Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 19, 2004
WAR: The Fantasy of Containment
Kevin Drum links to a Wesley Clark article (also in the Washington Monthly) on the lessons of the Cold War:
Clark's point is a simple one: Neither Reagan nor any of the seven Cold War presidents before him ever attacked either the Soviet Union or one of its satellites directly. This wasn't because of insufficient dedication to anticommunism, but because it wouldn't have worked. . . .
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(Emphasis in original). Now, there are fair arguments about the Cold War's history; suffice it to say that you can take the victory without agreeing that containment without a more aggressive approach was the right call at each and every historical moment. And there were those on the Left who never accepted the costs and burdens of containment, let alone of Reagan's policies, notably including John Kerry. But leave all that aside for now. Because Drum's idea that a "patient strategy of military containment and cultural engagement" is a feasible way to run the war on terror - a notion he apparently shares with Clark and many others on the Left - is pure fantasy.
There was a substantial downside to merely containing the Soviets: the loss of lives and freedom in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc., as communists lashed out in the far corners of the world and we could never do more than push back in a reactive way. But while lots of people died at the hands of our enemies, they were often not Americans, so I can see how you can consider this a viable option. Here, however, the downside of taking punches while waiting for containment to work is, we lose an office building, a planeload of civilians, a city.
Containment sorta worked, in preventing direct attacks on us, because we had deterrence. But that just isn't present anymore. As to non-state actors, where do you hit them back? And as to their state sponsors, the critical problem is deniability. Ask yourself: if Saddam was involved in the first WTC bombing, or Oklahoma City, or September 11, how would we prove to a certainty? One thing we surely know from the Iraq war debate is that there would be no shortage of Americans eager to defend any foreign dictator against charges of complicity in terrorism, and no shortage of obstacles to getting perfect evidence in the aftermath of an attack.
On a related note, containment requires solid and dependable intelligence; we can't rest easily on a strategy of decades of patience if we don't know what the other guy is up to. We now know that much of the intelligence developed about Iraq - not only by the Bush Administration but by the Clinton Administration, the governments of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and others, and relied on and cited even by the UN and Congressional Democrats - was off base in a number of significant ways, and not all of them in the direction of overestimating threats. In fact, it turned out at the end of the Cold War that the CIA got a lot wrong there as well. Consistently dependable intelligence is hard; who among the containment advocates would argue that we will always have good enough intelligence to switch to an offensive posture when and only when threats of attack are imminent?
Also, the anaolgy to our pressure on the Soviet economy doesn't fly. We can't collapse Arab economies, because we can't kill the oil business and that's all they have anyway. Certainly, Arab and Muslim leaders have proven quite adept at convincing a largely illiterate populace that their problems stem from a Zionist conspiracy and not the faults of their leaders. Accepting the status quo means accepting that as a permanent condition. Containment does nothing to stop the anti-American propaganda that feuls hatred of us and is at the very core of our problem.
Also, containment in Iraq was a fiasco - it was expensive and dangerous and we now know that the sanctions regime, while imposing real hardships on the Iraqi people, was largely ineffective to stop Saddam from skimming off an almost limitless supply of funds that were available to make mischief.
Also, containment means accepting that hostile regimes (as Saddam's was) will, at a minimum, decline to cooperate with our law enforcement efforts against non-state actors. As long as their were big black holes on the map into which we couldn't follow the trail of terrorists, they sure as heck were not contained.
The problem of the war on terror is, we need to change the behavior of regimes in the region - either by external pressure, internal pressure, or regime change - and we need for our own safety to do so ASAP, not four decades from now. The reason Saddam was first in line (after the Taliban) is that his behavior was most intractable and least subject to change, but others are due for more pressure next. Just living with him wasn't an option.
Containment isn't always a workable option; it wasn't in World War II or several other historical conflicts. It isn't now. It's frightening that many Democrats don't understand that.