Reflections on ‘Containment’

Reflections on ‘Containment’

Bush will have trouble in the long run selling the “axis of evil” and other myths.


When Bush the Younger adds a new phrase to the English language, questions assault the mind: Did he mean to say it? Does he understand what he said? Is an allusion intended, or just plucked from the flotsam and jetsam floating around in his head? By the time the United States finally got off its duff and entered World War II, Hitler had unified his control of continental Europe and Tojo’s forces had command of most of East and Southeast Asia. Thus the Axis had transformed the global balance of power in both East and West. Today the Bush Administration, fresh from chasing callow Taliban youths from power, restoring Afghanistan’s politics to the warlord era circa 1995 and failing to find Osama bin Laden or root out Al Qaeda’s terror network (except in Afghanistan, maybe), leaps forward with new demons: an axis of evil running from Pyongyang to Baghdad to Teheran.

Some axis: Iraq and Iran hate each other, the legacy of their war in the 1980s (recall the towering cynicism of Henry Kissinger, who thought the best outcome would be for them both to lose–and they did, with appalling slaughter on both sides). North Korea has barely any relationship with Iraq. It has sold missile and other military technology to Iran, but a piddling amount compared with what Washington sold to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, or sells to South Korea today. In short, the wheels of this axis are falling off in every direction. North Korea has the added attraction that its jerry-built missiles are the primary public targets of America’s National Missile Defense. Today South Korea’s military budget is greater than the North’s gross national product, but the North must still play the Great Satan in the Bush Doctrine, enunciated with consummate diplomatic artfulness just in advance of the President’s trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Even the tepid New York Times editors denounced this doctrine of blunt threats and implied pre-emptive military action as a radical departure toward the promiscuous brandishing of American might.

Remember how Black September led just about everyone to imagine that the world would never be the same? Everything had changed, a caesura had opened in world history. For a while after September 11 an administration that had come in with a sweeping and assertive unilateralism seemed to have learned just how many friends it had in the world, as a collegial, multilateral diplomacy quickly unfolded. NATO resolved that the attacks on the United States were also attacks against NATO itself. Prime Minister Tony Blair gave new vigor to the special relationship between London and Washington. Various countries pledged soldiers, bases and funds to the war in Afghanistan. It looked like Russia and China had joined the United States and its allies in the common task of a global struggle against terrorism, and that a rare unity had cut across the old divisions of world politics.

But then the war in Afghanistan went quickly to its denouement, with little allied involvement–by and large the Pentagon seemed not to want it–and the inherent unilateralism of the Bush Administration reasserted itself. If, in the early going, Blair acted like a President and Bush like a prime minister, Blair’s ringing condemnations of the terrorists did not bring him closer to the inner circle of Bush’s decision-making. Likewise, there was little consultation with European allies on the future of Afghanistan, except that Washington wants them to shoulder the burden of peacekeeping and nation-building in that benighted country. In December the United States announced its withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, over Russia’s opposition (and later, pained acquiescence), thus to get on with building its pet missile defense, bringing great domestic pressures on Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a dire threat to China’s modest nuclear deterrent (which missile defense would neutralize). Then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin found listening bugs crawling all over his new Boeing 767, but chose to turn the other cheek and welcome Bush’s visit.

Jiang and Bush will have plenty to talk about at the Beijing summit: America’s new alliance with China’s traditional ally Pakistan, the near-war in December on China’s southern border between India and Pakistan (some reports had China moving as many as fifteen new divisions of troops to the border area, while others applauded China’s calming role in defusing the crisis), and new American bases ringing its southwestern flanks, thus negating joint Russian-Chinese attempts to cooperate in the security of Central Asia. This will do nothing to quiet China’s fears of American encirclement, but China also has its own problems with terrorism in the region, and reportedly shared important intelligence with Washington during the Afghan war. It clearly hopes to be rewarded with a new start in relations with Washington, but don’t bet on it. China is the biggest bogyman on the Bush Administration’s block; it’s just too important as a vast Rorschach inkblot, absorbing even the wildest Republican charges. (Remember how Wen Ho Lee supposedly stole our entire nuclear arsenal?)

