Friday, January 12, 2007

containment, the sequel

Zvika Krieger points us to Ian Shapiro’s recent suggestion of a better way to proceed in the Middle East:

America needs a post-occupation strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, one grounded in a viable national security strategy for the twenty-first century. That strategy is containment.

. . .

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.

Shapiro argues that a similar strategy has already worked with Libya, and could work if applied to the Middle East more broadly.

Krieger sums up:

So there are two lessons from the Cold War: We only hurt ourselves by intervening, and that we will only have the confidence not to intervene when we acknowledge that there is little direct threat to American security. We can't use the abstract threat of "terrorism" to justify hasty and aggressive action in the Middle East anymore. We have to recapture that Cold War confidence that authoritarian states will collapse as a result of their own dysfunction, and that "the best way to spread democracy is to demonstrate its superiority" rather than "ramming [it] down people’s throats."

While this certainly would be a better foreign policy framework than the thuggish, incoherent approach favored thus far by the administration, I’m not sure how applicable it is today. Shapiro is much more an expert on containment than I am, but I’m not convinced his interpretation of containment would be accepted by conservatives (or even liberal hawks) now. One narrative of the Cold War goes like this: we or our proxies fought the communists in Vietnam, Angola, Guatemala, South America, and elsewhere so that we wouldn’t have to fight them in Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, Mexico, or the U.S. Only by keeping a series of small, “hot” wars going to put pressure on the USSR were we able to stem its expansionist tendencies, ramp up its military expenditures, and eventually force it to implode. Just sitting around waiting for the USSR to collapse on its own wouldn’t work—we had to actively fight at the periphery while taking care not to provoke the center too much.

Someone who subscribes to this retelling of the Cold War is not going to be persuaded by Shapiro’s argument that in order to reprise our success against the Soviet Union with our enemies today, we need to withdraw from Iraq and forge a solution in Israel/Palestine. Even if Shapiro’s version of containment is closer to Kennan’s original vision than what our Cold War policy later became.

But the story of containment is a compelling one, and Americans know that it basically worked. If the doctrine can be resurrected for use and retooled for our circumstances today, it could be a useful way of framing what in essence would be a new foreign policy of “don’t go around blowing shit up for no good reason.”

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