Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

The Meaning of Containment

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

The Meaning of Containment

Article excerpt

The public discussion of Iran containment has been conducted in a haze of good feeling about the successes of the Cold War, but as Lindsay and Takeyh suggest, containing the Soviet challenge was hardly simple. As John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps the period's foremost historian, has written, the Cold War witnessed many different--and substantially varying--codes of containment. In the early 1980s, Gaddis had already identified five such codes; arguably Ronald Reagan formulated a sixth and George H. W Bush, responding to the unanticipated break-up of the Soviet empire, formulated a seventh. (14)

The seeds of the Cold War containment policy were bred in George Kennan's seminal "Long Telegram" of 1946. (15) The essence of this communique appeared as the "Mr. X" Foreign Affairs article in 1947; its title, "Sources of Soviet Conduct," indicated that at the core of Kennan's insight was an analysis of Soviet strategic culture, that is, the ingrained habits and patterns of Soviet strategic behavior. As the telegram stated, the "party line is not based on any objective analysis of [the] situation beyond Russia's borders.... It arises mainly from basic inner-Russian necessities which existed before [World War II] and exist today." (16) The question of the fundamental, ingrained nature of the Iranian regime, as will be developed at length below, is key for any policy of Iran containment.

And although Kennan would later complain about the militarization of containment, he did admit from the first that the underlying balance of military power was key to his policy recommendation. The strength of US armed forces, he wrote, "is probably the most important single instrumentality in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy." (17) Other "instrumentalities"--diplomacy, economic policy, and what we today would term elements of soft power--were also important tools, but credible military deterrence proved to be the one necessary, if not sufficient, means of containment.

Kennan understood that what would become the Cold War, though a bipolar geopolitical competition, was not simply a binary equation. His underlying insights provide enduring guidance in considering how to contain Iran. For example, Kennan wrote, the United States would need to defend vulnerable allies, especially in a Europe devastated by World War II. Containment required the "strengthening of the natural forces of resistance within the respective countries which the communists are attacking." Nevertheless, in the end there was a natural limit to Soviet expansionism. "The Kremlin leaders are so inconsiderate, so relentless, so overbearing and so cynical in the discipline they impose on their followers that few can stand their authority for long," he wrote. It has similarly proved that, for Iran's neighbors and even for Iranian minorities, familiarity with Persian leaders has bred contempt. Kennan did not see containment as a passive posture, but rather made a case for comprehensive counter pressure. He argued that it is "the way you marshal all the forces at your disposal on the world chessboard. I mean not only the military force you have ... but all the political forces." (18)

Kennan's principles were not codified--that is, they did not amount to a practical strategy--until the Truman administration. This began with the articulation of a Truman Doctrine, the president's March 12, 1947, speech to Congress, and, prior to the Korean War, the drafting of National Security Council (NSC) report 68. (19) More than analyzing the sources of Soviet conduct, President Truman described a policy rooted in American political principles, saying, "I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures." (20) The NSC document also settled an ongoing debate about the strategy behind containment. Some had advocated a "strongpoint" strategy, hoping to retain the strategic initiative and limit the costs of containment by concentrating on solely critical points of confrontation such as Western Europe, but Truman decided in favor of a perimeter approach. …

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