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Friday, February 28, 2003

The Containment "Solution": Why it Won't Work.

Greg Krehbiel reasonably asks "why not containment?"

While I still remain uncommitted, I'm increasingly skeptical about our justifications for war with Iraq. My biggest concern is that we say containment didn't work, but the truth is that it didn't work while Clinton was in charge, which isn't saying much. Now that we have a real president, maybe containment could work. I haven't heard any reason to say why it couldn't. Maybe there are reasons, but I haven't heard them.

Actually, I've been puzzling over this one myself for the better part of a month or so, and I've come to the conclusion that it is impractical, as I do not believe it would work so well under these circumstances. Let me take a crack at explaining why.

First, let's remember what "containment" was, in the only American experience of the same--the Cold War. The Cold War saw the establishment of a national security apparatus, the development of a series of entangling alliances, forward deployment of American forces, and most notably, the development of a large peacetime military and ever-ascending arms race. This is the template proposed to "solve" the Iraq crisis. Applying the template here would have repercussions that most of its proponents have not explored or even considered. If a war with Iraq would prove expensive in all senses of the term, then an expanding policy of containment would be the same, if not more so, long-term.

Foremost is that it effectively concedes and de facto encourages the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by an increasing number of regimes. Under a doctrine of containment, you are not so much denying the right to acquire arms as trying to limit the likelihood of them ever being used. (The notion that inspections will find anything of consequence is laughable: four months in, and there's still no accounting for the serious material--e.g., the 5000+ liters of anthrax. You know--the stuff that could kill a major American metropolitan area.) In other words, "containment" would send a signal to all of those interested in developing WMDs that there are no consequences for the development of such devices. The only consequences would come if they are actually used. But, the more unstable or "coup-prone" regimes that acquire the weapons, the more likely they eventually to fall into or be delivered into the wrong hands, and thus the more likely they are to be used. Deterrence worked with the Soviets because, ultimately, the Communists were at the bottom line rational. Rationality is a much more rare global commodity than we prefer to think, and deterrence is unlikely to work with, for example, fanatics who think their actions are going to inaugurate the reign of the Mahdi.

"Containment" also inevitably leads to an arms race. Remember how the doctrine worked in the Cold War: MADness. Mutually Assured Destruction. The Soviet Union and the United States were frozen into a standoff based upon the premise that direct conflict between them would lead to deployment of nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons would mean obliteration--of most of humanity. But, in order for the threat to be credible, both sides had to develop better and more effective weaponry. On our part, this meant a transition from a few hundred bomber-delivered freefall devices to thousands of ICBMs, SLBMs, and MIRVs (not to mention tactical and in-theatre weapons)--all as part of a deterrent mix that told the Soviets that we had more than sufficient survivable firepower to destroy them should they consider a first strike.

Under containment, once Iraq develops nuclear weapons, we would threaten them with obliteration as a means of deterrence. In response, Iraq would develop a sufficient force (including longer and longer-range missiles) to threaten us with catastrophic damage. Ditto other regimes.

So much for the end of the arms race. Set the nuclear clock to about thirty seconds before midnight.

Moreover, how real would our threat be, unless we had a substantial American presence on the ground in the threatened region (e.g., NATO)? "I just nuked Foreign City X, Mr. President. Care to risk New York, Boston, or Detroit in response?" Barring a "one for all, all for one" alliance like NATO, I really tend to doubt it.

Then consider the dread "Our SOB" Syndrome, whereby America would have to continue to make dishonorable, soul-killing deals with such hellish regimes as the House of Saud, in return for basing requirements, forward deployment, and so on. Only spread this to a larger and larger expanse of the globe--American troops everywhere, containing more and more regimes. Not to mention more and more grievances with groups inclined to hate us: we were in the cross-hairs of bin Laden because of our Saudi bases, remember?

And what of the military establishment necessary to achieve "containment"? What few concessions that have been beaten out of Hussein have literally been done at swordpoint: an American and British force on the order of 200,000+ troops, sailors, airmen and marines. I have a hard time picturing the long term basing of a force of remotely similar size in the region. Multiply this headache by six or seven times, as Psycho States D, E, and F get the Bomb.

I don't think the American people are ready to pay for this policy, either in blood or treasure. It seems clear to me that such a policy, and the proliferation it invariably encourages, would lead to us paying in a lot more blood in the long term.

Finally, perhaps the greatest weakness of the argument as formulated by Greg is this phrase: "Now that we have a real president...." What if we elect a President with less fortitude? Would President Hillary (or Kerry, or Edwards, or Dean) have the same determination? Containment encourages Hussein and others like him to ride it out until the next election.

That's why I think we have to nip this in the bud now.

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