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Get Serious

Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror

By Ian Shapiro

(Princeton University Press, 208 pp., $24.95)

The effects of the Iraq war upon the discussion of American foreign policy have come in waves. The first wave was all about competence. In book after book, in article after article, the bungling of the war by the Bush administration has been made outrageously clear. Whether or not the democratization of an Arab country by means of an imported revolutionary war is one of the great causes of our time, this imported revolutionary war is so far one of the great calamities of our time. The costs of failure in Iraq will be almost unspeakably high; and whatever the eventual outcome of this adventure, the foreign policy of the United States will suffer for a long time to come the consequences of this administration's incompetence.

But competence is a purely practical matter--a value-neutral judgment. Now the second wave of the discussion is under way, and its subject is (to reverse an infamous Democratic slogan from the 1988 campaign) not competence but ideology. This development was inevitable. The war in Iraq was conducted in the name of first principles, and so it broaches first principles. And as a result of the return to the question of principle, we are seeing the revival of a school of foreign policy that has been largely mute over the past decade. With the international activism of the second Clinton administration and the aggressive stance of the Bush administration after September 11, there was not much of a chance for the minimalists and the isolationists to get a hearing. It seemed as if, by dint of our military campaigns against genocide (of which there were arguably too few), and then by dint of being attacked with spectacular success by Al Qaeda, the old attractions of passivity, insularity, and narrow self-regard in foreign policy were finally delegitimated. But the failures in Iraq have stirred these sleeping dogs, and it seems that the debate about interventionism must start all over again.

Ian Shapiro's book is an important document of this second wave. It aims to give minimalism and isolationism a new intellectual and historical justification, and to make them honorable ideals for Democrats and liberals. Shapiro argues that the only strategy that makes sense in the aftermath of Iraq is the old strategy of containment, which he believes is firmly grounded in American history and American values. The only correct retort to Bushism is Kennanism. Shapiro's thesis is straightforward: it is that George Kennan's strategy of containment served us well against the worldwide threat of communism for the fifty years of the Cold War, and will serve us well for the contemporary world of global terrorism. In much the same way that we confronted communism through a judicious combination of force and diplomacy, in the new era we should evaluate dangers depending on whether they imperil vital interests or peripheral ones.

The use of force should be considered, according to Shapiro, only if vital interests are threatened, while peripheral interests should be dealt with by means of sanctions or diplomatic pressure. As part of the global competition for allies and admirers, moreover, Shapiro says the United States must reject the pursuit of military superiority, avoid initiating "small" wars that make us appear imperialist, and never be the bully on the international stage. Shapiro compares these principles to what has come to be known as the Bush doctrine. That doctrine--preferring unilateral action to cumbersome multilateral arrangements, initiating war before a threat materializes, and using force to install a democratic government--was tested by the Iraq war and found wanting. Containment, Shapiro contends, is our fallback, and obviously a wiser course.

It is certainly the case that there is now, after these hard polarizing years, a thirst for a new national security consensus. Recently, figures as different as Brent Scowcroft and Madeleine Albright have harked back to the period after World War II--when NATO, the Marshall Plan, the International Monetary Fund, and so many other successful institutions were created and formed the architecture of containment. We are living in an era of Truman worship. And this is perfectly understandable. Whatever was wrong with containment as a philosophy or a view of history, as a foreign policy it worked. It was practiced and praised in one form or another by every president from Truman to Reagan. The Soviet Union fell without a shot being fired. (Of course there were also internal reasons for its fall, and many shots were fired around the world during the long standoff between Washington and Moscow before the glorious year of 1989.) The dissidents and the democrats who lived under communist oppression praised Washington's steadfastness. And the advocates of preventive war and rollback--Curtis LeMay, John Foster Dulles, Barry Goldwater, some top Reagan officials--were proved wrong in the end. Like many people these days, Shapiro offers special praise for Dean Acheson and Harry Truman for standing up to their domestic opponents at great personal cost.

