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Kennan, testifying before Congress in 1990 (AP)

Containment as a basis for national security

COMMENTARY | September 04, 2007

Yale scholar and author Ian Shapiro proposes that containment, the strategy designed by George F. Kennan in the 1940s to deal with the Soviet Union, be implemented today to cope with the new challenges of terrorism. He sees it as a way for the U.S. to establish a rational, respected, effective foreign policy.

By Ian Shapiro

A huge problem confronting the U.S. in Iraq is the perception that we lack the will to stay the course. If enough people believe that it’s only a matter of time before we pack up and leave, this has a knock-on effect in the present. Insurgents have every incentive to wait us out, and, at home, the addition of scores of new American fatalities each month seems all the more tragically pointless.

This difficulty is compounded by our need to depend on allies whose own politics might make them just as fickle. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is widely known to be cooler than was Tony Blair about his country’s involvement in Iraq. Even as Downing Street was denying that Brown’s July visit to Camp David involved unveiling plans for a British withdrawal, The Times of London reported that one of his aides was sounding Washington out “on the possibility of an early British military withdrawal” and the departure from Basra that has since taken place. If the other side believes you are going to fold, why won’t they up the ante?

A possible response to this is to scotch the perception of inevitable defeat. No doubt this is what prompted Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman’s criticism of Senator Clinton earlier this summer. Responding to her request for a Pentagon plan for U.S. departure, Edelman wrote that “premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.”

This was a gift to Senator Clinton. Suggesting that a Senator who raises questions about the administration’s Iraq policy is somehow unpatriotic or giving aid and comfort to the enemy smacks of McCarthyism. Hillary could therefore both take the moral high ground and further distance herself from her earlier support for the war. Edelman’s response also reflects his slim grasp of the problem’s roots. The reason our leaders’ commitments to Iraq will flag is that the public does not believe that we went to war in Iraq to protect a vital American interest.

Six decades ago George F. Kennan, Director of Policy Planning in the Truman Administration, pointed out that going to war when a vital American interest is not threatened is problematic just because our adversaries will have vital interests at stake. Opponents will therefore have every incentive to wait us out, confident that the dynamic Edelman would like to head off will eventually kick in. This is why Kennan opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam, which unfolded as he predicted, and why, in 2002 at the age of 98, he also spoke out against the planned Iraq invasion.

President Bush’s recent attempts to deploy the Vietnam analogy have, predictably, backfired. The revisionist historians to whom the President appealed claim—as General Westmoreland and others did at the time—that the war was winnable and greater suffering would have been averted had we stayed. These claims are controversial and have been widely challenged, but the more salient point to note here is that they could be granted without laying a glove on Kennan’s point.  It depends not on claims about whether the U.S. might in principle be able to prevail at some point in a given conflict.  Rather, it depends on the claim that the window of opportunity is likely to close before we prevail—if the U.S. goes to war when and American vital interest is not at stake.

Kennan was the architect of the doctrine of containment, developed at the start of the Cold War in response to the Soviet threat. He believed the Soviet system was not viable in the long run and that its international over-extension would lead it eventually to implode. So long as the USSR did not attack us, we should rely on economic sticks and carrots, competition within the world communist movement, intelligence and diplomacy, and promoting the health and vitality of the capitalist democracies to hem in the threat. History proved Kennan right.

Containment continues to make sense as a basis for U.S. national security policy in the post-Cold War era. Islamic fundamentalism presents no more of a competitive threat to democratic capitalism than communism did. The costs of “regime change” across the Middle East today are no more sustainable than the “rollback” that Kennan opposed in Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Kennan continues to be plausible in that, rather than lump our adversaries together and give them common cause, we should take advantage of their differences. This is the opposite of the Administration’s “Axis of Evil.”

Containment faces new challenges in the post-Cold War world. Terrorist groups move around. They often operate out of rogue nations and failed states. Global terrorism must, indeed, be confronted on a global basis. This might even involve the need for military action, as was required to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

But the first President Bush understood something that is lost on his son: that sustainable military action against post-Cold War threats requires more than unilateral action buttressed by opportunistic “coalitions of the willing.” Rather, it must be authorized by international institutions and supported by large coalitions in which there is strong representation from countries in the local region.

In the post-Cold War world, facing down the expansion of tyranny might require a military response to belligerence, even when this does not involve strict self-defense. The U.S. should be willing to support international containment for this purpose. Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait is a case in point. It was unprovoked aggression that clearly called for a response by democracies committed to resisting the spread of domination in the world. But just because it was not a matter of self-defense for the U.S. and its allies the question inevitably arose: by what authority could they act?

International action with strong regional participation is needed partly for pragmatic reasons. Countries in the region are likely to have vital interests at stake, and could be potential spoilers. Their participation will help scotch the perception that the far-off power is acting from imperial motives. Participation from Arab countries in the region in the U.S. effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 was important for all these reasons. The lack of comparable cooperation with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has compounded our difficulties there significantly.

It will typically be true that pursuing containment on a global basis will require cooperation from others. It is sometimes said that the containment regime against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was failing by 2002—as indicated by the fact that he agreed to the return of UN weapons inspectors only once American troops were massing on his border. If we grant that argument, it also reveals the limits of unilateral action. As a containment regime, the U.S. action was unsustainable. Everyone knew that we could not keep the troops there at battle-readiness throughout the summer of 2003, presenting the Bush administration with the conundrum that either it invade or withdraw—in which case Saddam could have expelled the weapons inspectors again.

