TCS Daily

Containment Won't Work

By Dale Franks - September 24, 2002 12:00 AM

It is clear that the main element of any United States policy... must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment...
- George F. Kennan, Foreign Affairs

Opponents of an attack on Iraq claim that a policy of containment is adequate to ensure that Iraq won't cause problems in the future. They point out that containment worked against the USSR during the Cold War and so we should be confident of its applicability against Saddam Hussein.

To make such an argument, however, is to ignore fundamental differences between the Soviet state and the Iraq.

For all its economic irrationality and the political cruelty of its internal policies, the USSR was more or less a normal state in matters of international relations in that it adhered to a legalistic interpretation of international norms. For all that it sometimes stretched and bent those norms, at the very least it acknowledged them as norms, and defended its behavior in terms of its compliance with them.

The USSR launched military invasions of three satellite states, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. On each occasion, the USSR followed a similar pattern. The government of each state was replaced with a government more to the USSR's liking. The new government then invited the USSR in to the country in order to help "restore order." Soviet forces were dispatched in "response" to the "request" of the new government. Even in what were clearly satellite states, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the USSR attempted to frame their actions in such a way as to defend them in the context of acceptable international norms.

This was, of course, a cynical and ruthless method of operation, but it exemplified the Soviet regard for international norms. In general, the post-Stalin USSR refrained from actions that could not be plausibly, albeit cynically, defended within that context.

The nature of the Soviet leadership was also far different from that of Iraq. While we in the West are accustomed to thinking of the Soviet leader as a single strongman, the reality was not that simple. The leadership of the USSR was split among three powerful institutions: The Communist Party, the Army, and the Security Services, each of which was represented in the central committee of the Politburo. Indeed, much of Soviet history is the story of struggle among these three power bases. After Stalin's death, the USSR's leader was constrained by having to satisfy each of these three power bases in the Soviet leadership. When Khrushchev failed to do so, he was ousted by the Politburo and replaced with Brezhnev. Leadership in the USSR, therefore, was somewhat oligarchic, at least to the extent that the General Secretary had to satisfy the central membership of the Politburo.

Containment could work on the USSR for two reasons. First, at the end of the day the USSR's inclination was to maintain the norms of international behavior, if for no other reason than they could hide behind such norms if it became necessary. Second, because the leadership of the USSR was to some degree collegial and oligarchic, multiple views could be expressed at the highest echelon of the leadership. More often than not, this meant that the leaders of the USSR made rational calculations about how far those norms could be stretched, and how far the West would let itself be pushed.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq, on the other hand, presents a very different picture. Whereas the Soviet leadership after Stalin prevented one person from having absolute power over the organs of the state, Iraq's leadership is concentrated in the hands of one man. Where the USSR's leadership could provide opposing viewpoints within the senior echelon of the Politburo, there is no Politburo in Iraq. This is not a very good regime to apply a policy of containment: Containment requires that the state being contained is capable of acting in a rational manner.

The reason one-man states find it difficult make rational calculation is deeply rooted in human nature. When you rule a country and are surrounded by sycophants who constantly assure you that you are the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, eventually you begin to believe it. How do you maintain a sense of proportion and rationality about your decisions when every decision you make, good or bad, is praised by everyone you meet as the wisest choice in history? If everybody around you constantly tells you that you're a genius, and your plans cannot fail, eventually, you begin to believe it yourself. At the very least, such an environment naturally compromises the ability to make realistic assumptions upon which to base decisions.

In such an environment, leaders don't respond to the typical pressures of international law. Indeed, such leaders, entirely unconstrained by limits on their behavior within their native environment, may very well have difficulty recognizing that international norms are applicable to them. They simply don't receive the negative feedback signals that other leaders do. They are sheltered from bad news by their subordinates, because no one wants to be shot for delivering bad news. Their plans never receive rational criticism or exposure to unpleasant facts, because no one wants to be shot for disloyalty. Perhaps Saddam Hussein thinks that the U.S. will never have the will to attack Iraq as long as the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other allies disagree. He may be entirely wrong in this assessment, but he will never know (until it's too late), because no one in Iraq will tell him he's wrong.

States like Iraq are not normal in the sense that they are incapable of recognizing international norms as applying to them. As such they are incapable of responding rationally to international pressure. Diplomacy, sanctions, and other forms of international censure rarely work with such states because they are immune to criticism from their own population, and feel relatively safe from having military action imposed upon them, often because they are not entirely rational in appraising the results of their provocations.

There is generally no easy or painless way of dealing with such states. But history indicates that failure to eliminate the threat they represent only causes further trouble later on.

TCS Daily Archives