A Q&A with author Ian Shapiro
What is a policy of containment? What is it designed to do, and why do you think it so urgently needed?
Containment's main goal is to secure Americans and their democracy into the future. A secondary goal is to promote the spread of democracy around the world. Containment is a national security policy based on the recognition that resources are scarce, and that we can not and should not try to run the world. It emphasizes that war should be a strategy of last resort when America's vital interests are threatened. Adversaries should be contained if at all possible by measures short of war: economic sticks and carrots, diplomatic pressure, taking advantage of rifts among them, cooperation with allies, international institutions and-where feasible-relevant regional powers. We should aid the spread of democracy primarily by demonstrating its superiority on the ground. Where possible, we should also support indigenous democratic movements against dictatorships. Containment is urgently needed because the Bush Doctrine currently guiding American national security policy, while unsustainable in the long run, is damaging our national security interests right now.
We associate the term containment with the Cold War. But don't we live in a different world? Can we really contain terrorists the same way we contained the Soviet Union?
There are some similarities and some differences with the cold war. Once again we face adversaries who reject our basic values and way of life. Once again they are adversaries who do not really have a viable alternative to democratic capitalism. When Islamist regimes come to power--as in Iran and Afghanistan-the results are disastrous. Islamic fundamentalism poses no medium--term competitive threat to democratic capitalism. Of course there are differences too, because terrorist groups operate from different places and move around. But, as I argue in my book, enabling states can be contained effectively, greatly diminishing the threat. No terrorist group can present a serious ongoing threat to US national security if it lacks a territorial safe haven. Where the havens are weak or failed states we have to modify traditional containment by cooperating with regional powers and international institutions. The Bush Doctrine, by contrast, makes the failed state problem worse. However many failed states there were in the world before we invaded Iraq in 2003, there is one more now.
You say that it's not a policy designed to "win the war on terror." Doesn't that make containment a policy of weakness? How is it different from appeasement, or an admission of stalemate?
Containment is not appeasement. Its philosophy is to stop bullies without becoming a bully ourselves. A textbook illustration was President Kennedy's facing down the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis against the advice of generals who advocated invasion. The "war on terror" cannot be "won" since there is no enemy who can surrender and sign a peace. What politician will take the risk of declaring it won? We all saw the political price President Bush paid for his "Mission Accomplished" banner at the end of what turned out to be the phony war in Iraq. If we persist with a war on terror, it will be a permanent war.
How would this policy be seen abroad? Is it likely to help or harm the already damaged American reputation?
Reviving containment is the way to rebuild America's international legitimacy as a progressive force for democracy around the world. As George Kennan argued half a century ago in defending the original containment doctrine, rather than try to dominate the world America should work for the creation of a world that no one can dominate. When we departed from containment in the past-most notably in Indochina, but also though toppling regimes in Africa and Latin America-we lost international legitimacy and became perceived as Yankee Imperialists. The same is true now across the Middle East where we are widely seen as harboring imperialist ambitions. If we returned to a policy of containment, we could begin rebuilding our international stature that has been so badly damaged by the Bush Administration.
Could you give me some examples of where the policy has actually worked?
Apart from the monumental success against the USSR, containment has succeeded more recently in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, and against Libya since the late 1990s. Saddam Hussein was hemmed in by sanctions and no-fly zones to the point that Iraq posed no threat to anyone-let alone to the United States. In the late 1990s containment led Mummar Gaddafi's Libya to stop sponsoring terrorism, turn over the Lockerbie bombers for trial, and pay compensation to British and French victims of Libyan sponsored terrorism. Some say Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in response to our invasion of Iraq. But Flynt Leverett, director for Middle Eastern affairs at the NSC from 2002 to 2003, has written that Gaddafi's decision predated the invasion and was a response to an explicit quid-pro-quo to get rid of sanctions. Containment against Libya was not appeasement. It should have been our model in Iraq, as it now should be in Iran. Instead, defenders of the modern equivalent of "rollback" (the policy unsuccessfully pushed by John Foster Dulles against the Soviets in Europe during the cold war) advocate attacking Iran because it is developing nuclear weapons. This makes about as much sense as it would have made to attack China in the 1950s.