At this point, Shapiro's pen sharpens. He writes that today's Democrats have choked under the pressure of the Bush White House, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing attack machine. Instead of denouncing the Bush doctrine with all its flaws, as he imagines Kennan and Acheson would have done, the Democrats have gone along or slunk away. It is this weakness that cost John Kerry the 2004 election. The Democrats may have criticized Bush's stewardship of the Iraq war, but they failed to offer an alternative--more specifically, the alternative of "containment"--and so they were doomed to defeat.

This is not the place for another masochistic review of the 2004 campaign, nor should it be necessary to list all the different Democratic and liberal attempts to forge a national security strategy after September 11. But one such effort is cited by Shapiro and therefore deserves some attention. In 2005, two scholars at the Center for American Progress, Lawrence Korb and Robert Boorstin, proposed a middle-of-the-road alternative to Bush. Much like the Kerry-Edwards approach, it focused on building better alliances, restoring respect for American leadership, and dealing with threats through diplomacy, sanctions, and (as appropriate) military force. Calling their plan "Integrated Power," the two authors ran through the various problems, from terrorism to nonproliferation to environmental catastrophe, disease, and ethnic conflict, and suggested that a variety of means should be used to deal with such diverse threats. Their proposal was moderate, complicated, intelligent, undoctrinaire--a fine example of a useful contribution in a confusing time.

But Shapiro does not like it, and his criticism is revealing. He berates Korb and Boorstin for their very complexity--for over-committing American foreign policy with too many promises. He invents the idea that they are intending to use force all over the world. And then he declares their program politically unsound because the American people will regard it as too heavy a burden in the post-Iraq era. Say what you will about Korb and Boorstin's proposal, but what Shapiro says about it is that it is too much. Or more precisely, it is too much interventionism. And there lies the essence of Shapiro's alleged grand strategy: in almost all cases, his recommendation is to scale back the objectives of American foreign policy. Whether because the cost is too high, or because our involvement may make the situation worse, or because certain problems are best left to internal forces in foreign countries-- all of which may be perfectly valid objections to particular ideas or policies--the cumulative message is the same: the less America does abroad, the better.

This book is a plea for minimalism, or for what could fairly be described as isolationism plus. Shapiro has no sense of how big, how thick, how global the strategy of containment used to be. He just wants less. America's overseas commitments should be limited to the barest minimum, which Shapiro believes is what the American people really want. But what, precisely, are these minimum requirements of our defense? They are never spelled out, other than the vague statement that our democracy and the democracy of our allies should be protected. In the end, Containment is more like George McGovern's "Come home, America" than like George Kennan's long telegram.

So here we have an Ivy League professor deploring the politicians in Washington for not reducing the complexities of foreign policy to a bumper sticker. Containment may have an excellent pedigree, but let us remember, please, that the Soviet Union is gone, and that nostalgia for a simpler time will not alone suffice to update or revive containment. "The new containment" is just a slogan. What will really matter are the actual policies that it engenders. And in Shapiro's hands, the policies that it engenders would be dangerous for the country and politically suicidal for the Democrats.

Shapiro declares that containment will help us in "rebuilding a strategy against global terror." Sounds fine, except that the only new elements that Shapiro's containment offers are outlandish. Like almost everyone, he would focus on eliminating sanctuaries for terrorist organizations and work with our allies to dry up the financing for Al Qaeda and other global terrorist organizations. But his bold new thought is that, instead of mobilizing for all- out war against Al Qaeda, Washington should recognize that Osama bin Laden is engaged in a "defensive" jihad focused on the Middle East. So the war on terrorism can be best won with more defense (homeland security) and less offense (military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq). He suggests that Kennan would have understood that Islamic terrorist leaders such as bin Laden see themselves as engaged in "defensive jihad" in response to American policies in the Middle East rather than in "offensive jihad" geared to the spread of global Islam.

It is not clear what are the scholarly foundations for Shapiro's highly original reading of bin Laden and his bellicose theology. And on the basis of his hunch about bin Laden's jihad, Shapiro enters strategically and politically uncharted waters. Without directly saying it, he seems to believe that Washington should negotiate with bin Laden. For bin Laden is not "beyond the logic of incentives." (Can political science imagine anybody beyond the logic of incentives?) Then Shapiro harks back to the negotiated arrangement between the Saudi government and bin Laden that kept Al Qaeda activities out of the Kingdom for a time. In essence, his advice is that we need to understand what really motivates bin Laden to see whether or not he can be accommodated.

