Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 February 2007
Issue No. 830
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Containment, once again

Political theorist Ian Shapiro advocates the middle ground between isolationist American foreign policy and neo-conservative recklessness. He speaks to Ezzat Ibrahim

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Ian Shapiro

With the US emergence as the world's sole superpower, its chosen strategies of unilateralism and confrontation have induced new dilemmas. Whether its "war against terrorism" is being won, and when and if it can extricate itself from the Iraqi quagmire, are now questions being posited . Ian Shapiro , director of the Yale University Centre for International and Area Studies, who is also co- chair of the Future of American Democracy Foundation, has authored a new book entitled" Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror". He speaks of his prescription for a new course to be adopted by the US, in which the traditional strategy of containment, as opposed to confrontation, becomes the guiding factor.

In Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror you emphasize the necessity of finding a post-occupation strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, one grounded in a viable national security agenda for the 21st century. How would you define such a strategy?

During the Cold War, George Kennan recognised the value of taking advantage of conflict among potential adversaries. We are doing the opposite, for instance, by trying to cause the Hamas government to fail. The more they try to function as a government, the greater the conflict of interest they have with "Al-Qaeda" and other terrorist groups, given that governments have to do things that terrorist groups do not have to do. It is very interesting that when Hamas members were elected, they publicly rejected Al-Qaeda's advice not to recognise Israel as they did not want to be associated with Al-Qaeda. The US administration seems paralysed to new potential allies, and unable to take tactical or strategic advantage of potential conflicts among groups in the Middle East.

Confronting global terror networks obliges a new approach to international affairs, yet you are calling for the revival of a strategy of containment. How can such old strategies meet the challenges of non-state terrorist actors and cross-border threats?

As I said in my book, terrorist groups can be minimised if enabling states are contained in certain ways. People who defend the Bush Doctrine claim that this is impossible when terrorist groups operate out of failed states that cannot police their own borders. But given that the Bush Doctrine has compounded the failed- state problem, this is a bogus argument. However many failed states there were in the world before America invaded Iraq, there is one more now. It is Iraq.

There are two aspects here. The most important is to go after enabling states. I do not believe any terrorist groups can present a serious strategic threat to the United States unless it has territorial sanctuary somewhere. If you make it very costly for enabling states to harbour terrorist groups, you go along way towards limiting the damage they can do. We saw this, indeed, with Al-Qaeda as they were enforced out of Saudi Arabia and various other places and ended up in Afghanistan. Then they lost their territorial sanctuary after the collapse of the Taliban regime. I think they are not in a position to launch any serious attacks on the West.

Second, regarding tracking the organisations themselves, the traditional tools -- financial counter-terrorism, homeland security, and of course human intelligence -- must be strengthened. The August 2006 planned attacks on airplanes crossing the Atlantic were foiled by different agencies and human intelligence organisations tracing unusual ATM transactions.

The Bush administration seems to have pitched adversaries together, transforming Samuel Huntington's ideas of a "clash of civilisations" into self-fulfilling prophecy. What can any future administration do to reverse this?

One of Kennan's important and substantial insights was that the US is well served by conflict among America's adversaries. The US hailed President Tito's ascendance to power in Yugoslavia as an internal challenge to Russia's hegemony that Kennan hoped other societies would emulate. In my opinion, such experience is lost on the Bush administration, which, for no reason, alienated Iran five years ago when moderates had the upper hand in Tehran and were cooperating in Afghanistan. The Bush administration also reversed decades of US policy by insisting that any Middle East settlement must accept changed "realities on the ground" in the West Bank.

In my opinion, strategic opening to Iran is vital because it is clear now, after Israel, that Iran is probably the most influential power in the region. We have destroyed the two principle enemies, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and massively emboldened the hardliners in Iran. In order to get away from the "clash of civilisations" mentality, we have to recognise realities on the ground and to try to take advantage of potential conflicts among powers in the region. Indeed, the US's image should be restored as some kind of "honest broker" and we can not do that unless we rid people of the impression that we have imperial ambitions and that we do whatever is in Israel's interest, or what the current government of Israel thinks is in its interest.

Iraq's new constitution has fractured the country. From the standpoint of political theory, what mistakes have been made in Iraq?

From the standpoint of democratic theory, the first and most important mistake was to invade at all because, going all the way back to John Stuart Mill, it is a commonplace of Western political theory concerning democratic regime change that unless there is an indigenous democratic opposition able to assume power, toppling a given regime is a very bad idea. Democracy depends in its survival on grassroots legitimacy. If you do not have indigenous democratic movements that can assume power, at best you get a puppet regime and at worst what we have now in Iraq.

