Reflections on 'Containment' | The Nation


Reflections on 'Containment'

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If containment remains the standard operating procedure for American strategy and Pentagon largesse, George Kennan would barely recognize his doctrine today. He first laid it out in 1947 as a limited and temporary means of stanching the expansion of the Soviet bloc. But that was also the year when the United States finally inherited the mantle of Britain's global leadership. Subsequently the United States became the power of last resort for just about everything, particularly for the maintenance and good functioning of the world economy. It remains so today. Yet this hegemonic role, which statesmen like Henry Stimson and Dean Acheson understood well, was masked from the American people by a march outward characterized as defensive and unwanted--containment--and that strategic cover lasted until the cold war ended and the USSR collapsed.

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

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Time and again the Communist threat was invoked to get the American people to support an unprecedented role for their country in the world, but at least since the Gulf War (more likely since Vietnam), the justifications have worn thin. September 11 has temporarily masked sharp differences between the American people, who in public opinion polls can barely muster a coherent justification for why we retain such large expeditionary forces abroad, and successive administrations in Washington that invent new perils and enemies from year to year: Saddam was another Hitler, North Korea is the CIA's favorite rogue state and in 2001 China was to be our new enemy--until Osama bin Laden came along.

That is, Osama came along and kept on going, and where he landed nobody knows: a stark symbol of the catastrophic intelligence failure produced by our $30-billion-a-year intelligence community, before and after September 11. Soon we learned that the CIA harbors not a single employee fluent in Pashto, according to Robert Baer (a former CIA station chief in Tajikistan), while the National Security Agency has a grand total of one--and so, in another brilliant maneuver, Pashto intelligence intercepts were sent for translation to the Pakistani intelligence service, an agency known to be riddled with Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters. Veteran CIA watcher Thomas Powers finds a general decline in CIA morale, a structural failure to crawl out of the well-worn but now obsolescent tracks of cold war intelligence, a risk-averse bureaucratic culture of featherbedding and back-scratching, which fears that anyone who really knows a country or region will fall victim to the sin of "going native" or "falling in love." Better to let someone who has never visited the region be the CIA's deputy chief for what it still calls the Near East. Better to let North Korea be handled for two decades by a CIA officer who doesn't know the first word of Korean. The only intelligence failure comparable to this one was Pearl Harbor, which led to the sacking of those responsible and a major Congressional investigation. So far, the response to September 11 has been to boost the intelligence budget.

For the containment system and the clueless intelligence groups to conquer a new Central Asian front will be easy in the short run; in the aftermath of such horrific attacks the American people have supported whatever measures the Bush team desires, at home or abroad. In the longer run, however, a failure to roll up bin Laden's terror network, to replace the Taliban with a broad-based and self-sustaining Afghan government, and an inability to prevent US forces from becoming the policemen of Central Asia (and much of the Middle East), will tend to jeopardize the country's other wide-ranging security commitments.

The Garrison State

For more than a decade since the USSR collapsed, Americans have watched the Pentagon and its many garrisons abroad continue to soak up their tax dollars, spending more than all our conceivable enemies combined; here is a perpetual-motion machine of ravenous appetite. Any administration would have responded forcefully to the tragic attacks on September 11, but Bush and his allies have vastly expanded the Pentagon budget, added another zone of containment (Central Asia), put yet more billions into Homeland Defense. They have shown a callous disregard for civil liberties, the rights of the accused and the views of our traditional allies. The news media and Hollywood fawn on the military and take jingoism to an embarrassing extreme (the worst failing of Steven Spielberg's sidekick Stephen Ambrose is not his plagiarism but his patriotic puffery). Major outlets like Fox News cater exclusively to an imagined audience from the red states of the 2000 election (or the 70 percent of the armed forces who voted for Bush).

In a classic article in 1941, Harold Lasswell defined the garrison state as one in which "the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society." We are well advanced on that path today, yet this is hardly a country with a strong military tradition; you can count on the fingers of one hand the decades since 1789 when the military has been a powerful and respected factor in national life. Nor is the military the basic source of US influence in the world. There is a stronger countervailing tendency, hard to define but deeply influential in our history. The first thought that struck me after witnessing (on television) thousands of casualties resulting from an attack on the mainland, for the first time since 1812, was that over the long haul the American people may exercise their longstanding tendency to withdraw from a world deemed recalcitrant to their ministering and present Washington with a much different and eminently more difficult dilemma than the here-today, gone-tomorrow axis of evil: how to rally the citizens for a long twilight struggle to maintain an ill-understood American hegemony in a vastly changed world.

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