Commentary Magazine


The Legend of George Kennan

Has there ever been a celebrated American official whose contribution to a successful policy has been more overrated than George Kennan? I can’t think of one. Kennan is, and it seems he will forever be, credited with crafting Harry Truman’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union. What actually happened–which Kennan tried to explain–was that Kennan provided the outline of an approach to foreign policy that Truman and various other advisors refashioned into a successful policy that Kennan deplored and never truly understood.

Whether it’s condescension toward Truman, a plain-speaking Midwesterner with no college degree, or fascination with the intellectualization of elite opinion whose supposed erudition frees it from the responsibility to be sound or successful, Kennan has been given this legacy against his will. I think it’s a combination of the two, but the latter–the intellectualization to the point of fetishization–is hard to ignore these days, ubiquitous as it is in the age of Obama. This is a president whose policies are disastrous but who was president of the Harvard Law Review and uses the phrase “permission structure” (“The phrase puzzled reporters,” explained a puzzled reporter) when dismissing the democratic process, so the assumption has always been that there’s a method to the madness.

Perhaps there is a method. But presidents make foreign policy, as Kennan learned the hard way. So while there might be a “doctrine” behind the policy, there isn’t likely to be a muse, even when there appears to be one. And that’s probably what Kennan would say to the suggestion, made in an otherwise shrewd assessment of Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East, that “the Kennan of Obama’s Middle East policy is Stephen Walt.” The column is from Lee Smith, the consistently incisive authority on the Middle East. Smith notes that Walt, whose “Israel lobby” blathering is sold as “realism,” has special concern about the way special relationships (like the U.S. has with Israel) can impede traditional balance-of-power strategy:

It is the focus on the impediment posed by these “special relationships” to realist balance-of-power policymaking that distinguishes Walt from virtually every other American in the realist school. Sure, former policymakers like Jim Baker have lamented the influence of Jewish Americans on American policymaking—but compared to Walt, Baker was a squish. It was Walt whose 2006 London Review of Books article “The Israel Lobby,” co-authored with University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, later expanded into a controversial book with the same title, first targeted the problem directly: The pro-Israel community needs to be cut down to size.

Unlike Kennan, a career diplomat, or Baker, a former secretary of state, Walt doesn’t have a formal role in government, or even any privileged access to this White House. But his ideas have nevertheless emerged at the core of a major shift in U.S. Middle East policy, which may come as a surprise to those who dismissed him as a fringe academic. The idea certainly isn’t pleasant for this columnist, who’s documented Walt’s dog-whistling blog posts meant to draw anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites to his column, but it’s hard to dismiss his influence now. So, I tip my hat to the new George Kennan, for whether you love him or hate him, Stephen Walt has won the X sweepstakes.

Smith’s column is spot-on when describing the way the president relishes an opportunity to mute the pro-Israel voices in Washington and, when necessary, throw the occasional brushback pitch up and in. But the more encouraging aspect to the column is the memory of the Kennan-Truman collaboration it evokes–not the one of legend, but the real story.

Why did Kennan come to so dislike a policy with which he was credited? When Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine, an appeal to Congress for funding to aid Greece and Turkey, the president said: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

As Truman biographer Robert J. Donovan notes, “This was the epitome of containment, although not the beginning of it.” But in fact Kennan objected to the sentence on the grounds that it was universalist, not the unprincipled realism he so preferred. It was also ideological, at odds with Kennan’s perspective as well. Kennan was not the only advisor spooked by the commitment Truman was seeking to make on behalf of the United States, so why did that line, and that commitment, stay in the speech?

Because Truman understood that his audience–the people and especially their congressional representatives–were more comfortable with a policy that reflected their values. Americans didn’t care about the fate of the postwar Greek government nearly as much as they cared about democracy and liberty–ideas and ideals worth fighting for. Kennan’s realism rarely made room for ideology, and never made room for values. It was no coincidence that he also wasn’t particularly fond of popular democracy. He thought he knew better than the masses. He was wrong.

The same is true with Walt, Obama, and other such cynical realists. Walt’s conspiracist mindset may also animate the White House’s destructive approach to the Middle East, but it fails time and again to move Congress and the public away from our allies like Israel not because of some all-powerful congressional lobby, but because the people and their representatives believe that yes, actually, Western values and democratic politics are important. Contra Walt, Israel is most certainly a strategic ally. But why stop there? Israel and America share a moral bond too. Kennan would likely disapprove of such sentimentality. And he’d be every bit as wrong now as he was then.

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