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Rejecting the Policy that Won the Cold War


When it comes to the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues, Republicans like to harken back to the stalwart presidents of the Cold War. John McCain has invoked Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan as kindred spirits, and so has George W. Bush. Which raises the question: Why do they embrace those leaders while rejecting their policy?

The centerpiece of the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union was captured in a famous 1947 essay by American diplomat George Kennan, who rejected either war or retreat in favor of "a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

Some conservatives, regarding this as appeasement, advocated "rollback" to liberate captive nations from oppression. But even resolute anti-communists like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon saw the risks and costs were too high. They kept troops to guard Western Europe, built a robust nuclear deterrent and employed prudent measures to block Soviet expansion. That was containment.

But in the months before the Iraq war, it became a dirty word. "Containment is not possible," President Bush insisted, "when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." The only remedy for such regimes lay in pre-emptive war. McCain agreed, saying the only option in Iraq was "disarmament by regime change."

Amid all the war hysteria, it was easy to forget containment worked against Stalin and Mao — both unbalanced dictators with nuclear weapons. They were far more formidable tyrants with dreams of world domination. Yet we managed to preserve our security without pre-emptive war.

For that matter, containment had worked against Saddam Hussein. In the 12 years after the first Gulf War, we kept him in a box, where he was no threat to us or his neighbors. In 2002, he even had to accept the return of United Nations weapons inspectors — who found no weapons of mass destruction because, thanks to our efforts, he had none.

But as Yale foreign policy scholar Ian Shapiro noted in his 2007 book "Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror" (just published in paperback), the Bush administration was dissatisfied.

One reason was its unfounded certitude that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also complained that containing Iraq had cost a staggering $30 billion over those 12 years.

Today, that sounds like a bargain. The long-term cost of the Iraq war, according to an estimate by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, will exceed $3 trillion — or 100 times the cost lamented by Wolfowitz.

Ronald Reagan took a different approach. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he continued President Carter's covert aid to the rebels, but didn't send American troops. Likewise when a pro-Soviet regime gained power in Nicaragua. The key to containment was finding affordable means to constrain and weaken the enemy, without bleeding ourselves down in wars we didn't have to fight.

Our policy in Iraq has been just the opposite. And Iran could be the next mistake. McCain says Tehran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons — which implies he would go to war to prevent it, no matter what the price in blood or treasure.

The claim is that the Iranians are too crazy to be deterred from using nukes against Israel or giving them to terrorist groups to use against us. One common trait of governments and their leaders is an overriding desire to survive. If Iranian nukes are ever used for aggression, the regime can be sure Iran will be, as Hillary Clinton so vividly put it, "obliterated."

Shapiro told me he sees no evidence that Clinton or Barack Obama would return to containment. But the challenges we face are likely to push them toward it. Those dilemmas, after all, have prompted a reconsideration by none other than President Bush.

One member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea, has acquired a nuclear arsenal. Instead of launching a pre-emptive strike, the Bush administration has chosen to 1) live with it if we have to, 2) negotiate with Pyongyang to give it up, and 3) maintain strong defenses in South Korea.

That route is plainly the least bad option toward North Korea. But don't dare call it containment. And don't get the idea it could ever work anywhere else.

To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



1 Comments | Post Comment
Hello Stephen Chapman
Having spent many years with the Defence Dept. and studying defense strategy, I found your article on containing Iran as a nuclear nation interesting.
I am not sure if you have read the terrorist first strike strategy that was briefed to members of Congress several years ago. I will go over a few of the non-classified points that were made in that report.
This is an outline of a plan that was found on a computer sized from a terrorist cell.
A. Acquire by purchase or construction enough fission material for a minimum of 35 nuclear bombs plus one for Israel.
a. Potential Source are N. Korea, Iran, missing old Soviet Union stockpiles, Pakistan, and other possible sources that were named but not released in the unclassified version.
B. Smuggle the fission material into the US in 3 to 4 suit cases across the border or land on our shore at night along with 10 to 15 english speaking nuclear terrorist experts.
C. Purchase and or make the remaining needed bomb parts, assemble the bombs in a rented warehouse for placement in car trunks and small vans to be driven into our 35 or more largest cities except that a larger concentration of bombs are planned to go to the west coast so the radiation will be carried across the whole US by the wind.
D. On the designated day with all the bombs in place, the timers on the bombs would be set and the drivers would walk away or catch public transportation.
E. When the bombs all go off at the same time, almost all our leadership would be killed and it would not be known which countries to strike back at. In addition responsible leaders of the terrorist countries would be out of their countries.
The above plan was briefed in a lot more detail but that is pretty much it. I think most members of Congress have seen the more detailed version.
It is possible that leaders of N. Korea, Syria, and Iran at a minimum are also versed on the plan and could be in the process of starting to carry it out. Ref. The recent attempt to construct a nuclear reactor in Syria by N. Korea and Iran's use of over 9,000 known gas centrifuges.
That is all I know about what was briefed but you may be able to get more information from your Congressman.
I hope the above is helpful.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Dale Comyford
Fri May 9, 2008 2:52 PM
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