A reader quotes me:
Except, of course, it was Kennan’s careful and conservative case for containment that ultimately won the Cold War without the near-Armageddon that the predecessors of today’s chronic interventionists (Kennedy especially) nearly brought us to.
As someone who advocated a continuation of the containment policy towards Saddam Hussein rather than an invasion as you did, I think it needs reminding that “containment” during the Cold War did not mean isolationism, or doing nothing, but instead involved a very complex series of actions and alliances, including using force as an option. Keenan’s containment policy, as actually put into action, was a very active form of engagement with the entire world. It’s during that time that our entire “military-industrial complex” rose to prominence and influence.
So invoking Kennan and Cold War containment makes the opposite case in terms of our foreign policy in the Middle East, or against ISIL or Syria or whomever. Containment is a way of actively engaging these military threats, while being under no illusion that full-scale invasions and occupations are the solution.
I see Obama’s strategy in relation to ISIS and the Iraq to be one, essentially, of the same kind of active containment that our country used during the Cold War. Engagement, not isolationism, is the key. And that includes some use of force, and the arming of various groups, realistically understanding that we are not going to “win” by these means, but that we can at least prevent anyone else from winning either, and by drawing out the conflict over decades, we can ensure that the natural superiority in the underlying cultural and economic conflicts will resolve themselves in our favor.
It’s clear that preventing ISIS or any other radical Islamist group from taking power over a country such as Iraq is in America’s interests. That doesn’t mean that we should re-invade the country, but it does mean that we should remain militarily engaged to make sure it doesn’t happen, without of course going overboard on the idealism and machismo.
It’s of course debatable as to which containment strategies will work best in any given set of circumstances, but I don’t think one of the options is just walking away from the Middle East and assuming all will work out best without our involvement. That’s the first kind of isolationism Keenan described and criticized. The second kind, isn’t even one that Keenan himself advocated, given his endorsement of large US military bases in Europe and around the world, and military engagements in local clashes as Cold War proxies. So don’t go hiding behind Keenan as some sort of shield for advocating that the US should just disengage from these sorts of wars and conflicts.
My reader makes some excellent points, so let me explain why I still do not agree. There is a core difference between the threat we face today and the threat we confronted during the Cold War. The threat today is asymmetrical, whereas the face-off between the US and the USSR was eerily symmetrical. This means that the use of force against our current enemy is much more easily turned back against us – and the zero-sum assumptions of the Cold War can easily splinter into a myriad complications and unintended consequences when confronting global Jihad.
We did not have to worry in the battle against communism that we would somehow create many more spontaneous support for communism by resisting it; and we were confronting a huge multi-nation state, with a unitary command structure and global allies and puppets.
With Jihadism, we are beset by countless more complexities. The entities we are fighting change, melt away, re-group, and are capable of coming back from the near-dead in any anarchic place on earth they can find (and there are many). We are dealing with a world of disorder, not of frozen order. We are not confronting an advanced nation-state seeking to control large swathes of territory by conventional means. We’re dealing with asymmetrical terrorism which cannot be deterred the way the Soviets were, and which can even gain strength by our opposition. This requires a much nimbler, subtler touch – one few statesmen or women can muster for long.
The Jihadists are not suppressing large previously democratic populations with totalitarianism like the Soviets either; they are exploiting deep conflicts within the Muslim world – the Sunni-Shi’a divide pre-eminent among them – which refuels them in a way the bankrupt doctrines of Soviet Communism couldn’t, and in a culture where Western democracy is deeply alien. They are able to exploit all the resentments of those who see the West as a looming tower of decadence and wickedness – a huge f0rce in our modern world.