- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Al Mauroni
Best Defense guest columnist
In a recent article in The Diplomat, Professor William Martel says that the strategy of containment is dead. He suggests that containment was useful for dealing with past adversaries with certain political ideologies hostile to our own, but not today’s adversaries. He suggests that global trade and commerce has made containment an impossible choice, and that Russia, Iran, and China cannot be "contained" as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
I’m not so sure I want to write off containment as part of the national security strategy quite yet.
Let’s take a look at two recent examples of containment. First there was the strategy to contain Iraq between 1993 and 2002. After the end of the Persian Gulf War, it was in the U.S. government’s interest to contain Saddam Hussein’s regime without invading and occupying that country. Through a combination of diplomatic initiatives (such as U.N. security resolutions), economic sanctions, overflights of the north and south regions, and a continued military presence in the Gulf region, the U.S. government effectively stopped Iraq from pursuing its goals to annex Kuwait, suppress the Kurdish and Shi’ite populations, and develop a WMD program. In hindsight, it does not appear that Hussein’s regime had any practical capability to do anything hostile to U.S. interests that would have warranted an invasion and overthrow of his government.
Today we have a similar discussion about Iran, in particular whether the tools of government power — diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economic — have adequate capability to contain that country’s ambitions to grow as a regional power. There are constant discussions within the U.N. Security Council on organizing multi-lateral coalitions against Iran’s nuclear power program and support to violent extremist organizations. Iran’s economy has taken heavy hits as a result of organized sanctions, and it is surrounded by U.S. military bases in the Gulf States. Where, exactly, is containment failing? Professor Martel suggests that Iran is too tied up in "an economic and technological web of global connectedness" for containment to work. Is that why Iran’s government is developing intranets for its people and military forces, effectively taking them off the global information grid?
Why does the U.S. government (and other governments) support a containment strategy against certain militant or authoritarian regimes that have hostile ideologies or agendas to our own? It is because that going to war with a country based on emotional rationale that "well we just don’t like them and they won’t change to be like us" really isn’t a good reason. It is also a very expensive way to challenge hostile regimes (see U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2002 to 2012). At the least, it’s a principle of war — economy of force — that allows the U.S. government to selectively decide where to apply its scarce resources and personnel. At the best, containment is a time-honored approach to smart warfighting strategy. As Sun Tzu said, "To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting."
Al Mauroni is a senior policy analyst with the U.S. Air Force, and has more than 25 years experience addressing counter-WMD policy and defense program issues. The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Air Force.