TCS Daily


Kennan's Comeback

By James Pinkerton - February 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Sixty years ago, on February 22, America faced a difficult geopolitical situation. We had just won World War II against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but the smoke had barely cleared from those conflicts when we realized that a new enemy loomed dead ahead: Soviet Russia. Confronted by an increasingly ominous Stalinist threat, Americans, who had been hoping for peace, found themselves preparing yet again for war. And so it is today. We won in Iraq, but now we must face Iran.

And yet that coming confrontation with Tehran is likely to produce a new alignment of forces in the greater Middle East, as new actors get into the game. Indeed, it is likely that our face-off with Iran will begin as an easy "hot" war -- and then become yet another difficult and protracted cold war.

A look back at the policy debate of 1946 might help us better understand our choices today. Then as now, the new adversary to the east seemed motivated by an extremist and expansionary ideology. Then as now, gaps of cultural and linguistic understanding, piled upon historic grievances felt by both sides, made any sort of accommodation less likely. Then as now, the emerging enemy was not a nuclear power, but it was getting there fast.

In '46, three schools of thought emerged; we can dub them the Conciliators, the Rollbackers, and the Containers.

The first school was Conciliators, although some would call them appeasers, or even worse. Back then, many Americans, mindful of the USSR's role as an ally in the war against fascism, refused to regard the Reds as an enemy. And of course, more than a few Americans were "fellow travelers"; some were avowedly pro-communist. Somewhere in that pinkish mix was Henry Wallace. Wallace is obscure now, but he was a giant in those days; he had been Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture from 1933-40, when New Deal-style rural development was at the popular center of the national agenda -- no wonder FDR promoted Wallace to the vice presidency in 1940. Yet during the war, Wallace's obvious pro-Soviet sympathies became a source of concern to Democrats, and he was dropped from the national ticket in 1944, replaced by Harry Truman. Yet even so, Wallace was powerful enough to command another top job in government -- Truman reluctantly made him Secretary of Commerce in 1945. And it was from that Cabinet post that he urged "friendship" with the Soviets, to the loud huzzahs of many intellectuals and Hollywood types.

The second school was just the opposite: These were the Rollbackers. One early Rollbacker was Gen. George S. Patton, the legendary World War II commander, who made no secret of his belief that the US would be better off fighting the Soviets sooner rather than later. Patton was so outspoken that he was relieved of his post-war occupation command, even before his life was cut short by an accident in December 1945. But plenty of others also wanted a pre-emptive strike of some kind against the Soviets. One prominent Rollbacker was James Burnham, the ex-Trotskyite turned prolific author and would-be "liberator" of Soviet Russia. Although dead for nearly two decades, Burnham remains a significant figure; he was the subject of a highly regarded biography just four years ago, in which author Daniel Kelly, noting Burnham's approach to issues -- a combination of secular intellectualism and vaulting romantic ambition -- referred to his man as "the first neoconservative." And as we shall see, many decades later, the neocons retain their taste for world-historical machtpolitik. In Burnham's time, enthusiasm for rolling back the Russians started to fade after 1949, when Stalin exploded his own A-bomb, but the idea lingered. The cover of the October 27, 1951 issue of Collier's magazine screamed the words, "Preview of the War We Do Not Want," but in fact, the mag did kinda want the war -- the triumphalist text glossed over the millions of American casualties and celebrated, instead, the bright prospect of post-nuked Americans befriending post-nuked Russians.

The third school was in the middle, between the Conciliators and the Rollbackers. These were the Containers. The concept of "containment" began with the American diplomat George F. Kennan. On the night of February 22, 1946, Kennan was in Moscow, having seen enough of Stalin's Russia to reach some blunt, even bleak, conclusions. The result of his ruminations was a top secret missive, which came to be known as the "Long Telegram", which he sent off to his boss, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes.

In his text, Kennan got right to the point. The Soviets, he asserted, were "neurotic." Inhabiting the Kremlin mindset for a moment, Kennan wrote, "Everything must be done to advance relative strength of USSR as factor in international society. Conversely, no opportunity must be missed to reduce strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of capitalist powers." Kennan accurately described Russia's cautious geo-ambitions in such nearby places as Turkey, Iran, and the Baltic Sea, suggesting that more such small-bore aggression was to come. "We have here," he concluded from his Moscow observation post, reverting to his American point of view, "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken."

Yet if Kennan's diagnosis was hot, his prescription was cool. He argued for a patient strategy for this "neurotic" Soviet patient: "We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity, and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual." The only solution, Kennan concluded, was steady and yet steely resolve. Speaking of which, Winston Churchill reinforced Kennan's behind-the-scenes argument with his own very public "iron curtain" speech just two weeks later.

Kennan never used the word "containment" in the Long Telegram, but he did use the "c-word" in a follow-up article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published in Foreign Affairs the following year: "The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." But even as Kennan saw the Soviets as a threat, he also saw the risk of America's overplaying its hand; in the very next sentence, he added, "It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.'" So Kennan's keep-cool "containment" led, naturally, to the Cold War.

