Reconsider containment in Iraq and the Middle East

Daily News Egypt
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The United States and the world are focused on whether the Bush administration will adopt the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations for an exit strategy from Iraq. That is the most pressing question, but America’s leaders should also be thinking ahead.

America needs a post-occupation strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, one grounded in a viable national security strategy for the 21st century. That strategy is containment. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration rejected containment as an obsolete Cold War hangover. The weapons inspectors were pulled out and America opted for preemptive war. Bush was portrayed as facing down a new Hitler with Churchillian resolve, and advocates of containment were accused of appeasement.

But now we know that the containment regime worked. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in no position to threaten anyone, let alone the United States. This was not the first time that containment – a strategy devised by George Kennan, the director of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff under President Harry Truman, in response to the Soviet threat after World War II – has been rejected as appeasement.

In the 1952 presidential election campaign, Dwight Eisenhower and his future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, heaped scorn on containment, calling instead for a “rollback of the Soviets in Eastern Europe. Fortunately, once in office, the Eisenhower administration had the sense to stick with containment in Europe, continuing a policy widely credited for winning the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy’s insistence, against much advice, on containment during the Cuban missile crisis saved the world from nuclear war. This was calculated resolve, not appeasement. Containment’s goal was to prevent Soviet expansion without saddling the US with unsustainable military obligations.

So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment’s reliance on economic sticks and carrots, competition within the world communist movement, intelligence and diplomacy, and promoting the vitality of the capitalist democracies would guarantee security. Kennan was right: the dysfunctional features of Soviet system, and its over-extension internationally, would lead to its demise. When containment has been abandoned, America has paid a high price. The Eisenhower administration toppled Iran’s elected government in 1953 believing it to be too pro-Soviet. The hugely unpopular shah they reinstalled was swept away in the Islamic revolution in 1979. America made comparable errors in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. Vietnam was America’s costliest departure from containment. As Kennan explained, when America goes to war over something less than a vital interest, the adversary – for whom vital interests are at stake – will fight long after the war has become too unpopular at home to sustain. Bush repeated this mistake in Iraq. Containment is hardly a relic of the Cold War. It worked against Libya, leading Muammar Qaddafi in the late 1990s to stop sponsoring terrorism, turn over the Lockerbie bombers for trial, and pay compensation to British and French victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism.

Claims that he abandoned his nuclear program in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq have been refuted by Flynt Leverett, director for Middle Eastern affairs at the US National Security Council from 2002 to 2003. According to Leverett, Qaddafi’s decision predated the invasion and was a response to an explicit quid pro quo to end international sanctions against Libya. Containment against Libya was not appeasement. It should have been the model in Iraq, as it now should be the model in Iran. Instead, defenders of the contemporary equivalent of “rollback advocate attacking Iran because it is developing nuclear weapons.

This makes about as much sense as it would to attack China in the 1950s. One of Kennan’s great insights was that the US is well served by conflict among America’s adversaries. He welcomed Tito’s rise in Yugoslavia as an internal challenge to Moscow’s hegemony that he hoped others would emulate. This lesson is lost on the Bush administration, which senselessly alienated Iran in 2002, when moderates had the upper hand there and were cooperating in Afghanistan, and reversed decades of US policy by insisting that any Middle East settlement must accept changed “realities on the ground in the West Bank. The administration seems bent on herding adversaries together -transforming Samuel Huntington’s “clash-of-civilizations dystopia into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kennan maintained that the US should work to create a world that no one can dominate, and that the best way to spread democracy is to demonstrate its superiority. Ramming democracy down people’s throats is self-defeating.

Just as it produced a potent fusion of communism and anti-American nationalism in Southeast Asia and Latin America, it is now producing a similar combination of radical Islam and anti-American nationalism across the Middle East. Terrorist groups can be minimized if their enabling states are contained. Defenders of the Bush doctrine claim that this is impossible when they operate out of failed states that cannot police their borders. But, given that the Bush doctrine has compounded the failed-state problem, this is a bogus argument.

However many failed states there were in the world before America invaded Iraq, there is one more now. To build a containment regime against terrorism emanating from the Middle East, a date for America’s departure from Iraq must be set. There is no other way to reverse the widespread perception across the region that the US has imperial ambitions.

The other essential step is to place resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict at the center of America’s foreign policy agenda. America must push for a solution that can garner the support of significant majorities of all the peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

That is the surest means of protecting and promoting democracy.

Ian Shapiro is a professor of political science at Yale University and author of the forthcoming book “Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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