Frankfurt and attacking U.S. troops in Wiesbaden.

The Middle East is a mess today. But it has been that way for the better part of a century. And one could make the case that it was a bigger mess in 1981 - or at least that the U.S. was a lot further away from cleaning up the mess back then.

On the eve of 1981, for example, the Iran-Iraq war began. It would last a decade and claim a million lives, including 37 American sailors, who were killed when an Iraqi warplane attacked the USS Stark. (The Iraqi government claimed its pilot had targeted an Iranian vessel.)

In January 1981, Iran released 52 Americans from captivity. The Ayatollah's Islamic revolution had held them - and a president and an entire nation - hostage for 444 days.

By June 1981, Israel had launched its daring attack into Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear facility. A year later, Israel would invade Lebanon in hopes of crushing the PLO.

By the end of 1981, the Red Army had already been in Afghanistan for two years, setting in motion a spiral of events that led to the collapse of centralized authority in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban, al Qaeda's global guerilla war, the maiming of Manhattan, and, inevitably, Washington's global war on terror.

In other words, regardless of what Brent Scowcroft and others tell us, the Middle East has been anything but stable for a long, long time. This is not an excuse or an argument for washing our hands, Pilate-like, and coming home. Indeed, it's an argument for the very opposite-and a reality check for those who claim this administration did worse than its predecessors.

Today, in an effort to distract attention from his disastrous economic program, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez threatens to invade Colombia and make common cause with the murderous thugs of the FARC. But in April 1982, Argentina actually did invade the Falklands, triggering a war with Britain and risking a rupture of the Anglo-American alliance. (Recall that Argentina's junta was backed by the U.S. as a bulwark against communism.)

Speaking of communists, there is a new surge of leftist governments in Latin America. But there are mitigating factors this time around: Cuba's revolution, like its chief revolutionary, has withered away. Nicaragua's Ortega now covets a trade and aid partnership with America. And the rest of South America's socialists seem to want something more like Mitterrand's France than Castro's Cuba.

As to assassinations, if you think Bhutto's murder and Karzai's narrow escapes are signs of global chaos, try this out: Between March 30, and October 6, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and nearly killed (just 69 days into his presidency), as was John Paul II, and Anwar Sadat, after making peace with Israel, was cut down and murdered by his own people.

In short, if today's world is bad, yesterday's was worse. Indeed, we would do well to heed the ancient words of Ecclesiastes: "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions" And our memories usually fail us anyway.
By Alan W. Dowd