A Buildup in Search of an Enemy

THE DEFEAT of Hitler, coming only weeks after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, when the Soviet Union went immediately from being America's indispensable partner to being America's nemesis.

Roosevelt's inclination to pursue cooperation with Moscow was replaced by Truman's apparent hunger for confrontation. On April 23, 1945, the new president met in Washington with Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov. The Russian had requested the meeting hoping to avoid ''differences of interpretation and possible complications'' that would not have arisen ''if Roosevelt lived.''

But Molotov was met with what the historian Daniel Yergin calls ''a stern lecture'' from Truman. ''I have never been talked to like that in my life,'' protested Molotov. To which Truman answered, ''Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that.'' This at the moment when the bloodied Red Army, carrying out its ultimate agreement, was closing in on Berlin.

In his classic work ''Shattered Peace,'' Yergin comments, ''A stern lecture by the president of the United States to the foreign minister of the Soviet Union was hardly the cause of the Cold War. Yet that exchange did symbolize the beginning of the postwar divergence that led to confrontation.''

A few weeks later, at the organizing meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, the American delegation escalated the confrontation with the Soviets, prompting Walter Lippmann to sound an alarm. The US-Soviet faceoff, he wrote ''is not inherent in the nature of things but is due to inexperience and emotional instability in our own delegation.... This should never have happened. It would never have happened, I feel sure, if President Roosevelt were still alive, and it will lead to great trouble.''

These incidents are often recalled in the context of the question of whether the Cold War was necessary. But my interest is simpler. Truman's enforcers were convinced that the Soviets would yield before such pressure. After all, the United States stood alone as an unchallenged superpower, the only nation to come out of World War II intact, far stronger than it had ever been. The devastated Soviet Union would have no choice, in Yergin's words, except ''to accept a subsidiary role in the postwar world.''

Sound familiar? The new American position of absolute preeminence was on full display in President Bush's State of the Union speech last week. Washington bluntly dictates its will on everything from the international treaties it chooses to abrogate or ignore to monetary policy to the next battleground for the war on terrorism.

When President Bush declared his readiness to attack the ''axis of evil,'' it mattered less that there is no such axis among the three named states than that in the face of such bluster they now have a reason to create one. The Manichaeism of the evangelical president requires an ''evil'' against which America can be ''good.'' Oh, and by the way, that cosmic contest, once declared, justifies the largest military buildup since the first Reagan administration.

Against what enemy? Not terrorists. The impotence of American chest-thumping is revealed in nothing more pointedly than the embarrassing - and rarely noted - fact that the triumphant war against the Taliban led to the apprehension of neither Osama bin Laden nor the anthrax attacker. The war against terrorism requires far subtler responses than the Pentagon sledgehammer. Adding weight to the hammerhead at the cost of billions will not make us safer from anthrax psychopaths or suicidal fanatics. But it may lead to something worse.

When Walter Lippmann warned of trouble in 1945, he could not have imagined with what efficiency the Soviet Union would respond to the arrogant ultimatum it received from Washington. Moscow rejected any notion of subsidiarity. Its quick - and in America, unforeseen - development of its own nuclear arsenal revealed Truman's initial swagger for what it was - the brutishness of a puerile fool. And today? It seems inconceivable that any state power will emerge to challenge American dominance, but we would likewise have to be fools to assume our sway is permanent.

Yes, we are the most powerful nation in the history of the planet. Yet we are terrified. Out of fears driven by one kind of threat, based on the capacity of anarchic individuals to cause mass suffering, we are creating an overwhelming response to an entirely other kind of threat, one existing only in the imaginations of Pentagon planners - and of contract-happy defense contractors.

The coming military buildup, irrelevant to terrorism, may lead instead to the creation of a monster that can indeed oppose us. It happened before. ''Inexperience and emotional instability,'' together with the puerile thrill of power, rampant moralism, and supreme arrogance - there is an axis to fear.

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