On the campaign trail in 2004, George W. Bush was never more reprehensible than when he accused Democrats of wanting to negotiate with the terrorists who attacked America. Since no serious Democrat had ever suggested such a thing, this was the rankest demagoguery. If Shapiro has his way, however, this will be a legitimate line of attack. And when it comes to deviant and dangerous states such as Iran and North Korea, Shapiro offers more dangerous policies and more dumb politics. He complacently declares that North Korea is already a member of the nuclear weapons club to which Israel, India, and Pakistan belong, and that's that. With respect to Iran, he laments that "it seems inevitable that diffusion of relevant know-how and technology will occur over time." There, too, he sees no particular challenge, no reason for alarm, for American foreign policy in the good struggle against proliferation. In fact, it is not clear that he sees any good struggle at all. Considering the intense efforts being made by South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States to turn around the direction of Pyongyang's nuclear programs (not to mention the recent glimmerings of possible success), Shapiro is recommending not a policy of containment but a policy of capitulation--of pre-emptive capitulation. Ditto for Iran: although the West, along with Russia, may fail in its attempt to stop Tehran before it passes the threshold of nuclear weapons capability, who in his right mind can believe that it is not worth every effort? 

Even worse than his giving up on decades of relatively successful arms control policies by simply accepting the spread of nuclear weapons is the geopolitics that Shapiro brings to this problem. Since we will end up expending scarce resources containing a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear Iran, a "vital consideration is that the more belligerent our behavior in the world, the greater the number of hostile regimes we will need to contain and the more costly containment is going to be." In other words, the nonproliferation regime that Shapiro proposes is really about not alienating or angering any of the countries in the world that might someday go nuclear, lest we have to contain them when they do. Shapiro is not only for containment, he is also for as little containment as possible. He dreams of a world in which there will not be much evil or peril to contain, and he thinks that the emergence of such a world is entirely up to us. His principle for American foreign policy seems to be: don't make enemies and don't make waves. We have to go from bully to ballerina. But what if there already are enemies and they are already making waves? Shapiro cannot be bothered. Other than responding to direct attacks on our homeland and occasional deployments in response to extreme humanitarian emergencies such as the great tsunami a few years ago, Shapiro's "containment" means fewer commitments and fewer interventions, and therefore less cost and less risk. It is national security by avoidance, not action.

This book includes many other curious conclusions. Our whole approach to spreading democracy is wrong, Shapiro maintains, because civil wars are never ended through democratic elections. This will come as a surprise to the battle-scarred people of Mozambique, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. On the Middle East peace process, he says, there was nothing much new offered to Yasir Arafat at Camp David by Ehud Barak, and that is why Arafat could never have agreed. Also, we should have no problem recognizing the Hamas government. More generally, our support for Israel and its policy of repression is our core strategic error in the region. (With these kinds of judgments, it is no wonder he thinks he understands bin Laden.) On Kosovo, which is now seen as a model of multilateral cooperation and postwar planning in comparison with Iraq, Shapiro argues that the use of force was illegal. The NATO charter, he says, prohibits offensive action. This will be news to the nineteen NATO nations who supported that war to its successful conclusion.

In much the same way th at politics in America today is all about Iraq, so this book and its idea of containment are all about Iraq. Shapiro's treatments of terrorism, nonproliferation, and the Middle East are finally just perorations to his main argument. As his title suggests, Shapiro believes that there was a better approach to Iraq than the one Bush took--containment rather than invasion.

And that's the problem. He is absolutely right. Midway through the fifth year of the war, in terms of its results it is fair to judge the invasion of Iraq as the worst foreign policy decision in modern American history. The benefits have been relatively few. Since there were no weapons of mass destruction, the fine international goal of disarming a dangerous dictator could not be achieved (except, of course, in the area of WMD "program activities"). A gross human rights abuser, a monster, is gone, and the systemic repression of the Iraqi people by their government has been ended. But given the chaos, the gruesome violence, the economic deprivation, and the brutality of existence in liberated Iraq, the perfectly laudable goal of destroying Saddam and his regime is all but forgotten.

