Reopening the case for containment

IAN SHAPIRO is a professor of political science and director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. He is the author of "Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror."

Containment is back.

Over the last 12 months, commentators as varied as George Will, MIT political science professor Barry Posen and Thomas Friedman have all suggested that containing a nuclear-armed Iran might be preferable to attacking it.

Last month, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution joined in with a study advocating a return to a policy of containment in Iraq -- even though he had been one of the most vocal supporters of the 2003 invasion on the grounds that containment was failing.

Even James Baker’s Iraq Study Group proposed in its December report that the U.S. should work with Iran and Syria to contain the Iraqi conflict.


Containment is a Cold War idea, articulated by historian and diplomat George Kennan in the late 1940s in his famous Foreign Affairs magazine article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” (which he published under the pseudonym “X”). Kennan, who had been stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, argued that as long as the Soviet Union did not attack us, we should not attack it -- but should rely instead on economic sticks and carrots, on intelligence and diplomacy and on promoting the health and vitality of the capitalist democracies to win the Cold War.

Yes, Kennan wrote, the Soviets were eager to increase their sphere of influence, but U.S. policy should nevertheless be built on “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” With time, he believed, the dysfunctional Soviet system, overextended beyond its own borders, would collapse of its own accord.

History proved him right.

But that was then and this is now. Containment (which was also our policy toward President Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the Clinton years) fell into disfavor in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush administration denounced it as inadequate to meet the threats of the post-9/11 world. If Al Qaeda is attacking and nuclear terrorists are roaming the globe and rogue governments are providing them with weapons, the administration argued, only radical measures -- preemptive war and forcible regime change -- can protect us.

This was the modern equivalent of the “rollback” policy (to push the Soviets out of Eastern Europe) proposed by John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election campaign (but abandoned as impracticable when they came into office the following year).

So what’s the truth? Is containment in fact obsolete, as the Bush administration would have it? Numerous parallels suggest that it is not.

After World War II, for instance, Kennan knew that national security would have to be managed with scarce resources as troops were demobilized and military budgets cut. Trying to dominate the world would be impossibly expensive. It made more sense, Kennan thought, to work for a world that no one could dominate. That’s why he welcomed the rise of Titoism as a challenge to Soviet hegemony, recognizing that competition within the world communist movement worked to our advantage.

This lesson is lost on the Bush administration, which had giant budget surpluses to play with just a few years ago but is now facing an Iraq war debt well in excess of a trillion dollars and massive budget deficits as far as the eye can see.

Instead of following the Kennan model and pitting our adversaries against one another, the administration encourages them to make common cause at every turn. The “axis of evil” speech in the 2002 State of the Union address is a stunning example. The senseless alienation of Iran when the moderates had the upper hand there and were cooperating in Afghanistan made no sense for the United States.

Kennan believed that the way to win hearts and minds was by demonstrating the superiority of democratic capitalism on the ground. Hence his support for the Marshall Plan to consolidate democratic success in Europe as fast as possible.

This too is medicine for our time because Islamic fundamentalism shares with communism the lack of a viable political economy. Where fundamentalist movements have come to power in Afghanistan and Iran, the results have been disastrous. Islamic fundamentalism poses no competitive threat to democratic capitalism. That’s why so much of the population of Iran (as distinct from the country’s leadership) is strongly pro-Western in values and orientation.

Kennan was convinced that arguing with the Soviets was a waste of time. The United States should focus, he believed, on what our enemies did rather than what they said, assuming they would act in response to their interests, not to our arguments. And it works.


THINK OF LIBYA, where Moammar Kadafi responded to the incentives (and disincentives) of containment despite his anti-Western invective. In the late 1990s, containment (including economic sanctions) led him to stop sponsoring terrorism, turn over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and pay compensation to British and French victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism.

Instead of Iraq being the model for Iran, Libya should be. But allies of the administration see it differently and are pushing the modern equivalent of rollback, suggesting that we should attack Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program.

True, in some respects, Kennan’s doctrine needs to be modified for a world that is no longer bipolar, in which there may be multiple adversaries operating in different places. This requires the creation of regional security alliances. Kennan opposed the creation of NATO on the grounds that it would militarize the conflict with the Soviets unnecessarily. But, as Col. Joseph Nunez of the U.S. Army War College has argued, we now need NATO-like organizations on every continent to contain terrorist groups and sectarian conflicts in failed states.

Kennan also had little time for international organizations such as the U.N., believing that they would be swept aside in any real conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But in the globalized world of the 21st century, such international organizations are essential for peacekeeping, international law enforcement and legitimization of intervention when containment requires it.

It is ironic that the two areas in which Kennan’s views are most outdated and wrongheaded -- working with regional allies and international institutions -- are the two areas in which the Bush administration follows his lead.

Kennan died two years ago at 101. But his doctrine of containment should not be buried along with him.

Containment is not obsolete. The Bush doctrine is.