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A Better Strategy Against Terror

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration rejected containment as an obsolete Cold War hangover. Advocates of containment were accused of appeasement. But now we know that the containment regime worked: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in no position to threaten anyone, let alone the United States.

Containment relies on economic sticks and carrots.

Containment was devised by George Kennan, director of policy planning for President Harry Truman, in response to the Soviet threat. Its goal was to prevent Soviet expansion without saddling the United States with unsustainable military obligations. The idea was to rely on economic sticks and carrots, competition within the world communist movement, intelligence and diplomacy, and promoting the health and vitality of the capitalist democracies.

In the 1952 presidential election campaign, Dwight Eisenhower and his future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, heaped scorn on containment, calling instead for a “rollback” of the Soviets in Eastern Europe. Fortunately the Eisenhower administration had the good sense to stay with containment in Europe once they came into office, continuing a policy that is widely credited for winning the Cold War.

Modern critics of containment, who advocate their own version of rollback in dealing with terrorist threats, insist that that was then and this is now. Their worry is that the transnational character of modern terrorist organizations renders obsolete a doctrine designed for conventional, if aggressive, nation states. “Shadowy terrorist networks,” as President Bush says, “are not easily contained.”

But this underestimates how much terrorist groups rely, to do their business, on enabling states. How much weaker would the PLO have been without territorial bases in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere between the 1970s and 1980s? Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were vitally dependent on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the run-up to 9/11. Saudi Arabia expelled them for anti-government activities in 1991 and successfully pressured Sudan to drive them out of Khartoum three years later. Afghanistan, where they fought the Soviets during the 1980s, was their only sanctuary.

Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is as containable as Reagan’s “Evil Empire.”

Terrorist groups might not always be feasible targets of containment, but enabling regimes certainly can be. Libya changed its behavior in response to sanctions and other classic tools of containment. The Taliban regime could have survived in Afghanistan had it turned over bin Laden and closed the Al Qaeda bases as demanded by the United States immediately following 9/11. Mullah Omar’s refusal forced the subsequent escalation.

It is hard to imagine a terrorist group without territorial sanctuary continuing to present a serious threat to U.S. national security. It was, after all, rogue states that were identified by President Bush as comprising the “Axis of Evil.” There is no intrinsic reason to suppose them less containable than the “Evil Empire” identified by President Reagan.

Islamists who either come to power in national states or approach the possibility of it increasingly find themselves at odds with transnational Islamist groups like Al Qaeda. The business of consolidating and operating a regime is bound to involve imperatives and compromises that the transnational group has no reason to support and will likely reject—most obviously building broad coalitions of national support. We saw this with Hamas’s rejection of Al Qaeda’s post-2006 election advice not to embrace a two-state solution that would implicitly concede Israel’s sovereignty. We saw it with Iran’s cooperation with the Northern Alliance and the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11. The Iranian regime was no friend of Al Qaeda, and was happy to see their Taliban enablers wiped away. And we saw the limiting case of the tension in Afghanistan itself. Mullah Omar’s inability to reconcile the demands of being a functioning state in the international order with continuing to provide a haven for Al Qaeda cost his Taliban regime its existence.

Consolidation of national power often by itself has a moderating effect on the propensity to export terrorism. Fledgling governments must solve a host of domestic problems that do not concern terrorist organizations. We saw this with the successful integration of Islamist groups in Turkey and Jordan. Governments also need international cooperation to have any hope of building viable economies and modern infrastructures. Accordingly, they are more likely to behave as the PLO did in the mid-1990s and Hamas did during its 16-month 2005-2006 truce. The flip side of this logic is that if Hamas’s chances of becoming a fledgling government fade, its conflicts of interest with Al Qaeda will diminish as well.

We should pressure the Saudis in the direction of democratic reform.

We should welcome tensions between national and international Islamist movements for the reasons Kennan welcomed tensions between the Soviets and others in the international communist movement. As agendas diverge, the resulting competition confronts the United States with a less monolithic adversary. It also diffuses the costs of combating international Islamist terror groups like Al Qaeda.

Until 2003, Saudi Arabia largely went through the motions of assisting with financial counterterrorism measures against Al Qaeda—unconcerned, perhaps, because of a tacit understanding with bin Laden that he would keep his activities elsewhere. But that complacency changed dramatically in May of that year, when Al Qaeda began a series of bombings of foreign housing compounds and other targets in Saudi Arabia itself. The bombings prompted sustained Saudi crackdowns to disrupt domestic Al Qaeda cells, improve law enforcement, and cooperate with intelligence on Al Qaeda fundraising and money laundering. All this activity was noteworthy, since Saudi Arabia had been the epicenter of terrorist financing. This is not to say that we should prop up the Saudi regime or underwrite its domestic repression. We should use the instruments at our disposal to pressure the Saudis in the direction of democratic reform. But, by the same token, we should not be looking to bump off the Saudi regime. Aspiring to do that exceeds our capacity for legitimate international action, not to mention American resources. We should be working to help the spread of democracy around the world, but this does not extend to gratuitous regime change in countries that pose no threat to the United States.

A different objection to containment advanced by defenders of the Bush Doctrine is not that terrorist havens are too strong to be deterred, but rather that they are too weak. Containment is a state-based strategy premised on the idea that governments have control of what goes on within their borders.

There is no realistic alternative to containment.

The national security challenges posed by weak states are indeed serious. Recognizing this is, however, a giant non sequitur as a defense of the Bush Doctrine, which offers no viable strategy for dealing with them. On the contrary, it seems most likely to lead to their proliferation. There are many more weak states than the United States could possibly invade and transform into functioning ones. Notably, the United States has not managed to do this in Afghanistan, where the writ of the Karzai government does not run much outside Kabul five years after the Taliban was toppled. And however many weak states there were in the world before the Iraq invasion, there is at least one more now.

There is no realistic alternative to containment when it comes to weak states t hat shelter terrorist networks. In the medium term, the end of civil wars that plague many of them, help with the growth of institutional infrastructure, and development assistance that sparks sustainable economic growth might turn more of them into viable national states. But in the short term the three most important steps to contain the threats emanating from them will involve securing their borders, getting good intelligence about the groups operating within them, and working with whatever international agencies are seeking to resolve their internal conflicts. These agencies, and particularly their local representatives, are likely to be sources of reliable intelligence and of viable strategies for curtailing the activities of terrorist groups.

Containment of weak states is especially dependent on multilateral cooperation in the local region. Despite the saber-rattling between the United States and Iran, it is inconceivable that southeastern Iraq can be stabilized without Iranian cooperation—as at least some in the Bush administration, following the Iraq Study Group, have begun to acknowledge. Nor is northwestern Iraq likely to be secured without Syrian help. In 2006 Iraq’s borders remained porous to terrorist traffic in both directions.

Achieving the regional cooperation needed to stabilize weak states always requires cooperation with local neighbors who have the most at stake, the most relevant information, and often the capacity to be spoilers if they choose. Threatening the governments in the neighborhood unnecessarily and advertising hopes for domino effects of regime-toppling are scarcely the way to achieve that cooperation.  


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