- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008


It is customary for new American administrations, especially those of the rival political party, to try to be and do everything in opposition to its predecessor. George W. Bush, we will recall, came into office in 2001 promising a “humble foreign policy”: no more rhetoric about America being the “indispensable” nation; no more foreign policy “as social work;” no more “coddling” of the Chinese in the name of international stability; no more hasty military interventions like Kosovo.

What a difference seven years make.

There is every reason to expect that this year’s presidential campaign will also be rich with 180-degree turns. Already there has been talk about ending the “war on terror” itself: The name is a misnomer; we cannot defeat a tactic; we need to stop picking fights with al Qaeda; we need to “contain” would-be terrorists and then win them over by persuasion.

This final element ” a recycling of Cold War strategy of containment ” is perhaps the most dangerous of the many rhetorical pitfalls in play. For Democrats, especially, it risks a return to the quadrennial charge of being “soft” on America’s enemies. The advocates of a containment strategy for the 21st century make a good point in claiming that the Bush administration’s efforts in the field have been at once too aggressive and half-hearted: too many guns and too little butter. Yet the measures they promote seem to be just as interventionist ” only with better manners. Indeed this is not a debate about Grand Strategy at all, but rather a general dispute over methods, or what British imperialists once termed “forward” and “backward” policies.

Moreover, the debate neglects the most critical and successful element of the strategy during the Cold War: deterrence. It is important to remember that containment in its earlier incarnation applied mainly to Europe and came to include a healthy bit of deterrence ” in the form of an iron-clad nuclear umbrella ” in order to succeed. Where the latter element was lacking, namely outside Europe, containment failed or even backfired. For example, the Vietnam War, one could argue, lasted far longer than anticipated because the United States itself was deterred from fighting on its terms by the fear of Chinese or Soviet intervention.

A pure strategy of containment against today’s hydra-headed, global insurgency is difficult to imagine working on the ground. The insurgents lack a single hierarchy of command, a defined territorial space, or a clear set of positive aims besides destroying their enemies. And persistent negotiation ” which was essential to keeping the Cold War cold ” is anathema to most of them and, so far as we can tell, to us.

Above all, the various containment “strategies” being discussed lack the central element of deterrence. This should be a more promising area for creative policy thinking. The critics of the Bush Administration are right in pointing out that meager effort has been made to win over our enemies before pressing to destroy them. But the civilized world will have enemies for a long time. The main job for its defenders is to prevent attacks on the assumption that winning over enemies will not succeed all at once. This is where deterrence comes in.

In addition to putting a better face on American power with more sophisticated and serious-minded development efforts and political commitments, the United States and its allies must bring more credibility to its badly damaged deterrent. It must strengthen the global institutions of collective security ” particularly NATO ” on the principle that a common defense is always more formidable than a divided or ambivalent one. A NATO guarantee to defend any Middle Eastern nation against another attacked with nuclear weapons may be the key to nipping in the bud what most people see now as a likely regional arms race, which would, at the very least, feed the most destructive aspirations of the insurgents. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies must continue to infiltrate their networks as best it can ” with counter-propaganda and disinformation about their leaders, plans, and so forth ” in order to both win defectors and accelerate their self-destruction.

“Why do they hate us?” is a good question to ask but it is not a strategic catch-all. We cannot contain the threat of a global insurgency merely by showing it the error of its ways. It is sad but realistic to expect that a kindler, gentler war on terror will be a quick casualty of the next big attack. We must keep trying to make sure that does not happen. Focusing our intellectual energies and the policy debate on deterrence is a better way to do it.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a councilor of the Atlantic Council of the United States. The opinions presented here are only his own.

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