If, instead, President Bush had put together the kind of coalition his father had assembled in 1991, then troops from different nations could have been rotated in and out, keeping up the pressure. To this it might be objected that too few powers would have agreed to participate to make this viable. Perhaps so, but that suggests, in turn, that the Americans were exaggerating the threat. If other major powers would not participate and Iraq’s neighbors did not feel sufficiently threatened to get involved either, that should have been a warning that the WMD threat in Iraq might indeed be a paper tiger.

Regional participation is important also for normative reasons. Nations bordering on an expansionist power will have major, possibly vital, interests at stake. This gives them a strong claim to a say and to a role in the defensive response. To this it might be objected that, if they are not themselves democracies, why should democrats respect the appeal of the governments of regional powers to the principle of affected interest? Why should we care about Kuwait’s interests, let alone those of Syria or Iran?

But the failure of others to respect the principle of affected interest is not a good reason for democrats to flout it. Moreover, the leaders of democracies have an interest in encouraging non-democracies to adopt democratic norms and to play by democratic rules when they operate internationally—whether in institutions like the UN or in informal consultations and coalitions. The more governments accept the norm’s legitimacy in one context the more they legitimate it, willy nilly, in others—making it harder to resist domestic demands for democratic reform.

Authorization through international institutions also matters for reasons both practical and normative. On the practical front, it will often be the UN officials from development and other agencies on the ground who have access to pertinent information. This is especially likely to be true as far as weak and failed states are concerned, where it will often be these people who will know the details of different war lords’ capacities and agendas, where the weak points in borders are, and other relevant street-level information. Moreover, international authorization of containment coalitions enhances their stability. It is harder for a country to withdraw from participation when it has become committed through an international legal process than when it is merely a coalition “of the willing”—of which a different administration might take a different view. Gordon Brown’s replacement of Tony Blair is a case in point.

But the most important reasons for international authorization are normative. If major powers act either unilaterally or via coalitions of the willing when they are not themselves under threat of imminent attack, they lack principled authority for their actions.  As a result, they are likely to be seen as imperialistic, opportunistic, or both. The 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 action against Afghanistan garnered worldwide support partly because they were authorized by the UN Security Council. This stands in stark contrast to the 2003 Iraq war, which continues widely to be seen as a rogue American action against a country that posed no regional or global threat. Rather than undermine the UN at every turn, as the Bush Administration has done, the major democratic powers should be working to strengthen the UN, and then work through it to face domination down. There is no alternative if we are to have an effective global strategy against international terror.

Regional participation is needed to make containment sustainable. If we go it alone all over the globe, our bluff will be called time and again for the reason Kennan gave: Americans will not support it down the stretch. The Iraq Study Group understood this when it insisted that we begin working with Syria and Iran to contain the terrorist threats that are going to emanate from Iraq for a long time to come. More generally, as Colonel Joseph Núnez has argued, we need NATO-like organizations on every continent to contain terrorist groups and sectarian conflicts in failed states.

This is not to say we should trust the Syrians or be sanguine about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But just as a strategic opening to China was helpful in containing the USSR, so a strategic opening to Iran will be helpful in containing the terrorism that will otherwise emanate from Iraq. Iran would face major problems with its own Kurdish populations if Iraq broke up, not to mention a major refugee crisis. Iran also shares an interest with the U.S. in not seeing the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan. These are among the reasons that the Mullahs have been signaling a desire to work with Washington. This is not to deny that Iran will also need to be contained, just as China had to be contained during the Cold War even after Nixon went to Beijing. It is to say that we often share some common interests with our adversaries, making it feasible and sometimes necessary to work with them.

Containing Containment
Posted by Shane Mahoney -
01/23/2008, 08:18 PM

It has become fashionable to argue that the threats presented to American interests in the Gulf region should be addressed through containment, just as the US did with Soviet threats during the Cold War. In addition to Ian Shapiro, , Richard Betts has made the same observation in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Given the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a certain attraction to such views. What is overlooked, however, is the fact that Cold War containment was a unilateral action on the part of the US. Western Europe was economically, militarily, and politically prostrate and dependent on the Marshall Plan — while the US possessed nuclear dominance well into the 1960s. Too, very substantial US bases were maintained in Europe permitting forward deployment of US forces. Even so, not all threatening initiatives by the Soviets and Chinese were contained. As we examine the issue of stability in the Gulf region, it is absolutely clear that it can't be achieved without a long-term US combat presence in that area — no other country can do it (nor could other countries have "rotated" in during the 2003 waiting game with Iraq — especially since some of those invited had disavowed any use of force). Moreover, US "friends" in that neighborhood are themselves beset by very serious currents of change and instability — the present direction of which hardly promises an outcome favorable to the US. In fact, even those who argued for containment before the attack on Iraq agreed that it would not preclude Iraq from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons. The same can be said of containing Iran. Unfortunately, any addition at all of nuclear powers in the Gulf will create a remarkably unstable brew and dramatically alter the reality of any containment efforts. Very serious US and global interests are at stake in the Gulf, interests that traditional allies recognize but find difficult to actively support given their sad domestic political realities. Other capable powers have a stake in opposing the US. To suggest that the absence of substantial coalition partners is evidence that a threat is exaggerated is truly a laughable proposition — one that would undoubtedly cause Churchill to wince. However, none of this suggests that a preemptive attack on Iran or anyone else is the answer. But it does argue that in the midst of contemporary realities, harking back to Kennanesque notions of containment is remarkably simplistic.

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