The reason for all the ridicule being heaped on U.S. President Barack Obama for his remark about “containing” the Islamic State [in an ABC interview he said that, “From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them”] is not simply that the following day IS slaughtered 129 persons at Paris. It’s also that the president seems oblivious to the odor that attaches to the idea of “containment.” Such a policy during the Cold War put America and the Soviet Union on a course to stalemate. It could have left half the world in the chains of communism hadn’t Ronald Reagan turned to a policy of rollback that led to the Free World’s victory in 1989.
This is something to think about as the world wrestles with how to deal with an Islamic State that is rapidly escalating its war against us. In the interview about how we had “contained” the Islamic State, Obama caviled to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “we don’t have ground forces there in sufficient numbers to simply march into Al-Raqqah in Syria and clean the whole place out.” When an incredulous Mr. Stephanopoulos asked him whether that was our strategy, Mr. Obama talked about how we’ve “contained” the Islamic State.
What an awkward allusion. Containment of the Soviets was enunciated in a famous — or, to some, infamous — article that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947 under the byline Mr. X, who turned out to be American diplomat George Kennan. He sketched the Soviet psyche and then wrote: “In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Kennan’s view of an inherently expansionist Soviet Union that had to be contained seemed to some to be hawkish (it became the basis of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy). But it turned out to be too hawkish for the hapless Kennan, who turned against the policies to which his own article led. He moved toward an Obama-like tendency. At the same time there were those who reckoned Kennan’s policy was not hawkish enough. One sage, John Foster Dulles, was brought in as secretary of state by President Eisenhower.
Let’s just say, he was no John Kerry. “We should make it clear to the tens of millions of restive subject people in Eastern Europe and Asia that we do not accept the status quo of servitude the aggressive Soviet Communism has imposed on them, and eventual liberation is an essential and enduring part of our foreign policy,” is the way Dulles put it in a speech in 1949. The 1952 Republican platform, the one that lofted Eisenhower to the White House, turned out to be equally blunt — and full of language that echoes with in today’s debate.
The Democratic administration, it said, had in the past seen years “squandered” the position that America had won at the end of World War II, much as the GOP next year will argue that the Democratic administration under Obama and Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry had squandered the victory that America, with its late surge in the Iraq war, had won in Iraq. It lambasted Truman for secret deals and side agreements not disclosed to Congress, just the way the GOP candidate is going after Hillary Clinton in respect of Obama’s agreement that she endorsed with Iran.
In 1952, the GOP also accused the Democrats of having, “in reality, no foreign policy” and warned “they swing erratically from timid appeasement to reckless bluster.” Sound familiar? The 1952 GOP platform also said: “The American people must now decide whether to continue in office the party which has presided over this disastrous reversal of our fortunes and the loss of our hopes for a peaceful world.” It’s just not hard to imagine whoever wins the GOP nomination using the same kind of language to describe the modern Democrats.
It's not my intention to make a prediction for next year. It is my intention to explain why containment is in ill-repute. In 1952 the result was an overwhelming vote to put Eisenhower in the White House. He won 39 of the 38 states, a landslide against Adlai Stevenson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hillary Clinton. No doubt some will insist there is no way we can win against Islamist terror a victory of the kind we won against the communists. Then again, even during the Cold War there were those who hoped mainly for, in the argot of the times, “peaceful coexistence.” Reagan had no patience for that kind of thinking. When he was asked for his policy in the Cold War, he summed it up as “we win, they lose.”
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.
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