What would the policy mean for our strategy in Iraq?
Important as it is to extricate ourselves from the Iraq quagmire, it is more important to begin planning a post-occupation containment strategy for Iraq and the region. This has three main elements: First, we must set a date for the departure of American troops and leave. A long tern military commitment in Iraq is unsustainable in American domestic politics, and we cannot otherwise scotch the widespread perception across the region that we have imperial ambitions. Second, we must work with Syria and Iran to secure Iraq's borders. They are porous to terrorists in both directions, and it is inconceivable that we can secure them without this regional cooperation. Syria cooperated with us in the past in Lebanon and could be induced to do so in Iraq. Iran has an interest in the territorial integrity of Iraq. If the country breaks up they will face the threat of a Kurdish insurgency in the north. Third, we must restore resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the center of our foreign policy in the region. And it cannot be based on the Bush Administration's acceptance of "realities on the ground"-400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Unless we can once again be seen as an honest broker in the conflict we will continue to give our adversaries a rallying point and common cause against us. The US should push for a solution that can be acceptable by all the populations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
How about Iran and Syria?
Since the mid-1970s Syria has cooperated with the US in the Middle East for much of the time--particularly in Lebanon, where they were invited by Henry Kissinger to help stabilize it and remained until we forced them out in 2005. They joined the US-led coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The Syrians have been much less cooperative since the run-up to the 2003 invasion, not least because of threats and predictions from neo-conservatives close to the Bush administration that Syria would be next. But there are common interests in regional stability and getting a settlement with Israel of which the US could take advantage. Iran has always been a status quo power in the Middle East. They have no territorial claims anywhere and have never attacked any country in the region. As with Syria, our actions have greatly complicated the possibilities for cooperation. Starting with President Bush's "axis of evil" speech in 2002, we senselessly alienated them when the moderates had the upper hand there and were cooperating in Afghanistan following 9/11. No doubt the Iranians are developing a nuclear capability which we should try to prevent or slow, but Israel has a sufficient deterrent to protect itself-they could wipe out every Iranian city many times over if Iran was foolish enough to attack. When the current hard line regime thaws in its international posture, of which there are signs already, a strategic opening to Iran from the US administration will be an important piece of the puzzle. As Persians rather than Arabs, the population (as distinct from the current leadership) has little investment in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The younger generation is notably pro-western. Iran and the US have many common interests in regional and geo-political stability, and in preventing a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If it is clearly the policy we should follow, why haven't the administration or the Democrats embraced it?
From time to time members of the administration have backed away from the claim that containment is obsolete, saying instead that it needs "supplementing" by the Bush Doctrine. This is like saying that the traditional method of putting out fires with water needs supplementing by pouring gasoline on them. The administration is indeed being forced back into containment in Iran and North Korea, and it will be elsewhere, but they have made the task so much more difficult by five years of unilateral action around the world and a preemptive war in Iraq that has failed in a spectacular demonstration of American weakness. The Democrats have been hamstrung by fear of being branded as unpatriotic and thinking they must show themselves as tough on national security. Hence the votes by Senators Kerry and Clinton to support the administration's authority to invade Iraq from which they have since been seeking to back-peddle.
What do you think the realistic political prospects are for the policy? Is there a chance that we'll adopt it?
The short run prospects are not encouraging. The administration has made little secret of its desire to turn Iraq into the next administration's problem. They are likely to continue to try to do that-keeping enough troops in Baghdad to avoid a complete meltdown. The Democrats lack leadership and ideas, preferring instead also to temporize on the war-criticizing the administration while failing to propose solutions for which they might be held accountable in 2008. But a great deal of additional damage will result if the administration's disastrous policies are pursued for another two years. Hence the need to push for the adoption of a viable containment strategy for the US as soon as possible.
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File created: 8/30/2007