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The Other Thing Containment Requires

Thanks to J.E. Dyer for her kind remarks on my paper with James Phillips on the difficulties of containing a nuclear Iran. Her summary of its implications is spot-on: containment may look good, but it leads to a nuclear Iran. Since a nuclear Iran means that our policy — at least our declared policy — of stopping Iran’s nuclear program will have failed, it will be even tougher for us to contain it in the future.

Jennifer goes on to point out that the regional support for a policy of containment looks weak, and I agree. But containment’s not just about the Middle East. In fact, much of what has appeared on CONTENTIONS yesterday has a bearing on it. The policy of containment during the Cold War rested on a fundamental reality: the free U.S. system was stronger than the totalitarian Soviet one, and the West would gain strength as the Communist bloc lost it.

Of course, that assumed that the West remained free, politically and economically. If it lost its economic freedom, it would lose the vibrancy that gave it an edge over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower wasn’t the only one concerned about this. As Princeton historian (and COMMENTARY contributor and former Cheney staffer) Aaron Friedberg asserted in his study In the Shadow of the Garrison State, it was a central part of U.S. Cold War grand strategy.

So where do we stand on this today? As Pete Wehner points out, the president’s budget projects trillion-dollar deficits and a rising debt-to-GDP ratio as far as the eye can see. After that, as our entitlement bill really kicks in, things get worse. Max Boot notes the squeeze this spending is already putting on our defense budget, which will make containing Iran even more difficult.

But it’s worse than that. Excessive taxation and borrowing hands over an ever-increasing portion of our economy to government control. This is incompatible with the strategy that won the Cold War, and completely incompatible with any future U.S. use of that strategy. We are not just borrowing the next generation into oblivion, as Pete points out. Our lack of restraint is reducing our ability to play future foreign-policy problems long: playing it long only makes sense if you’re gaining in relative economic strength.

True, playing it long is not always the right approach. But the day when America decides that it has no option but to play a problem short will be the day that America realizes it is poorer, weaker, and also less free.



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