Let 'Containment' Rest in Peace

Disillusioned with the Bush administration's foreign policy and military strategy in the Middle East, an influential school of thought has developed, clamoring for the United States to adopt a less intrusive approach to the region. While there's a legitimate debate to be had over the virtues of an offshore strategy, pundits and scholars call for modeling this alternative approach on George F. Kennan's famous Cold War "containment" policy.

This is the last place Washington should turn for guidance. Containment may have brought victory in the Cold War, but, applied to today's circumstances, the term implies cordoning off the Middle East and applying pressure at points of Islamist expansion. Moreover, references to Kennan conjure up bad memories in places like Moscow and Beijing, which found themselves on the receiving end of American containment.

A former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Kennan crafted a policy intended for decades of struggle against a well-armed, ideological foe with global reach. Kennan spelled out his ideas in an anonymous, deeply influential article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." His "X" article appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs 60 years ago this month.

Oddly, advocates of neo-containment propose founding the United States' Middle East policy on the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). What is the Proliferation Security Initiative? Founded in 2003 at the behest of the Bush administration, the PSI is a loose coalition enjoying varying degrees of support from over 80 governments. Its chief purpose: to interdict cargoes related to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or ballistic missiles while they are undergoing transport. Seagoing transport has attracted the most attention.

Previous international efforts to quash proliferation focused on stopping weapons-related materiel at its source - keeping proscribed transactions from ever occurring in the first place - or on apprehending the recipients afterward. These efforts neglected the transport phase, when aircraft, cargo ships, trains, or trucks were carrying suspect wares to their buyers. The PSI was designed to plug this gap in the international community's defenses.

Measures contemplated under the PSI's founding document, its "Statement of Interdiction Principles," include high-profile ones such as using navies, coast guards, and law-enforcement bodies to intercept shipments at sea. Also included are beefing up national export controls - the laws and regulations governments enact to control the flow of sensitive goods through sovereign territory - and improving enforcement bodies such as customs and border services.

Like all endeavors involving multiple government bodies, the PSI is a complex undertaking. Not only military forces but law-enforcement and intelligence agencies - organizations with different, often clashing perspectives - have to work together. This was acutely apparent in mid-June, when 200 delegates from 19 countries convened at the Naval War College in Newport for a "PSI Game," refining procedures for jointly intercepting shipments of weapons-related materiel undergoing transport at sea, aloft, or ashore.

So much for the mechanics of the Proliferation Security Initiative. Now, how does the initiative relate to Kennan's notion of containment? Kennan wanted to apply "counterforce" - he later voiced regret at the term's martial connotations - at points of Soviet expansion. If the United States and its allies could restrict or halt the spread of communism, he maintained, the system would lose its ideological vigor. Over time, it would evolve into something more benign.

Or, it would implode.

Whereas Kennan argued from the top down, in grand, world-historical terms, today's proponents of containment have in mind a bottom-up approach to containment. By working together on technical and bureaucratic matters - sharing information, devising common procedures for boarding and inspecting ships, and the like - governments can build up support for an ideal opposing weapons proliferation. Over time, they say, more governments might take up the fight against weapons trafficking--and with greater vigor.

Ultimately, the international community might manage to codify this mode of anti-trafficking in a UN Security Council resolution or a treaty of universal scope. Washington and fellow PSI countries have been pushing - as yet without result - for action on the part of the Security Council, while a series of amendments to the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea Convention, currently awaiting ratification, represents another possible step toward prohibition.

Should such measures succeed, the unlawful transport of weapons-related goods and substances would take its place alongside such scourges as piracy and the slave trade, binding all nations to suppress it. So the PSI does, after all, have an ideological component to it - lending a measure of credence to the concept of pressing Kennan into service to contain today's adversaries. By bolstering their ability to work together, countries can exert counterforce that keeps mass-destruction weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

Still, I find the containment metaphor unpersuasive at best, harmful at worst.

Point One: no one has yet shown that Islamic militancy can be contained, no matter what measures the United States and its allies deploy. Will denying Islamic radicals their expansionist goals hollow out and discredit their ideology, as it did in the case of Soviet communism? The new containment, if indeed it is viable, awaits a George F. Kennan to explain its purposes and principles.

Point Two: the PSI makes an unlikely engine for neo-containment, even if containing militant Islam does represent a viable strategy. Rallying Americans and their friends for prolonged ideological competition will require something more inspiring than weapons interdiction. By consciously keeping the PSI on a low-key, functional level, its framers have limited the initiative's capacity to fire the imaginations of peoples and their governments. There's no such thing as uncontroversial ideological strife.

Point Three: if applied strictly to the Middle East, a more muscular PSI, concentrating intense intelligence, law enforcement, and military assets on the region, might look suspiciously like the "clash of civilizations" Washington has been trying to avert since 9/11. If it roused the Islamic world against the United States and its partners, a latter-day containment strategy would prove self-defeating.

And finally, there are larger geopolitical implications to invoking Kennan. If Washington and its PSI partners don't confine their interdiction operations to the Middle East, they will needlessly exacerbate tensions with great powers such as China and Russia. Beijing already sees the continuing U.S. presence along its coastal frontiers as a descendant of Secretary of State Dean Acheson's famous "defense perimeter of the Pacific," a line of island outposts intended to contain Chinese foreign policy.

Overtly connecting the PSI to containment would affirm Chinese suspicions--and in all likelihood frustrate efforts to woo this potentially valuable contributor into the PSI.

Better to keep the Proliferation Security Initiative modest - and look to someone besides George F. Kennan for strategic inspiration. Containment did honorable, effective service, but it's not the right policy for the present. Let it rest in peace.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and a former naval officer. Until March, he served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, specializing in proliferation issues. The views voiced here are his alone.