The Big Idea

A Doctrine Passes

by Jane Mayer October 14, 2002

For more than fifty years, the security of the world has been kept in fragile balance by an elegant idea, shaped in large part by a man who is a skeptic about big ideas. George F. Kennan, who is now ninety-eight years old, coined the phrase containment, and with it the doctrine of deterrence designed to keep the worlds superpowers poised in a perpetual standoff, relegated to their separate spheres of influence, forced into peace by the threat of a nuclear war too terrible to win.

Kennan, who lives in Princeton, where he has been affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study for the past half century (he served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the fifties and Ambassador to Yugoslavia in the sixties), is still remarkably vital and engaged by current affairs. But his doctrine of containment, in the face of President Bushs new policy of premptive self-defense, is suddenly endangered. Last week, Kennan, who became famous for the clarity of his dire alarms about Stalin, spoke out for the first time about what he sees as the perils of the interventionist approach to Iraq. Asked his opinion of the new Bush doctrine, Kennan fired off the equivalent of one of his bleak foreign-service cables, choosing each word with the care of an old-school diplomat.

I deplore doctrines, Kennan said. They purport to define ones behavior in future situations where it may or may not be suitable. He said that containment was merely a word he chose, in a letter in 1946, in answer to a particular situation. This being the case, I could no more approve of a doctrine of premption than any other.

As for the Bush Administrations proposed premptive strike on Iraq, Kennan sees grave peril and little justification. I could see justification only if the absence of it would involve a major and imminent danger to our own country, or, at worst, to our most intimate and traditional allies. Of this I see no evidence.

If Iraq has cultivated weapons of mass destruction, Kennan argued, the greatest threat would probably be to its neighbors, particularly Israel, rather than to the United States, and so it would be up to the government of that country to estimate the extent of the danger and to find the most fitting answer to it.

He went on, The apparently imminent use of American armed forces to drive Saddam Hussein from power, from what I know of our governments state of preparedness for such an involvement, seems to me well out of proportion to the dangers involved. I have seen no evidence that we have any realistic plans for dealing with the great state of confusion in Iraqian affairs which would presumably follow even after the successful elimination of the dictator. . . . I, of course, am not well informed. But I fear that any attempt on our part to confront that latent situation by military means alone could easily serve to aggravate it rather than alleviate it.

Some think of Kennan as a hawk because of his early and tough call for resistance to Soviet expansionism. But Kennan is, if anything, more of a pessimist, with a tragic sense of the perils of overreaching. (He opposed the Vietnam War and expressed doubts about the American intervention in Kosovo.) In this vein, he said last week that he endorsed Al Gores recent statements questioning Bushs pursuit of Iraq and Al Qaeda at the same time. I admired Gores speech, not only for its political content, with which I extensively agree, but for the quietness and restraint of the language. . . . I, too, have questions about the relationship of any attack by our forces on Saddams power to the obligations we have already incurred in the struggle against Al Qaeda. I wish the President had been prevailed upon to tell us whether it is a situation of two wars, against different opponents and for different purposes, that we are proposing to wage.

If containment was good enough for Stalin, Kennan seems to believe, it is good enough for Saddam Hussein. After all, Kennan actually dealt personally with Stalin, whom he recalls as having had the pocked face and yellow eyes of an old battle-scarred tiger. Kennan suggested last week that Hussein has neither the global reach nor the resources of Stalin. That Saddam was an admirer and perhaps an intentional imitator of Stalin I do not doubt, he said. But the streak of adventurism that has marked Saddams behavior was quite foreign to Stalin.

Underlying Kennans caution, apparently, is the lesson he learned firsthand in 1946, the year that containment was born. This was, as he put it, the recognition that wherever, in this modern age, one has to choose between war and no war, such is the fearfulness of modern armaments that one should give every conceivable preference to the possibilities and arguments for peace before resorting to the sword.

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