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Containment For The 21st Century

by @ 4:22 pm on September 27, 2009. Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Foreign Affairs, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Middle East, War On Terror

In today’s Washington Post, Andrew J. Bacevich suggests that we reach back to the early days of the Cold War for ideas on how to deal with the war against Islamic terrorism:

Containment implies turning to the old Cold War playbook. When confronting the Soviet threat, the United States and its allies erected robust defenses, such as NATO, and cooperated in denying the communist bloc anything that could make Soviet computers faster, Soviet submarines quieter or Soviet missiles more accurate.

Containing the threat posed by jihad should follow a similar strategy. Robust defenses are key — not mechanized units patrolling the Iron Curtain, but well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports, and ensuring the integrity of electronic networks that have become essential to our way of life.

As during the Cold War, a strategy of containment should include comprehensive export controls and the monitoring of international financial transactions. Without money and access to weapons, the jihadist threat shrinks to insignificance: All that remains is hatred. Ideally, this approach should include strenuous efforts to reduce the West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which serves to funnel many billions of dollars into the hands of people who may not wish us well.

During the Cold War, containment did not preclude engagement, and it shouldn’t today. To the extent that the United States can encourage liberalizing tendencies in the Islamic world, it should do so — albeit with modest expectations. Sending jazz musicians deep into the Eastern Bloc in the old days was commendable, but Louis Armstrong’s trumpet didn’t topple the Soviet empire.

True, but then it’s not all that clear that containment did either, at least not on it’s own.

In the first ten years after George Kennan, writing pseudonymously as “X”, first outlined the containment strategy in 1947, the Communist world expanded to include China, Southeast Asia. Within a few years after that, a Soviet client state had ensconced itself a mere 90 miles from America’s shoreline. At the same time, the Soviet Union was heavily invested in, and somewhat successful at, bringing many of the nations that formed in Africa after the collapse of colonialism into its sphere of influence. During that time, we were also forced to fight a war that nearly resulted in the loss of South Korea, and drawn into another one that did little more than tear the United States apart on the home front. By 1979, not only had the Soviet sphere of influence expanded, but there were now two pro-Soviet states in Western Hemisphere. What we didn’t know at the time, of course, was that the internal economic contradictions of socialism, which some economists had written about long before the Cold War stated, would soon rip the Soviet Empire, and the USSR itself, to shreds.

So, it’s not necessarily the case that containment “worked” since it’s not really clear from the historical evidence that there was all that much containment. Yes, Western Europe and Japan were saved from Communism — and if that had not happened, it’s likely that history would’ve been very different, but it’s far from clear that, by itself, containment was the reason that the West ultimately won the Cold War.

Leaving that historical argument aside, though, it’s entirely unclear how containment would work in the present conflict.

For one thing, as Dave Schuler notes it’s not entirely clear who or what we would need to contain. Unlike the Soviet bloc, terrorist influenced by Islamic fundamentalism do not reside in a single country and they’re not even members of a discrete ethnic group. Moreover, what, exactly, is that they we are containing ? Is it an ideology ? A religious sect ? Or an entire religion ? Or is it, as the name “War On Terror” implies, little more than a method used by some to achieve political or religious goals ?

Its hard to contain something when you don’t know what you’re containing.

Even when you’ve answered the who (or the what as the case may be), there’s still the question of how ? Bacevich talks about export controls and the monitoring of international financial transactions, but that does little more than attempt to deny to certain states the means of exploiting technology. As North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Iran have proven, all the international sanctions and export controls in the world aren’t going to prevent a determined adversary from obtaining weapons if they want them.

Finally, it should be noted that, although it wasn’t stated by Kennan in his original article, an important part of the containment doctrine was the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction — the idea that both sides would refrain from using nuclear weapons to achieve strategic or tactical goals in the Cold War by the fact that the opposing side possessed the ability to destroy them. There’s ample reason to doubt that MAD would work in a conflict with determined religious fundamentalists who see themselves as ushering the era of a new Caliphate. The Russians didn’t nuke us because they were afraid we’d do the same to them, that kind of logic is not going to prevent a determined terrorist from using a nuclear weapon to destroy and American, or Israeli, city.

That’s not to say that containment in some form isn’t worth considering. As Dave notes, it would certainly seem to be something we could use with regard to Pakistan or Iran. But the idea that we can take a diplomatic and military strategy drafted 62 years ago and apply to a totally different conflict is just laughable.

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