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    05 August 2007

    The X Article and the War on Terror

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    Nick Thompson wrote a great Op-Ed in the NY Times early last week that I've just now had a chance to blog about (I was on vacation). It basically explores a strategy meant for the Cold War that would be a useful contribution to our current War on Terrorism. Many of its declarations are a common topic of discussion here at American Entropy. Some background first. The X article was a foreign policy prescription from the late 40s. It appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs and was later accredited to George Kennan (aka "X"). Kennan was the State Department’s policy planning chief at the time and wrote anonymously. Kennan's article was obfuscated and distorted from his intended meaning. Alas, he was incorrectly recognized as the father of the containment strategy; a title he denied. His basic argument was that the Soviet Union and its form of oppressive communist ideology was self-defeating; it offered nothing but oppression. Therefore, the United States could simply outlast it. Kennan warned that engaging the USSR and Communism, especially militarily, would offer nothing more than short-term political backslapping in the best case scenario. However, the mid- to long-term consequences were actually benefiting the USSR. An early version of blowback. Obviously our foreign policy in the post-X article years went awry as we escalated tensions with the USSR and Communism: Arms race, Vietnam, Latin America, etc... With that point I hope you see where this all comes together in the current context (the WoT).

    Here is a cliping of Nick's NYT piece:
    Today we face vastly different challenges from those the nation confronted right after World War II. Our enemy is dispersed; there’s a constant threat of suicide attacks; nuclear weapons can be hidden in suitcases instead of dropped from airplanes. Still, when it comes to overarching strategy, Kennan’s desired but never executed policy from 60 years ago offers profound wisdom for today.

    Kennan’s insight was that a long-term, complex struggle wasn’t best judged in terms of winning or losing. Communism wasn’t something we could immediately conquer. The same holds true for Al Qaeda, a movement that, like Soviet communism, offers its subjects oppression and poverty. Time is on our side — particularly if we act in a way that doesn’t inflame our enemies’ pride and anger and win them new recruits.

    Kennan’s insistence on a political strategy, rather than a military one, makes more sense now than it did when he published his essay. Applied today, that advice would entail spending more time and money building up our Muslim allies. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that only about $900 million of the $10 billion we’ve given Pakistan since 2002 has gone to health, education and democracy promotion. Most of the rest has gone to the military. The Bush administration has recently taken steps to change this ratio. But Kennan, one of the authors of the Marshall Plan, would have wanted the numbers to be closer to the reverse.

    A 21st-century rendering of X’s vision of containment would involve the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, an unambiguous renunciation of torture and an abandonment of the notion that our legal and moral norms don’t apply to the current struggle. Kennan believed we gave our opponents a propaganda victory each time we acted in a manner unfitting of our ideals.

    “To avoid destruction,” Kennan concluded the X article, “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

    We can’t know for sure how his recommended, wholly political version of containment would have fared in the cold war. But we do know that a militant foreign policy didn’t lead to nuclear war and did, eventually, help bring about the collapse of Soviet communism. We also know that a strong offensive policy has yet to succeed against Al Qaeda.

    Kennan died two years ago at the age of 101. One of his last public statements was a critique, in 2002, of the looming Iraq invasion. War, he said, was too unpredictable, and this one wasn’t worth it. As he wrote to Lippmann six decades ago, “Let us find health and vigor and hope, and the diseased portion of the earth will fall behind of its own doing. For that we need no aggressive strategic plans, no provocation of military hostilities, no showdowns.”

    [UPDATE] I'm not really prescribing a "wait them out" strategy (and I don't know why it was quoted that way, those words don't appear in the post!) but a less confrontational strategy. More targeted special ops work, and less (unilateral) invasions and belligerence.

    We were successful in Afghanistan using the Int'l Community, regional connections (including Iran) and special forces. In Iraq, we threw that success out the window and did exactly the opposite (though minor special forces were used). And now we are paying dearly for it.

    Radical militant Islam has less to offer than Communism did. But we enable the spread of it with arrogant foreign policy and misguided doctrines. Had we sat back and/or used the Afghanistan model who knows where we would be today. Maybe (likely) not it Iraq and/or not in a worse position than we were in after 9/11.

    Posted by Geoff

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