Second, democracy is not the best way to end civil war. What is needed now in Iraq is assurance of two things: first, the country's territorial integrity; and second, the basic establishment of the rule of law. Neither is easily achieved through democracy. Democracy tends to come after establishing the rule of law and after achieving territorial integrity. They have the cart before the horse in constantly holding elections. The same error was made in Lebanon, pushing desperately for a democratic "domino effect" by holding elections in 2005. The result was strengthening the position of Hizbullah.

Democracy is good for many things, but not for nation building, or in the case of civil wars. This is one of the elementary facts of political science the Bush administration does not seem to understand.

Many insist that the best contribution the US can give to democratic change globally is to offer an example by strengthening its own democracy. Can the US adopt such a vision?

Back to the containment argument, Kennan said the only way to win the hearts and minds is to demonstrate the superiority of democratic capitalism on the ground. That is why he helped in establishing the Marshall Plan, rebuilding Europe to offer populations behind the "Iron Curtain" a real example of a successful free society in the West; one they would want to make happen for themselves. From Kennan's point of view, that would be far more effective than trying to forcibly change regimes. Exactly the same is true today.

Moreover, we so damaged our credibility across the Middle East region that there is no alternative now to such an approach because American motives are so widely distrusted that anything else is going to fail. So spreading democracy by example has to be the basic principle, yet we have gone so far from that. Trying to force regime change on the one hand, and eroding American democracy and civil liberties on the other, makes this country appears less and less a model others may want.

How do you differentiate between imperialism and hegemony?

The whole idea of containment is against imperialism. For instance, we had successful containment in dealing with Libya since the late 1990s, to turn over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and to pay compensation to the families of British and French victims. The idea that President Qaddafi abandoned his nuclear programme in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq is misguided as Qaddafi's decision predated the invasion and was a response to an explicit quid-pro- quo to put an end to international sanctions against his country.

This is not American imperialism. This country was an enabling state, harbouring terrorism and helping in exporting it. It has been completely transformed over the last few years through the traditional tools of containment. Libya backed away and no longer poses a threat to us.

I favour creating the conditions for the survival of democracy where we can do it, but this is not the essence of containment. When the US was involved in the Vietnam War that was not containment, but abandoning containment strategy. The idea of containment simply says, "we are going to defend ourselves, but we are not going to remake the world in our own image." Kennan's idea is that instead of America trying to dominate the world it should ensure that no one dominates it.

American public opinion is becoming less enthusiastic about helping others in promoting democracy. Do you agree that it will be difficult to rebuild consensus over the US mission?

I think you may be right, and we might be heading, after this administration, into another era of isolationism, which in my opinion is unfortunate. I see the policy of containment, not isolationism, as a means of promoting democracy around the world, but not through forcible regime change. I feel there will be a reaction against what the Bush administration has done. But if isolationist policies return it will be bad for the United States and the world. It is going to take a long time to rebuild consensus around a plausible policy of spreading democracy because this stated policy has been badly burned in Iraq.

The Bush administration appears distrustful of multilateral institutions. Can the multilateral system help stabilise world politics at this time?

There are really two plausible ways to go: we have to work with international institutions and with powerful regional players. The only way to stabilise a weak state is via powerful regional players and international institutions. We created a weak state in Iraq and we have no choice but to work with Syria and Iran. There is a potential now that terrorists will cross the borders of both countries unless they are brought into the project of stabilising Iraq. Regarding countries like Somalia, the only force able to stabilise the situation will be international agencies, especially UN agencies. Putting US troops in Somalia will not make the situation better.

Does the Democratic Party have a credible strategy for America to introduce before the 2008 US presidential elections?

I have not seen any signs of it yet. Nothing was forthcoming from John Kerry's campaign in 2004 and I criticised his political rhetoric at that time. I do not see any kind of strategy tabled by any of the Democratic Party nominees. They make many valid criticisms of the Bush administration, but I do not see what their basic outlook is for securing America into the future. We need serious debate in this country about alternatives. In a healthy democracy there would be four or five ideas besides mine that would be subject to discussion amidst the search for new candidates for the 2008 elections. I hope we will see a contest of ideas on the kind of goals it is legitimate and feasible for America to pursue on the international stage. We are not seeing it right now.

What should America's stance be on the Arab-Israeli conflict?

The United States needs to be seen, once again, as a kind of honest broker in the conflict. We are seen as partisan and so we must abandon the stance the Bush administration has taken and insist on a settlement that can be embraced by all, whether this is a two- state solution or not.

Containment, as I described in my book, is compatible with alliances with democratic states, but I have said all along regarding our policy towards Israel that it should have been, "we will underline your existence, not your conquests." Supporting Israel in 1967 and 1973 is consistent with that idea, but we should never have supported Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and we should never endorse and finance the occupation of the West Bank.

We should be using economic and diplomatic means to put pressure on Israel to reach a settlement. The essential step is to place resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the centre of our foreign policy agenda. Washington must insist on a solution that can secure the support of significant majorities of the peoples from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. In my opinion, that would be a concrete step towards protecting and promoting democracy.

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