A post-mortem on containment doctrine, from 2003

I got into sort of a mini-debate with Bud back here on the subject of the old Domino Theory, which in turn led to me running on and on about the Cold War doctrine of containment, which got me to thinking about this old column. That is to say a very brief interchange with Bud, then me weighing back in repeatedly here and here and here and here and here.

It ran in the paper four days after Baghdad fell, which means I wrote it a day or two after, which may be why the lede seems vague — it assumes a lot of immediate knowledge on the parts of readers. If you’ll recall, even though the drive toward Baghdad from Kuwait only took about three weeks, in about the third week, there were already naysaysers saying that our invasion had “bogged down.” Now that Baghdad had just fallen, their political opponents were nyah-nyahing back at them.

I was saying that they should not expect the invasion’s detractors to shut up, nor should they. But I was also noting that the relatively small antiwar factions at that time were somewhat voiceless, as they lacked a coherent narrative for what they wanted to do instead.

That was one theme of the column. Another was to point out something that seemed quite obvious to me then, and still does now: That the most natural opponents of the invasion, if ideology meant anything at all (an idea I often challenge, of course), were conservatives. I mean, paleo-conservatives such as Pat Buchanan.

Because even though it was being pursued by a particularly strong-willed conservative president, it was distinctly a liberal enterprise.

The two elements that I took off on in making these points were a fascinating lecture I had heard on C-SPAN by Prof. Alan Brinkley of Columbia University — a liberal opponent of the invasion, who nevertheless voiced the frustration of intellectuals who had trouble articulating their opposition in a way that he, at least, found satisfactory. That, and some things I had read in The New Republic, which called Bush “the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself.”

As we all know, the invasion did “bog down” — after the technical, Clausewitzian war was over. Which means, the post-war occupation ran into huge problems with multilateral post-war violence, nearly sinking the entire effort in failure (before the Surge).  That I attribute to the fact that this effort to harness military power to liberal ends was being conducted by a conservative, one who had assured us before his election did not believe in nation-building. No wonder his administration was so bad at it.

But we didn’t know anything about that then. Remember that as you read this:


State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, April 13, 2003

Author: BRAD WARTHEN Editorial Page Editor

Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.

-The New Republic

IN THE HEADY thrill of reaching the “tipping point” in Iraq, some people said some silly things on the 24-hour-chatter TV channels. Some even speculated that recent events would shut up all the naysayers with regard to America’s new role in the world.

Don’t look for that to happen. After all, it’s a free country. At the same time, don’t look for critics to come up with any helpful alternative ideas, either. I say that based on excellent authority.

On C-SPAN last weekend, I caught a remarkable presentation by Alan Brinkley, provost and chairman of the history department at Columbia University. Professor Brinkley is erudite, thoughtful and intellectually honest. He is also an opponent of what the United States is doing in Iraq. But to his own frustration, he can’t offer a compelling alternative to that policy.

Addressing a conference on the war in Iraq, he spoke with what I took to be understated nostalgia for the doctrine of containment that dominated U.S. policy during the Cold War. He paid particular attention to the fact that “containment” applied not only to the Soviet Union and other enemies, but to ourselves as well. Faced with a rival superpower, the United States held back its own power. We didn’t, for instance, invade North Vietnam during that war, or even bomb those missile sites in Cuba in October 1962.

Containment still managed to hang on to some extent after the Soviet collapse. “September 11, I think, provided the final blow to this already tottering edifice . . . whose original rationale had long since been removed,” he said.

Under President Bush, he noted, America has been guided by a whole new set of assumptions, along these lines: that Europe has abdicated responsibility for any active role in the world, “that the United States is the only nation in the world capable of dealing with the great crises that face the world,” and that America must act, even if unilaterally.

