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