Containment or Appeasement?

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States’s erstwhile ally Soviet Union was aggressively extending its sphere of control mostly through Eastern Europe by establishing totalitarian puppet regimes. While at the same time, the Soviet Union was seeking to destabilize other countries. The United States and the West were facing an important strategic challenge. The memory of Neville Chamberlain’s failed policy of appeasement against the Nazis was still fresh. Based on this analogy, it seemed that avoiding the confrontation with aggressive tyrannical regimes — appeasement — was short-sighted and counterproductive.

At the end of World War II, the United States also had a nuclear monopoly. Hence, there were some who argued that the United States should militarily overthrow the Soviet regime, while it still could. To pursue this policy would have been difficult. The Soviet Union was a large continental power. Either there would be massive American casualties like those experienced by the French and the Germans when invading Russia or nuclear weapons would have to devastate the Soviet Union with incredible numbers of civilian casualties.

Perhaps out of necessity, perhaps out of wisdom, in 1947 American diplomat George F. Kennan, in a famous article entitled, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs magazine outlined a long-term policy of “containment.”

Kennan argued that the Soviet Union was driven by a commitment to an ideology certain of its ultimate success. This ideology posited, “that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Soviet leaders believed that “truth is on their side and they can therefore afford to wait.” Setbacks, even large ones, could be overlooked because victory would ultimately come. There was, therefore, less immediacy in Soviet aggression and expansionism.

“In these circumstances,” Kennan argued, “it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Kennan believed that the centralization of political power was the fatal flaw of the Soviet Empire. The brutal regime had destroyed any popular support and ultimately political instability would undermine the regime.

Which lesson of history do we apply to Hussein’s regime in Iraq? Is the regime more like the Soviet Union to which we apply an analogous policy of containment? Or, would containment in the case of Iraq resemble the failed policy of appeasement against Nazi aggression?

The argument for containment holds that even if Saddam Hussein manages to hold on to power indefinitely, eventually, he will die. Containment, it is argued, will keep Hussein in his box until time inevitably brings about regime change. Hussein is a rational player and the costs of aggression can be raised high enough to maintain the effectiveness of containment.

In Kennan’s original thesis outlining the intellectual case for containment, he was careful to draw a distinction between ideologically driven regimes with perhaps tyrannical rulers and tyrannical, self-centered rulers like Napoleon and Hitler for whom ideology is only a convenient fig leaf. For the latter, there is an immediacy and urgency to build an empire to serve the greater glory of the ruler. Moreover, in such cases the regimes will collapse when defeated. There is no underlining belief or ideology to maintain resistance once the leader is vanquished. As originally conceived, Kennan’s containment policy was specifically not directed toward regimes like Hussein’s.

In addition, depending on the rationality of Hussein to act in his own self-interest is not a strong or reliable foundation upon which to build a long-term foreign policy. If Hussein always acted in his rational self-interest, he would not have fought a war of attrition against Iran for so long. If he were truly rational in the conventional sense, he would not have attempted to assassinate President George Bush (41) when Bush visited Kuwait in 1993. Hussein had just suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a superior American military force. If he had succeeded in killing Bush in a fit of pique, it is possible that the US would have initiated a massive response that would have toppled his regime. Over the last ten years, he has fanatically sought weapons of mass destruction in the face of international sanctions. As a consequence, Iraq has forgone an estimated $50 billion in oil revenue. This money could have both improved the life of Iraqis and cemented Hussein’s control of Iraq.

Those who urge containment minimize the associated risks. Even though containment was ultimately successful against the Soviet Union, it was just barely so. Containment certainly took much longer than the ten to fifteen years originally anticipated by Kennan. There were times when the containment policy nearly catastrophically failed in a nuclear holocaust. If a Joseph Stalin lead the Soviet Union, rather than a Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, it is very possible that there might have been an horrific nuclear exchange. Moreover, a legacy of Cold War containment was stunted economic growth in Eastern Europe as well as a fractured and unstable Middle East.

Those who urge attacking Iraq before the threat grows worse, must acknowledge that in the short-term the risks to American security will be higher. However, a threat postponed is not a threat avoided or even diminished. It is unlikely that any policy of containment will keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Hussein in the long run. A policy of containment will increase the probability of a long-term threat to the Middle East as Hussein continues his deliberate efforts to destabilize the region by subsidizing terrorism.

Ten years ago after the Gulf War, it was possible to conclude the Hussein’s regime might quickly collapse. Reasonable people could conclude that there was no need to use force to disarm him and his regime. In retrospect, it might have been wiser to push against the Iraqis a little longer. If we do not deal with Hussein’s regime shortly, ten years from now we may view today as a similar opportunity squandered.

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