Sunday, February 02, 2003

The Myth of Containment

John Mearsheimer and Stephan Walt have an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times arguing the case for containing Saddam rather than removing him through military force.

The usual anti-war points are made: an invasion will distract the U.S. from the war on terror; the U.S. will be perceived as a bully and alienate its allies; there is a possibility of negative unintended consequences, or "blow back" as spooks and pundits call it.

Those arguments are neither frivolous nor dismissible, but they’ve been made and addressed almost ad nauseam. Mearsheimer and Walt make a new point here. Well, maybe not that new... Their rationale for not attacking Iraq dates back to the Johnson administration -- an administration not generally recognized for its brilliance in conducting foreign affairs (to put it charitably) -- and to LBJ's golden boy, Robert McNamara.

Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt attack the claim that Saddam is a "reckless expansionist bent on dominating the Middle East" who cannot be deterred or contained by pointing out that both the war against Iran and the invasion of Kuwait are defensible by the logic of realpolitik: the Iranian war weakened a threatening regional rival and Saddam invaded Kuwait only after misinterpreting signals from Washington to the effect that the Bush administration would not be strongly opposed.

"Thus, Mr. Hussein has gone to war when he was threatened and when he thought he had a window of opportunity. These considerations do not justify Iraq’s actions, but they show that Mr. Hussein is hardly a reckless aggressor who cannot be contained."

But there is a difference between not being reckless and being contain-able. The hawks argue that Saddam cannot be contained, as the Soviets were, not because he is reckless, but because he operates on the basis of motives that are fundamentally different from those of a traditional nation state, and thus he is far less predictable than those rivals of the U.S. against whom a policy of containment was used more or less successfully. In other words, despite the expansionist or internationalist impulse of communism, the Soviet Union was a major world power with a lot to lose in a confrontation with the United States. This made the Soviets to some extent predictable; probably not as predictable as McNamara’s Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) paradigm assumed, but enough so that reactions to deterrent measures could be roughly calculated, making containment possible. Saddam, on the other hand, has a much more tenuous hold on power. He has to keep the entire Iraqi population, and to a slightly lesser degree neighboring countries, in a constant state of terror to maintain rule – not to mention life and limb. Saddam sleeps in a different bed every night: unpredictability is second nature to him. Containment requires deterrence, and deterrence requires at least some degree of predictability regarding how an adversary will react to a particular obstacle or threat, therefore, Saddam cannot be adequately contained. Given the danger he presents to the U.S. and its interests, he must be removed.

Mearsheimer and Walt further argue that even if Iraq had nuclear weapons, Saddam would be incapable of blackmailing the U.S. Nuclear blackmail requires credibility, and Saddam would have none, they claim, because the inevitable retaliation would result in his own destruction. Furthermore, Saddam would be unlikely to supply Islamist terrorist groups with nuclear weapons because there would always be the chance that the U.S. would be able to use its considerable intelligence resources to trace the weapon back to him (or more realistically, the U.S. would just assume Iraq was behind any terrorist nuclear attack). They also claim that cooperation between Islamic terrorist organizations and Saddam is unlikely because of a natural antipathy between fundamentalist fanatics and secular dictators.

This is really just an extension of the initial argument that for all of his ruthlessness, at the end of the day Saddam is amenable to logic, even if only the logic of force. Not only does this argument assume an understanding of motives that the authors fail to display (e.g., they use the Soviets as an example of a ruthless regime that "never tried blackmailing the United States"), it completely fails to take into account the dynamics of internal Iraqi politics. Saddam has been a very successful strongman. He has shown an ability to survive that is, from a morally neutral perspective, very impressive. But how many dictators get to die of old age? Who’s to say that the reins of power will not at some point be taken from Saddam’s hands. And what if he sees it coming and has at that point nuclear weapons and the ability to load them into Scuds? For Saddam, involuntary removal from power would almost certainly be a death sentence, and if the options available to him should such a situation come to pass are death or the annihilation of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv followed by death (and immortal glory), do Mearsheimer and Walt really believe, with confidence, that he would choose the former?

As for the claim that Al Qaeda and Saddam are "strange bedfellows" and unlikely to cooperate against a common enemy – one wonders how such an assertion could find its way into an essay authored by two prominent political scientists with extensive backgrounds in international relations. Do the names Molotov and Ribbentrop not ring a bell?

Mearsheimer and Walt do not make the case that Saddam can be contained, but simply point out that the likely result of his own annihilation should sufficiently deter him from attacking the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction, and that he will therefore never pose a sufficiently credible threat – even if his regime does develop nuclear weapons – to effectively use those weapons to blackmail the U.S. Taking this argument further -- the U.S. isn't vulnerable to being blackmailed by any country it could destroy in retaliation, or more simply, the U.S. is invulnerable as far as nuclear blackmail is concerned. And this is in fact the opinion held by Mearsheimer and Walt. Their proof: North Korea and Bush's statement that the U.S. "would not be blackmailed" by Pyongyang.

Whether or not the Bush administration will be unduly influenced by North Korea and its nukes remains to be seen, but the idea that the U.S. is invulnerable to nuclear blackmail because of its ability to launch annihilating retaliatory strikes reveals the intellectual roots of containment as understood by the authors of this essay: the previously mentioned MAD paradigm. The destruction is in this case not mutually assured -- no one thinks Saddam or Kim Jong-Il will destroy the United States -- just possibly take out a city or two. Mearsheimer and Walt seem willing to bet those cities against the ability of men like themselves to anticipate the way men like Saddam and Kim think.


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