Like China, old allies and previous enemies have shown remarkable forbearance since Bush came into office, which has done exactly nothing to alter Donald Rumsfeld’s belief that American superiority in high-tech weaponry, combined with the unipolar world that resulted from the collapse of the USSR, enable the United States to have its cake and eat it, too–to impose its will where it wants, when it wants, regardless of allied or world opinion. Rumsfeld’s success in boosting the military budget by more than 40 percent since Clinton’s final year in office is testimony to his influence, and to the emptiness of his vaunted revolution in military affairs. The Pentagon’s yawning maw gobbles up everything it wants, like the V-22 Osprey and the F-22 fighter jet, but defense reform is dead (in the words of one expert). Secretary of State Colin Powell is an exception in his continued pursuit of diplomacy, but his plodding and lackluster attempt to bring new momentum to the Middle East peace process was an abject failure, and Rumsfeld has been much more prominent in defending the Bush foreign policy to the public.

Evildoer Kim Jong Il’s long-range missile is Rumsfeld’s poster child for missile defense, but it needs a shot of Don’s Viagra. It has insufficient lift capacity to carry a nuclear warhead because the North lacks the technology either to lighten missile throw-weight (by using aluminum alloys) or to manufacture a sufficiently small warhead (which would require high-speed X-ray cameras that it doesn’t have). Even if lighter chemical or biological warheads were installed, it is unclear that its first stage has the thrust to lift that payload fast enough and far enough to reach any part of the United States. Nor does North Korea appear to have heat-resistant technologies that would keep the warhead from burning up upon re-entry into the atmosphere–it would turn into a charcoal briquette, which happens to be what Colin Powell wants to turn North Korea into should it launch a missile at the United States [see Cumings, “The Emperor’s Old Clothes,” February 19, 2001].

Kim’s missiles are commodities for sale, and Bill Clinton nearly succeeded in buying them out before leaving office. In a fateful month–November 2000–everything was poised for a Clinton visit to Pyongyang: The North had already agreed to forgo construction, deployment and international sales of all missiles with a range of more than 300 miles. If Clinton did Kim Jong Il the favor of a presidential visit, negotiators believed, Kim would also agree to enter the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would limit North Korean missiles to an upper range of 180 miles. In return, Washington would have provided $1 billion in food aid, presumably for several years. Clinton wanted to go to Pyongyang, and his negotiators had their bags packed for weeks in November–but as Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, later put it, it wasn’t a good idea for the President to leave the country when they didn’t know whether there would be a major constitutional crisis. After five Supreme Court votes gave the election to Bush, it was too late. Now more than a year has passed, and this remarkable progress was left to twist slowly in the wind by Bush’s extraordinary diplomacy-by-dereliction, his bellicose threats and his callous disregard for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, winner of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. This past January Lockheed Martin sold 111 missiles of 186-mile range to South Korea, a $307 million deal that will only stoke the arms race in the region.

Afghanistan: Victory for Smart Weapons,
or for Containment?

Rumsfeld and the Pentagon believe that a novel combination of high-tech or smart weapons and mobile special forces combined to energize local allies (the Northern Alliance) and quickly dispatch a Taliban army that nearly all observers had thought to be formidable and resilient. But the primary long-term effect of the war in Afghanistan is likely to be a permanent US commitment to stabilize the most unstable region in the world: the belt of populous and mostly Muslim countries stretching westward from Indonesia all the way to Algeria, and northward to Central Asia, into the former Soviet republics and the Muslim populations of China’s western reaches.

Clearly Taliban and Al Qaeda military prowess was vastly exaggerated; American special forces with every high-tech accoutrement confronted threadbare teenagers challenged by a flat tire on their Toyotas, and even Al Qaeda’s fight-to-the-death bravado often gave way to a pragmatic decision to live (and fight?) another day. But the mainstream media’s verdict on the great success of this war will only bolster claims of an insurmountable American advantage in the effective use of military force–the world’s policeman as Robocop. I’ll put my money on a different metaphor: the Pentagon making its own Procrustean bed.

