Another Perspective

Containment Redux

Containing terrorists would be like herding wild cats.

By 9.7.06

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Of the countless stratagems put forth to fight Islamic fascism -- from winning the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims to drinking fairtrade coffee, this latest scheme is by far the most inspired: Bring back containment.

You remember containment, the U.S.'s major foreign policy strategy during the Cold War. The idea was not to actually defeat the Soviet Union, but to contain the spread of communism. For nearly three decades this strategy worked reasonably well -- at least in Western Europe where the presence of NATO troops and a generous amount of ICBMs would haven given Genghis Khan pause.

While the CIA and the KGB fought a bidding war to buy the "loyalty" of as many tin pot dictators as possible, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction gave assurance that nuclear war was, if not unthinkable, at least unlikely. Where the U.S. did engage Red China's or the Soviet's proxies -- most notably in Korea and Vietnam -- the results were not especially good. Containment was finally discredited after the Vietnam War, as numerous proxy wars broke out in developing countries, and it took the genius of Ronald Reagan's arms build up to bankrupt the Soviets and end the Cold War.

Now writing in the Boston Globe, Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, suggests its time to dust off George F. Kennan's foreign policy brainchild. Bacevich isn't the first to recommend summoning the spirit of containment. Middle East expert Daniel Pipes advocated containment long before things went hopelessly awry in Iraq. According to Bacevich, the war on terror as currently conceived is doomed to failure. America's current strategy of overwhelming military might coupled with an attempt to win "hearts and minds" has been even less effective in the Middle East than it was in Vietnam, he says. More, the U.S. should consider the possibility that the problem posed by radical Islamists simply has no military solution. "The failures suffered by the United States in Iraq and by Israel in southern Lebanon may well signify a turning point in modern military history," writes the noted professor. "Despite massive American and Israeli technological edge...mounting evidence suggests that the age of Western military ascendancy is coming to an end."

In other words, the U.S. armed forces, despite being the greatest military machine in the history of the planet, has been rendered obsolete by a few rag tag bands of goat herders with Iranian rocket launchers and death wishes.

It is an intriguing proposition. If America cannot defeat radical Islamists at their "cunning new way of war" (read: blowing themselves up), maybe it can at least keep them penned in. Perhaps that wall some wanted to build along the Rio Grande could extend all the way around the U.S.?

The casual observer, however, is likely to spot a few weak spots in Prof. Bacevich's blueprint for success. Unlike the Soviets, the Islamic fascists are liable to be British subjects, American citizens, Iranian-supported Lebanese cave dwellers, or, like the Taliban, stateless residents of No-manistan. They rely on terror as well as proxy wars. This makes it nearly impossible to contain them to a particular geographic area. Besides, for large parts of Western Europe it is already too late. Radical Islam arrived long ago and has taken deep root in the fertile soil of suburban Paris, London and Amsterdam. Oftentimes Muslims are being radicalized right next door.

Containment is also a political impracticality for America's foremost Middle Eastern ally. Israel has survived since 1948 by relentlessly defeating its enemies on the battlefield. Bacevich acknowledges that the U.S. would have to desert Israel. Anyway, the U.S. and Israel's interests are no longer the same, he says. Perhaps Israel can take care of itself, but for the sake of a false peace, Bacevich would have the U.S. throw one of its few one allies to the dogs.

I do agree with Bacevich on one critical point: the war on terror may be unwinnable as currently conceived. Sadly the U.S and its allies don't seem to regard the current crisis as an authentic war -- a world war -- to be fought to the death. For the U.S. and the EU, that type of warfare went out with bebop and the A-Bomb. By way of contrast Israel has continued to fight to win. As witnessed recently in southern Lebanon, the Bush Administration has successfully imposed its "reasonable response" policy on the Israeli Defense Forces. Hmmmm. Perhaps Israel would be better off without America as an ally. After all, someone is going to have to take out Iran's nuclear weapons capability, and when that time comes all the talk of containment and reasonable response and appropriate levels of retaliation will count for exactly nothing. Which is exactly what it's worth.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.