Meanwhile the costs continue to escalate. Thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed; chaos and instability in Iraq for the foreseeable future; the rise of jihadist terrorism where there was none, in Iraq and elsewhere in the region; the growing power of Iran and its fundamentalist leadership, and more generally the alarming phenomenon that Vali Nasr has called "the Shia ascendancy"; the explosion of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world; the incalculable loss of American prestige and respect in the democratic world; the devastating effect of Abu Ghraib on America's moral leadership; the humiliation of the American intelligence community; the weakened deterrent power of future American threats to use force; the damage done to our armed forces; hundreds of billions of dollars gone and hundreds of billions of dollars more to be spent--politically, militarily, economically, the consequences of this war have been astronomically high.

By comparison, the containment of Iraq during the 1990s looks like a pretty good bargain. As galling as it was to have Saddam Hussein popping up every few months to thumb his nose at Washington, the overall policy was relatively manageable. True, military deployments in the region were expensive. The propaganda from Baghdad--which blamed the West for the country's woes even though there was enough money available for adequate food, medicine, and housing--was often effective. Considerable diplomatic energy and political capital was spent to maintain international support for sanctions. And the repression of the Iraqi people under the Baathist boot was difficult to stomach. Yet any sane policy-maker would happily trade the mess we now have for the frustrations of containment.

It is no wonder that the magnitude of the disappointment in Iraq has created a historic moment in American politics. The great pendulum of American foreign policy has stopped its swing in the interventionist direction. How far it will swing the other way, in the isolationist direction, is an open question. At the height of their hubris, Bush and his officials imagined that the demonstration effect of imposing democracy by force on Iraq would cause other undemocratic dominoes to fall. The pendulum's interventionist swing probably reached its apogee around that time--the time of Bush's re-election and his second inaugural address, with its vision of democratic change sweeping across the Middle East. Indeed, Bush himself said the election was a ratification of his war presidency.

Now, as a result of the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, Bush's claim of vindication on Iraq has been swept away, and it is springtime for the notion of minimal American involvement abroad. Iraq will certainly be the prism through which American national security policy will be seen for a long time to come. And that is why it is so important that the right lessons are learned from the war. Which brings us to the threshold question. Many people now agree that the actual use of military force in Iraq was unwise, because it is has cost America dearly without yielding substantial gains. But was force justified?

To answer that question is, in fact, to begin to formulate a post-Iraq foreign policy. For if the answer is no--as it is for Shapiro in Containment-- then we are headed for another time in which war in the Persian Gulf could lead us to inaction in international affairs. In the aftermath of the first Gulf war, with Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leading the debate, many believed that the use of force should be considered only when a set of extraordinary criteria could be met. The model for such a satisfactory circumstance was Desert Storm. There had to be a dangerous dictator on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons who had violated age-old principles of international relations by invading his neighbor. The war had to be approved by an affirmative vote of the Security Council. An overwhelming force--the deployment of 500,000 troops--had to be assembled over many months as part of a genuine international coalition that included substantial deployments from countries in the affected region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria all deployed significant military forces). The war had to be relatively short. Casualties had to be kept to a minimum. And someone else (Japan and Saudi Arabia) had to pay for the whole thing.

In such providential circumstances, who could be against the use of force? But those circumstances are so rare as to be useless for the purpose of strategy and planning. And lo and behold, a few years after the first Gulf war the poor people of Bosnia had the misfortune of being slaughtered in a situation in which such a threshold for American action was impossible to meet. It is not just generals who fight the last war. Politicians, too, are guided by the last international crisis in deciding what to do about the next one.

