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If George F. Kennan Met Osama bin Laden

“Did George Kennan know the best way to fight terror?” is the question asked by a New York Times op-ed today. My question in return is: why is so much that appears on the op-ed page of our leading newspaper so fatuous?

In 1947, writes Nicholas Thompson, the author of a forthcoming book about Kennan, the late American strategist published his famous article in Foreign Affairs under the byline of X, setting forth the strategy of containment. The Soviet challenge, as Kennan understood it, Thompson explains, was political and not military, and it required a political not a military response: “The United States should refrain from provoking Moscow, whether through confrontation or histrionics,” Thompson paraphrases. “Patience would lead to success.”

Alas, Thompson continues, containment was massively misinterpreted and militarized by American cold warriors and turned into an instrument of aggression and bellicosity. This in turn led into the horrors of the cold war:

We soon built up our forces to defend Western Europe, created NATO and engaged in a huge arms race. Eventually containment would mean soldiers in Vietnam and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the Soviet Union.

Has Thompson has given us a fair summary of Kennan’s position? In Foreign Affairs, after all, Kennan offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is impossible to read this as a call for pacifism or disengagement or even “patience”—try as Thompson might (and, in his later years, Kennan himself did). In fact, as I have argued in COMMENTARY, there were actually two George Kennans, the second of whom waged a life-long war against the writings of the first, grossly distorting his own ideas and the historical record along the way.

But what does any of this cold-war arcana have to do with terrorism?

Thompson acknowledges that today “we face vastly different challenges from those the nation confronted right after World War II.” Al-Qaeda cells plotting attacks with weapons of mass destruction are a far cry from the dangers posed by the Red Army and Communist insurrection. Nevertheless, claims Thompson, Kennan’s pacific version of containment—“the desired but never executed policy from 60 years ago—contains “profound wisdom” for our present circumstances. In particular, we should recognize that, as in the cold war, “[t]ime 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.”

Thus, with respect to Pakistan, where we are spending $10 billion on military assistance and less than $1 billion on health, education, and the promotion of democracy, Kennan “would have wanted the numbers to be closer to the reverse.”

Kennan’s vision of counterterrorism would also 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.

Whatever the merits and demerits of each of these proposals, invoking Kennan’s doctrine of containment in defense of them is both dishonest and illogical.

Even in the cold war itself, as Thompson himself admits, “We can’t know for sure how [Kennan’s] recommended, wholly political version of containment”—assuming he ever adumbrated such a vision—“would have fared.” In the event, and in the face of massive threats to the peace in places like Korea and Berlin, the “militarized” version of the doctrine was a necessity.

Toward the end of the cold war, moreover, it was only America’s willingness to engage in a military competition that enabled the West to prevail; even Thompson is compelled to admit that a “militant foreign policy” eventually helped “bring about the collapse of Soviet Communism.”

So how does it follow from the history of the cold war that we should now abandon military means in the struggle against al Qaeda and simply try to contain it? In fact, we tried something like that approach in the 1990’s, and on September 11, 2001, it led to one of the worst military disasters in American history.

That there are now voices telling us to abandon the military fight against Islamic terrorists and win by setting an example of moral rectitude shows only that there is no limit to the human desire to cut and run.

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