The Best Defense

Don't say farewell to containment quite yet

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.


The Best Defense

Six questions a veteran of Iraq and Af’stan would like to ask the candidates in tomorrow’s presidential debate

By Andrew Person

Best Defense department of veterans & politics

To Romney:

1. You've said on numerous occasions that you would oppose any tax increases. But you've also supported a two trillion dollar increase in defense spending. Democrats on Capitol Hill have said they will not agree to waive the mandatory defense cuts set for the end of the year without increases in revenue. If faced with a choice between increased taxes and cuts to defense spending, which would you choose?

2. During the primary campaign, you took the position that the US should not negotiate with the Taliban but instead "we should defeat the Taliban." Neither you nor any of your five healthy strong sons have ever served a day in the military. Do you think taking such a position during the primary, a position that if applied as policy would necessarily involve more troops losing lives and limbs, is easier since you have no direct experience with the pain military families have suffered as a result of this war?

3. The mother of the former Navy Seal killed in Bengazi on September 11th asked you to stop using her son's death for political purposes on the campaign trail. Did you apologize to her?

To Obama:

1. In most respects our war in Afghanistan seems to be a strategic failure, despite some clear tactical victories around the country. In your view, do the military advisors who advocated a surge/counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan still have credibility? Would you rely on their advice in a second term?

2. Under your Administration the US spent more in real terms on military spending than at any time since WWII. Yet in many respects the Pentagon and the defense industry have squandered the investments through failed program development, cost overruns, etc. During a second term, what steps would you take to hold the defense industry accountable and use American tax dollars more effectively?

3. You supported a health reform bill that specified what level of profits a health insurance company can make. Would you consider a similar requirement for the defense industry?

J. Andrew Person served as a U.S. Army officer and paratrooper from 2001-2006, including year-long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied foreign policy at Georgetown University and spent five years working on Capitol Hill. He is now a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is attending law school at the University of Montana in Missoula.