Shapiro and other critics are right in their conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Knowing what we know now, it is easy to say that containment would have been better than invasion. It is, in fact, too easy. For there is a dirty little secret about the containment of Saddam that the war's opponents do not acknowledge. It is that the use of force was necessary for containment, too. Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and former French president Jacques Chirac have both said that without the deployment of American military forces to the region in the fall of 2002, Iraq would never have agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to return to the country. No inspectors, no containment. The containment of Saddam Hussein would not have been, well, a cakewalk. Moreover, had the United States not shown a willingness to act alone, Russia, France, Germany, and others would not have agreed to step up the pressure on Iraq by supporting U.N. Resolution 1441, with its threat to use force if Iraq refused to comply with U.N. non-proliferation demands. Without that resolution, containment would have been in tatters.

To say this is not to praise the performance of the Bush administration. It is, rather, to try to develop a balanced assessment of the lessons of Iraq. Despite the disastrous performance of the American intelligence agencies, the threat from weapons of mass destruction in the modern world is (or should be) undeniable, and it is growing. Iran is another dangerous regime in that explosive part of the world that is challenging the international community by violating international agreements and rejecting international demands. (And the Iran crisis, unfortunately, is starting to generate an international lineup similar to the Iraq crisis, with America and many Europeans worried about a world where dangerous regimes have dangerous weapons, and Russia leading the opposition for narrow reasons of realpolitik, even while privately accepting the validity of Washington's concerns.) It is also worth remembering that just prior to the congressional debates on the Iraq war, there was an anthrax crisis in the United States that made the threat from terrorist groups armed with biological weapons seem ominously real. The truth that is conveniently forgotten now is that Americans' tolerance of risk changed after September 11. Threats that were acceptable before that terrible day became unacceptable afterward.

The best way to deal with the proliferation threat is to develop strong international mechanisms to prevent chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or being used by rogue regimes. But this faith in diplomacy must not be a feckless faith. For anti-proliferation diplomacy to succeed, international arms control regimes must be backed by power--not only the economic power of sanctions, but also, if necessary, military power. If there is a lesson that should be learned from the tragedy of Iraq, it is that diplomacy and force must be synchronized if nonproliferation is to work. And given the realities of international affairs, success in the battle against proliferation may require, in addition to the willingness of the major powers to support the use of force, the willingness of the United States to act alone in certain circumstances.

Which brings us to the most problematic method of all--what might be called the Israeli method of nonproliferation. Israel's attack on Iraq's reactor in Osirak in 1982 was widely criticized at the time, but a decade later many of those same critics expressed their thanks that the enemy in the first Gulf war was not nuclear-armed. The Israeli raid on Syria this fall, about which there are few reliable reports, may be the newest case of unilateral, unprovoked military force serving the cause of international security. It is certainly striking that only Syria (and its patron North Korea) seems to be complaining. The Arab states in the region seem awkwardly and quietly pleased.

It is naive or worse to think that the affirmation of diplomacy will wave away the problem of the use of force. It will not. The Bush administration's abject mishandling of Iraq does not mean that all of the Bush doctrine--with its recognition of the dangers of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, of the need to act unilaterally in certain circumstances, and of the importance of promoting democracy in the Middle East--should be summarily repudiated. Indeed, the modest military success of the "surge" in Iraq has only exacerbated the political divide, and thus made a post-Iraq consensus that much more difficult to establish. Too many Republicans, especially the presidential candidates, still have their heads in the desert sand, insisting that the war was right and we just need more of it more often, and that is all we need to know. Too many Democrats have resorted to full-throated opposition, contending that the failures in Iraq are so profound and long-lasting that anyone who could have supported Bush's declared policy of diplomacy backed by force should be disqualified from public office. For too many people in both parties, it is still 2003. And if the know-one-thing opponents of the Iraq war such as Ian Shapiro get the upper hand in the campaign debate, and in history's first judgments, there is a real risk that the pendulum of American politics will overshoot the responsible mark, and post-Iraq wisdom will turn into post-Iraq folly. This would leave American foreign policy unprepared for the dangers that are surely coming, and unwilling to act when the cause is just and success is achievable.

JAMES P. RUBIN was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and was world affairs commentator for Sky News for the last two years.

By James P. Rubin