The slow-chill strategy carried the day, both as a foreign policy and as a political platform. President Truman laid out the architecture of the Cold War -- the Marshall Plan, military aid to Greece and Turkey, NATO -- even as he withstood a left-wing third-party challenge from the same Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election. And while occasional hot wars broke out in the decades to come, as we all know, the mighty Soviet Union eventually collapsed without a shot being fired.

Indeed, Kennan's legacy resonates to this day. Reacting to the news of his death in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was moved to say:

"First of all, let me take the opportunity to say what a great loss George Kennan is to our country and to the world. I was personally inspired by him and by his work. I had the opportunity to meet him on a couple of occasions. He was one of the great architects of an American foreign policy at the end of World War II that is largely responsible for the great gifts of freedom that many people enjoy today, that is largely responsible for many of the alliances that the United States enjoys today, and that is largely responsible for the policies which led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And George Kennan had a particularly brilliant way of putting this. He said the United States and its allies had to contain the Soviet Union until it had to turn to deal with its internal contradictions. And, when you think about it, that is exactly what happened in the 1980s."

Some might object that Rice, as one of the architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- a hot war for nearly three years now, with no end in sight -- is hardly in a position to talk about the virtues of Kool Kennanism. But in fact, as The Times of London's Gerard Baker noted in a perceptive column, "The Wild Ride is Over," the frustrations of Iraq have "aborted" George W. Bush's neoconservative "revolution"; that is W. is becoming a "normal" president once again. And so, Baker concluded, "America is back to where it was before Iraq, before 9/11, before Bush v Gore: an upstanding member of the multilateralist diplomatic community, piously mouthing the familiar platitudes of international co-operation and stability."

Not everyone will agree with Baker's judgment. But all of us will learn, soon enough, if the Times-man is correct.

The test case will be Iran. As everyone knows, the Iranian regime is self-parodistically hostile to "The Little Satan," Israel, and "The Great Satan," the United States. And one other thing -- they want nuclear weapons in the worst way.

So what to do? As in 1946, the policy options are sorting themselves into three broad categories: the Conciliators on the dovish end, the Rollbackers on the hawkish end, and the Containers in between.

The Conciliators have been the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- the so-called EU-3, which has tried and failed, over a number of years, to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear program. In fact, during the course of these talkathons, the Iranians elected, if that's the right word, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be their president. And Ahmadinejad seems eager, with frat-boy-like glee, to give the West the finger. So the EU-3 has given up; even the French seem to understand by now that the Iranians are a no-kidding serious threat.

Meanwhile, the Rollbackers are a noisy presence on the contemporary scene. Rollback didn't work out as planned in Iraq, but the neo-Burnhamites -- oops, neoconservatives -- are still gung ho for mo' military action; a recent editorial in The Weekly Standard exhorted, "And Now Iran".

Indeed, it's a pretty good bet that the US or Israel will strike at Iran's nuclear facilities sometime relatively soon. Just as when there's smoke there's usually fire, so it's the case that when there's this much war-planning, there's usually some war-fighting, too.

But in fact, the true essence of rollback, as "Burnham the Liberator" would have insisted, is not just toppling the enemy regime, but replacing it with a new friendly government. And yet such confident talk is conspicuously absent from current discussions of Iran. Three years ago, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration assured Americans that US forces would be greeted as "liberators," and most Americans believed it. But that's a hard argument to swallow a second time.

Indeed, the emerging reality is that Muslims don't like the West. That's true inside Iraq, where a seemingly endless skein of Abu Ghraib photos, compounded by video footage of British troops abusing Iraqis, has undercut the proposition that the Anglo-Americans were artful enough to invade a country and make the invadees like it. And the larger context, of course, is that the Ummah-wide violence over the Mohammed-mocking cartoons is evidence that the "clash of civilizations" is already here.

If so, then knocking over the Ahmadinejad government might not help us much, even if we knew how to do it, because the new bosses would be about the same as the old bosses. (Yes, we succeeded at "regime changing" Iran once, back in 1953, but that was a different era, when covert operations were actually covert.) So the $75 million that Washington wants to spend on "democratizing" Iran isn't likely to accomplish much. And of course, if we do end up bombing Iran -- presumably just using conventional ordnance to destroy their nuclear sites -- it's darn hard to see the people there warming up to us.

Of course, many Americans won't care whether or not the Iranians are friendly, so long as they are denuclearized. Indeed, the standard neocon scenario for the Middle East these days is that the US/Israel will maintain a sort of hovering presence over the entire region, ready to smack down eruptions of Islamic nuclearism.

This scenario might be called a hybrid combo of "rollback" and "containment." That is, we would love to roll back a lot of extant governments, and put an Ahmed Chalabi or King Abdullah in charge of each new puppet regime, but we can't seem to make that work. So we will settle for rolling back just their nuclear/WMD ambitions, as they become visible to us, leaving the populations to stew in their increasingly Salafist juices.

