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January 11, 2007

A new Cold War?
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Yale professor Ian Shapiro has published an interesting op-ed that argues for the revival of containment as a post-Iraq strategy for the Middle East. Drawing on parallels from the Cold War, he predicts that the dysfunctional states of the Middle East will implode of their accord, and our interventions are only making things worse (while saddling ourselves with a massive military burden).

While I am hesitant to swallow his full equivalence of communism and radical Islamism, the point in the article that most resonates for me is his analysis of why containment worked: "So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment...would guarantee security." In other words, containment necessitates patience. Americans had patience for it during the Cold War because they realized that there was not an immediate threat to their security. So that forces us to ask the question today: Are we, as Americans, really in that much danger of attack? Or, more precisely, how much safer have we become as a result of our interventions in the Middle East?

I would argue, as are an increasing amount of security analysts, that our interventions have made us less safe. In the most immediate sense, they have put our troops in the line of fire. But in a larger sense, they have provided a common enemy for secularists and fundamentalists -- America -- and are thus preventing the internal clashes (or what some might call "soul searching") that are necessary for actual democracy to emerge in the Middle East.  We have to remind ourselves that the war against radical Islamism -- like the war against communism -- is much more of an internal battle for the countries of the Middle East than it is our battle. While we may have felt some its affects on 9/11, we can't let that distract us from the fact that the war can only be won by the people of the Middle East themselves. 

So there are two lessons from the Cold War: We only hurt ourselves by intervening, and that we will only have the confidence not to intervene when we acknowledge that there is little direct threat to American security. We can't use the abstract threat of "terrorism" to justify hasty and aggressive action in the Middle East anymore. We have to recapture that Cold War confidence that authoritarian states will collapse as a result of their own dysfunction, and that "the best way to spread democracy is to demonstrate its superiority" rather than "ramming [it] down people’s throats."


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Americans had patience for it during the Cold War because they realized that there was not an immediate threat to their security.

I think there's a little more to it than that. Americans also had patience because Russia had nuclear weapons and it was clear that the downside of an American attack would be huge. At the moment the combination of an inflated Islamist threat in the medium term and a, to be honest, tiny threat at the moment makes it easy to think that now is the exact right time for military action, even if patience would be wiser.

William said:

"At the moment the combination of an inflated Islamist threat in the medium term and a, to be honest, tiny threat at the moment makes it easy to think that now is the exact right time for military action, even if patience would be wiser."

Under those conditions, now would be the right time to attack if you thought that attack would neutralize the tiny threat instead of making it bigger. I don't know why you would think that, and it certainly hasn't been borne out in Iraq. I guess in 2003 it was easy for a member of the public to think then was the right time to attack because everyone in the government and media was telling them that--wrongly, as it turns out. If you're talking about 2007 and still saying it’s easy to think that now is the right time for military action, then I'd say it is easy to think that you need a straightjacket.

As for the idea of using containment as a conceptual framework for guiding our thoughts about radical Islam, if it means we don't go around starting wars anymore, I'm all for it. However, my understanding of containment was that it meant we didn't fight the USSR directly, but rather restricted the scope of its action at the periphery through a series of proxy wars or covert action in developing countries, i.e. Vietnam, Central America, Iran, etc. Shapiro cites these incidents as times we strayed from containment—presumably he knows more about containment than I do since he’s a Yale professor with a forthcoming book on the subject. But I’m not at all convinced that people eager for conflict with Iran, Syria, etc. would accept that definition of containment. I’m not convinced that it was Reagan’s understanding of containment, either. He might have said that containment worked precisely because we stopped Soviet expansion through our actions in Korea, Vietnam, Chile, etc.

Also, grafting the Cold War containment model onto our current situation might not work since we’re not dealing with a monolithic entity, but rather a bunch of states, militias, political parties, and terrorist groups that are often as busy fighting each other as they are us. But if convincing ourselves that we are revisiting the glory days of Reagan and the Cold War is what it takes to stop us from starting any more stupid wars, then I’m all for it.

"So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment...would guarantee security."

Americans had patience for it during the Cold War because they realized that there was not an immediate threat to their security.

This is fundamentally wrong. Containment was in part a response to global thermonuclear war. The threat was the end of mankind.

If containment is a sound policy now it must take into account the very real threats of murder and mass murder we are seeking to contain.

In fact it flies in the face of many who would argue for more student visas, more cultural exchange, etc.

Moreover, it assumes that like the leadership of the USSR that all the regimes we seek to contain are rational actors. That is an extremely problematic proposition. A fundamentalist muslim regime with nuclear weapons based in part on martyr culture can not be defined as rational within our terms. Pakistan may actually be more of a danger long term than Iran but Iran long term will push Saudi Arabia and Egypt into going nuclear over the next 20-30 years and what a fundamentalist regime within these 4 nations with nuclear weapons in a few decades time is at best troubling. Whether they are containable is another matter entirely.

Finally containment was against overt military action by the major players. The Cold War was waged all over the world in multiple proxy wars. Containment in Africa, Central America, and Asia was anything but peaceful or bloodless.


As false analogies go, this is a really bad one. The neater model for a new Cold War, of course, is the US and China. The latter's anti-satellite test last week served as a rallying call for true believers.

Containment cannot and should not be applied to either case.

Ben, I'm not sure I understood your post.

Are you advocating that we invade china?

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