“(M)y own view is that the real perception in this administration of the threat they are dealing with is not weapons of mass destruction, not the alliance between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, not Saddam Hussein himself even,” but rather “the sense among conservatives in policy positions in Washington that we face now a large if somewhat inchoate threat . . . , and that threat is radical Islam and the . . . inherent instability and danger of the Islamic world to the survival of the world as we know it.”

He worried that Iraq was but the first step, and that the same logic would lead to other wars.

While he considers this to be an “extremely dangerous view of American foreign policy,” he generously posited that it was “not a crazy view,” but rather “the product of a real set of intellectual beliefs” that is “ideologically powerful.” Prof. Brinkley concluded his remarks with this concern:

“(T)here is at the moment no clear and coherent alternative model for American foreign policy. There is an instinctive return to the containment idea among some people, there’s an instinctive embrace of all sorts of idealistic-sounding multilateral slogans, but I have yet to see the production by liberals or people on the left of a coherent alternative foreign policy that would allow those of us who are opposed to the powerful model being presented by this administration to debate effectively. Um, thank you very much.”

It was a remarkable admission, and I respected the professor for making it. But I have to quibble on one point: This is not about the failure of liberals to mount an intellectually vigorous argument against conservative policies. In fact, if language means anything, this is a liberal war.

What President Bush has led us to do in Iraq – and quite successfully so far, although the really hard parts are yet to come – is not about conserving the status quo. It’s about blowing it up. It’s about being open to new possibilities. It’s about promoting liberal democracy in a region that has not known it. It is the greatest liberal policy adventure since the days of John F. Kennedy.

I’m far from the only one who thinks so. “In word if not yet in deed, Bush is becoming the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself,” wrote Lawrence Kaplan in the March 3 edition of The New Republic. “He, more than his left-leaning critics, is harnessing American power to liberal ends.”

In an editorial headlined “The Liberal Power” in that same edition, the “liberal” magazine’s editors rejected the famous dictum of Lord Acton, asserting that “power may also ennoble, when it is employed for good and high ends. The notion that American power has never been so employed and can never be so employed is a sinister lie, and a counsel of despair to the hurting regions of the world.”

The editors continued, “There are terrors of which only American power can rid the world, and blessings that only American power can secure for the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. So does that make me a liberal? Sure. Just like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, “Scoop” Jackson, Paul Wolfowitz and all the rest of those wild-eyed leftists.

From the other end of the spectrum, the April 7 issue of National Review frets about the “Unpatriotic Conservatives” who not only oppose the war in Iraq, but have even recently taken distinctly anti-American (and, not coincidentally, anti-Israeli) positions. Essayist David Frum dismisses “paleoconservatives” such as Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Jospeh Sobran as not representing the conservative mainstream. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be conservative to avoid this risky undertaking in the Mideast? Not right, but conservative. As in “prudent,” a la the first President Bush.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what you call the likes of Messrs. Novak and Buchanan, as long as you muster the good sense to reject what they are saying.

My point is, this isn’t about liberal and conservative. This is about America doing the right thing in the world.

Left, right; left, right: You can’t tell one from the other as America marches relentlessly down a promising, and intellectually unchallenged, new path.

One thought on “A post-mortem on containment doctrine, from 2003

  1. bud

    Which means, the post-war occupation ran into huge problems with multilateral post-war violence, nearly sinking the entire effort in failure (before the Surge).

    Not sure what the point of bringing up this old, worn-out cannard is now. Apparently we really are getting out by Dec 31 so in a few months or years we can look back and assess the whole thing and not just fawn over the success of the surge. But until the folks who consider these foreign adventures honestly acknowledge the entire cost of these mis-adventures, rather than talk in generalities and ignore whole categories of costs, we will never learn the proper lessons. Simply put, America cannot wage wars abroad against enemies that pose us no harm (Vietnam, Iraq) without getting out eventually with nothing of value to show for it. I just hope that the next time someone suggests it’s a good idea to send the troops in we reflect honestly about the costs that are likely to occur and not just the minimal costs the war-mongers claim they will be.

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