Here's a prediction: this particular neocon scenario won't work.

And here's why: The countries we are seeking to influence, via sanctions, subversion, and cruise missiles, will eventually develop an antidote to our "medicine."

Let's take Iran. Right now, bluster aside, they can't really defend themselves against a US/Israeli attack. So if we choose to, we can bomb them with near-impunity. (And if we don't, well, Iran goes nuclear for sure, which would in turn probably guarantee them the attack-proof status of, say, North Korea.)

But if we do bomb, nobody can know what the Iranian reaction might be. Some reports hold that Ahmadinejad looks forward to "the creation of chaos on Earth", perhaps because he yearns for martyrdom, perhaps because he looks forward to unleashing asymmetric warfare on the West. But eventually, after they get bombed enough, with or without Ahmadinejad, the Iranians will sober up and realize that they need a Big Friend, to protect them from us.

What Big Friend? Maybe Pakistan, where everybody in that country of 145 million who is not named President Pervez Musharraf seems to regard Uncle Sam as an enemy. And by the way, the Pakistanis have nukes -- and they are broke. So oil-rich Iran might have the wherewithal for a deal that would obviate the need for all that iffy nuclear R&D.

Speaking of nuclear-rich and cash-poor, there's also Russia. Today's Muscovite regime is a shadow of its Soviet or Tsarist predecessors, but Putin has political ambitions equal to any Kremlin leader, and he seems perfectly willing to work counter to US and Israeli interests -- to wit, his decision to welcome Hamas to Moscow.

And the biggest potential Friend of all is China. The Chinese aren't poor anymore, but they are thirsty -- thirsty for oil, including Iranian oil. At the same time, the PRC continues to soup up its nuclear arsenal.

Already, the possibility of a pro-Iranian combination of these countries -- Pakistan, Russia, China -- is coming into view. Looking ahead to possible United Nations Security Council action against Iran, one US Senator, Sam Brownback of Kansas, says flatly that the Iranians have "bought" the vetoes of Russia and China.

Of course, as America proved in 2003, we are willing to go to war against an "I" country without the go-along of the Security Council. But if, in the indeterminate future, America simply bombs Iran, as opposed to occupying it, it's likely that soon thereafter, the surviving Iranian government will call in a Big Friend to come to its aid. The self-interest of the Iranians is obvious enough, but so is the interest of the Friend. No other great power, not even the EU, is going to feel good about the US completely dominating the Middle East and Central Asia, which account for perhaps half the world's oil and natural gas; throughout the history of power politics, as one country achieves hegemonic status, a counter-coalition has always sprung into being. Enter Pakistan/Russia/China -- and we can't forget India, either.

And that's how Hot will become Cold. That is, the recent spate of American hot wars in the Middle East will end, as a New Cold War begins. The US might well take its best air-power shot against Iran in the next few years, and then the Iranians will decide that enough is enough. So they swallow their pride and bring in a "senior partner" who will protect their country, implicitly or even explicitly, from future American attack. That is, if the US comes to realize that Iran's target zones are cluttered with foreigners, and possibly foreign, er, equipment, we would know that we couldn't strike Iran again without risking a world war.

At which time, "rollback," in any form, ceases to be an option for Washington. Our "window of opportunity" will have closed. That's what happened between the US and the new People's Republic of China in 1950. Mostly by accident, we found ourselves in combat with Chinese "volunteers" during the Korean War. And although plenty of Americans wanted to "take out" Manchuria in retaliation, the Soviets, and their new a-bomb, blocked such an American strike. Thus the Korean War, while plenty hot, stayed limited; we never ventured a broader rollback against Mao Zedong's government in Beijing. And ditto for Vietnam, where fear of the reaction from the USSR and also of a by-then-nuclear China kept us from rolling back Ho Chi Minh at home.

As noted earlier, it was Kennan's prescient insight of 1946 that containment was the optimum option. But just a few years later, after the Russians got the bomb, containment was the inevitable conventional wisdom. So too in the future Middle East: probably by default, we will end up embracing a different sort of "neocon" worldview -- "neo-containment."

So what happens then? What happens if the US, Israel, and Iran are all, in effect, nuclear players in the Middle East? And maybe, because it's a tough neighborhood, another "wild card" country will go nuclear, too? Under such tense circumstances, the best outcome that we could hope for is that the warring will stay cold, as opposed to getting hot.

In which case, the wisdom shown by the Kennanesque Containers of the past will be at a premium in the future. Once again, we will need all the skills we showed 60 years ago: patience, the vision to create sturdy defensive alliances, and also the ability to generate economic and technological growth, so as to gain the upper strategic hand over the course of cold decades.

Containment is not the foreign policy vision we've followed in the past few years. But as Rollback rolls away as a feasible option, we will have to fall back on what's available -- and it did work in Kennan's day. And it's always better to build on past success, as opposed to recent failure.

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