The US and the world are focused on whether the administration of US President George W. Bush will adopt the Iraq Study Group's recommendations for an exit strategy from Iraq. That is the most pressing immediate question, but US leaders should also be thinking ahead. The US needs a post-occupation strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, one grounded in a viable national security strategy for the 21st century. That strategy is containment.
In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration rejected containment as an obsolete Cold War hangover. The weapons inspectors were pulled out, and the US opted for preemptive war. Bush was portrayed as being similar to British prime minister Winston Churchill, fighting with resolve to defeat German dictator Adolf Hitler, and advocates of containment were accused of appeasement. But now we know that the containment regime worked. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was in no position to threaten anyone, let alone the US.
This was not the first time that containment -- a strategy devised by George Kennan, the director of the US State Department's Policy Planning Staff under president Harry Truman, in response to the Soviet threat after World War II -- has been rejected as appeasement. In the 1952 US presidential election campaign, Dwight Eisenhower and his future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, heaped scorn on containment, calling instead for a "rollback" of the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
Fortunately, once in the presidential office, the Eisenhower administration had the sense to stick with containment in Europe, continuing a policy that is widely credited for winning the Cold War. US president John F. Kennedy's insistence, against much advice, on containment during the Cuban missile crisis saved the world from nuclear war. This was calculated resolve, not appeasement.
Containment's goal was to prevent Soviet expansion without saddling the US with unsustainable military obligations. So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment's reliance on economic sticks and carrots, competition within the world communist movement, intelligence and diplomacy, and promoting the vitality of the capitalist democracies would guarantee security. Kennan was right -- the dysfunctional features of the Soviet system, and its over-extension internationally, would lead to its demise.
When containment has been abandoned, the US has paid a high price. The Eisenhower administration toppled Iran's elected government in 1953 believing it to be too pro-Soviet. The hugely unpopular Shah they installed was swept away in the Islamic revolution in 1979. The US made comparable errors in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America.
Vietnam was the US' costliest departure from containment. As Kennan explained, when the US goes to war over something less than a vital interest, the adversary -- for whom vital interests are at stake -- will fight long after the war has become too unpopular at home to sustain. Bush repeated this mistake in Iraq.
Containment is hardly a relic of the Cold War. It worked against Libya, leading President Muammar Qaddafi in the late 1990s to stop sponsoring terrorism, turn over the Lockerbie bombers for trial, and pay compensation to British and French victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism.
Claims that he abandoned his nuclear program in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq have been refuted by Flynt Leverett, director for Middle Eastern affairs at the US National Security Council from 2002 to 2003. According to Leverett, Qaddafi's decision predated the invasion and was a response to an explicit quid-pro-quo to end international sanctions against Libya.