Last month the Pentagon announced a new commitment to lay down a long-term footprint in Central Asia, as reporters put it: an air base near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, that would hold up to 3,000 troops; massive upgrading of existing military bases and facilities in Uzbekistan (like the former Soviet base at Khanabad) and Pakistan (where several bases now house US forces, with next to no media access or scrutiny); creation and expansion of remnant military bases in Afghanistan; and the replacement of Marine expeditionary forces sent into Afghanistan during the war with Army regulars settling in for the long haul (Army units tend to establish more permanent bases, reporters said, with considerable understatement). The spokesman for the US Central Command told reporters that in the future the United States “will find great value in continuing to build airfields in locations on the perimeter of Afghanistan” that will be able to carry out “a variety of functions, like combat operations, medical evacuation and delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

Most analysts will see in this permanent footprint a desire to enter a strategic area long ceded to Russia or China, or to siphon off a large American share of the new oil wealth coming on stream in Central Asia. No doubt this is part of it, but a different picture emerges when we direct attention to the politically shaped containment compromises that have characterized America’s wars since 1941. World War II was the clearest kind of military victory, but it still didn’t bring the troops home. They remain on the territory of their defeated enemies, Japan and Germany, and exercise a lingering constraint on their autonomy. However many justifications come and go for that remarkable and unprecedented situation (in that the leading global power stations its forces on the territory of the second- and third-largest economies), the fact remains that it has persisted for fifty-seven years and shows no signs of ending.

American combat troops first landed in Korea not in 1950, but on a pristine September day five years earlier. On another beautiful September day in 2001, the eleventh day, 37,000 of them were still in South Korea. Korea is the best example in modern history of how easy it is to get into a war, and how hard it is to get out. Vietnam would have been the same–and indeed was essentially the same from the mid-1950s, when Washington committed its prestige to the Saigon government, to the mid-1970s, when the war concluded with a US defeat because the United States could sustain neither a stable Saigon regime nor a divided Vietnam. If it could have done so we would still be there, stuck in the aspic of another Korea. The Gulf War came to an end when Bush the Elder and his advisers, pre-eminently Brent Scowcroft, kicked on the brakes well short of Baghdad and thus spawned the newest containment system, leaving upwards of 5,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia a decade later and several new military bases there and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Bush is sending some 600 troops to help combat Islamic guerrillas in the Philippines, exactly a century after the United States created its colony there by fighting a dirty and bloody three-year war against guerrillas. American advisers will also work with the Indonesian military (which ruled the country for thirty years until Suharto was overthrown in 1998) in antiterrorism operations, which could easily embroil the United States in trying to maintain the precarious integrity of that far-flung island nation. The only places Bush wants to leave are Kosovo and Bosnia, because he and his aides derogate peacekeeping as using our troops for social work. Otherwise it is (containment) business as usual.

An administration that began with talk about bringing troops home from Clinton’s ill-advised adventures now asks taxpayers to underwrite “an aleatory expedition in the management of the world’s affairs,” in the prescient words of historian Charles Beard’s original critique of containment. Vital interests are proclaimed where none existed before, temporary expedients become institutional commitments and a thick web of military and bureaucratic interests comes to dominate strategy. Then the Pentagon bean counters take over, with every new appropriations season in Congress an occasion for defending this or that outpost (new or old, vital or marginal), and American power is mired in works of its own doing.

Among the services, the US Army finds its permanent mission in garrisoning various elaborately developed bases around the world; there officers confront real enemies (as in Korea) or command important posts (as in Japan or Germany), and thus gain experience essential to promotion. The massive US encampment in and near Yongsan in Seoul (a base first built by the Japanese in 1894) has for decades offered a virtual country-club environment for Army folks (golf course, swimming pools, movie theaters, suburban-style homes for the officers). In December 2000 I visited Panmunjom once again, this time courtesy of the US Army. Our hosts gave us the Army’s construction of the history of the Korean War (a version that could not have changed since 1953) and a menu of rib-eye steak and french fries of similar vintage, offered in a cafe that had a country music poster on the wall advertising Hank Williams’s 1952 tour of Atlanta. The Marines join with the Army in loving Okinawa, the only place in the world where the Marines permanently station a large expeditionary force. And in both places, established institutional practice assures a steady supply of thousands of poor young women to sate the sexual appetites of the troops, as a new book by Northwestern University scholar Ji-Yeon Yuh demonstrates.

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.

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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy