'Containment' Advocates Miss the Point

Critics of the Bush administration have recently pushed for a strategy of containment toward Iraq, as opposed to war. Containment, they argue, was the ultimately successful policy pursued by the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. So why not let it work now?

But this argument is based on a fallacy. The current Bush administration is in fact following a policy of containment -- the same policy initiated by the first President Bush and carried on by the Clinton administration. And the only possible explanation for why Bush’s critics fail to see this fairly obvious fact is that they simply do not understand what is involved in the concept of containment in the first place.

These critics seem to have the strange notion containment is an alternative to actual war, when in fact it is a form of warfare -- a fact recognized, however paradoxically, in the expression given to the American policy of containment when applied to the Cold War.

Nowhere was this fact made more clear than during the Cuban missile crisis.

A policy of containment, as the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated, is not to be taken too literally. Containment means more than simply trying to keep the military forces of one nation from invading another. In the Cuban missile crisis, no one was worried Cuba might invade the U.S. The concern, rather, was that the Cuban government would arm itself with nuclear weapons -- not that it would land troops in Miami, but that it would have the capability of landing a missile there.

Just this capability, and nothing more, was enough to generate a military response on the part of the United States. This military response was the naval blockade of Cuba, which according to international law was every bit as much an act of war as if we had sent in the Marines.

But this clearly demonstrates that the policy of containment, as historically practiced, was much subtler and more nuanced than the current administration’s critics appear to recognize. The trigger that activated our response in the Cuban crisis was not an invasion, but the purely internal decision on the part of the Cuban government to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

But what is wrong with another nation deciding how to defend itself? And on what basis can the U.S. claim to interfere in a sovereign nation’s right to self-determination?

All such questions were swept aside by the policy of containment followed during the Cold War, because, in order for this policy to have a chance of working, they must be swept aside.

The reason for this is simple: Every aggressor will offer a rationalization for his aggression. Louis XIV offered them when he invaded the Rhineland; Hitler offered them when he invaded Poland; Saddam Hussein offered them when he invaded Kuwait. This is the way the world works -- those seeking to extend their power and influence beyond their boundaries will always do so on the basis of a pretext of some kind; and this requires that those who wish to keep them within their boundaries must be prepared to say to them, "Sorry, but your excuses don’t cut it with us. We see what you are really up to, and we are going to act accordingly."

Which is how John F. Kennedy responded to the Cuban crisis. Others might wish to debate whether the arming of Cuba with nuclear missiles was a legitimate act of self-defense, but this had no relevance to the American policy of containment, since, according to the United States, the Cuban government’s decision to arm itself with such weapons was all that really counted.

It was, in other words, a trigger -- a line in the sand beyond which the other side could not step without knowing that they would face military action, and not simply the threat of such action.

Such triggers cannot, by their very nature, be subject to discussion. On the contrary, the moment the line is crossed, this must be the end of any further debate on the matter, since all such debate becomes a forum that permits the aggressor to consolidate this position on the other side of the line in the sand.

Kennedy understood this perfectly well, and that is why he chose to respond to Cuba’s arming of itself with an act of war.

Today we forget that the blockade of Cuba was an act of war simply because it worked, and because the Kennedy administration was not faced with the question of what to do if the blockade had been challenged by military force -- as the world at the time was afraid that it might be.

But why did it work?

It worked because the other side believed we were in fact fully prepared to use any and all of our remaining actions if the blockade had been challenged, including thermonuclear war. In short, because they knew we were not bluffing. This is absolutely essential if any policy of containment is to work.

Which means that to argue for a policy of containment instead of war is simply to misunderstand what the doctrine of containment was all about. Any nation that employs such a policy must be prepared to act swiftly and without ambiguity the moment there is a clear-cut violation of the ground rules. Otherwise you are not advocating a policy of containment, but one of negotiated appeasement -- and that is quite a different matter.

Lee Harris is a contributing editor to TechCentralStation.com where he writes frequently about terrorism and foreign policy.