In recent months, disaffected with the approach of the administration of US President George W. Bush to Middle East affairs, influential foreign-policy thinkers have taken to urging Washington to remodel its strategy on George Kennan's Cold War "containment" strategy -- a strategy intended for decades of struggle against an ideological foe of global reach.
Kennan articulated his vision of containment precisely 60 years ago, in an anonymous Foreign Affairs article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."
However perceptive his "X" article was as a guide to Cold War strategy, its recommendations are woefully misplaced when applied to today's Middle East.
Typical of the administration's critics is Harvard professor Stephen Rosen, who last month told an audience at the Naval War College that the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an informal coalition dedicated to halting illicit shipments of weapons-related material, should be the keystone of latter-day containment in the Middle East.
A less intrusive approach has much to recommend it. Proponents of a neo-containment strategy, however, commit two of the same blunders for which they have faulted the administration. The implications for the US's international standing could be grievous.
One, they misapply the lessons of history. And two, as a diplomatic matter, invoking Kennan is bound to raise hackles in countries acutely conscious that they were targeted by Western containment during the Cold War.
Among these countries is China.
First, consider the containment analogy. Kennan advocated applying "counterforce" -- he later regretted his choice of words for its martial overtones -- at points of Soviet expansion. Over time, denied its capacity to expand and thus its revolutionary fervor, international communism would mellow. The Soviet system would become something more benign -- or it would fall.
While Kennan argued from the top down, in historical terms, proponents of an expanded PSI argue from the bottom up. In effect they declare that, by working together on functional matters such as intelligence sharing, law enforcement and maritime interception techniques, governments can muster support for a new international ideal opposing the transportation of goods and substances relating to ballistic missiles or nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Over time, transportation of these items might take its place alongside such scourges as piracy and the slave trade. More and more governments might work to interdict illicit cargoes. Ultimately, the international community might see fit to codify this new ideal in a UN Security Council resolution or a treaty of universal scope.
In one sense, then, proponents of PSI-as-containment have it right. The bottom-up, functional approach could provide some basis for a protracted struggle against terrorists and their backers. But they have not shown that Islamic militancy will mellow or collapse over time if contained. Worse, if targeted narrowly on the Middle East, this muscular PSI would appear to Muslim eyes suspiciously like the "clash of civilizations" Washington has long feared. The new containment awaits a new George Kennan.
Moreover, talk of adapting containment to present circumstances could prove self-defeating outside the Middle East.
For Beijing, containment never ended. Washington, Chinese strategists say, remains on the lookout for excuses to maintain its long-standing military dominance of the international "commons," including East Asian waters and skies. PSI operations offer one such excuse.
Chinese strategists remember how Washington used the first island chain -- including Taiwan -- to hem in Chinese ambitions. Policing the East Asian commons must look like a new phase in an old strategy.
Beijing is loath to endorse any US-led initiative that seems to ratify US command of the waters off Chinese shores, where supplies of economically vital oil, natural gas and other commodities must pass.
Nor are worries about US containment confined to the seas. The PSI also purports to halt shipments of weapons-related goods and substances ashore and aloft. Tightening national export controls -- the laws and regulations governments enact to control the flow of strategic goods across their sovereign territory -- and enhancing customs and border security are some efforts that fall under the PSI.
To Chinese eyes, these measures look suspiciously like another pretext for US meddling along the Chinese continental periphery -- fanning fears of encirclement.
In short, makers of US policy and strategy should be wary of reviving containment and linking it to the PSI. Applied to the Middle East, Kennan's vision could help rally the Islamic world against the West and its allies, swelling the ranks of al-Qaeda and its ilk. And casual talk of containment could damage relations with China and other geopolitical great powers for no good reason.
If Washington needs a new strategy, better to search elsewhere for inspiration.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and a senior research fellow at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security. The views expressed here are his alone.
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