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Look Who Likes Deterrence Now: The Left's New Love Affair with Containment

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 11, 2002
Weekly Standard


IN THEIR EAGERNESS to stop a U.S. invasion of Iraq, antiwar activists have adopted an interesting argument. Containment and deterrence worked against the Soviet Union, they say, and they will work against Saddam Hussein. Now they tell us. The Left's enthusiasm for containment and deterrence was, to put it mildly, a lot harder to detect during the Cold War. To hear born-again cold warriors tell it, everyone agreed in the old days on a get-tough approach to communism. If only.

In point of fact, the U.S. government adopted policies of deterrence and containment in the late 1940s, and kept them in place until 1991, over the vociferous objections of the Left both here and in Europe. It's worth a short trip down Memory Lane to provide some perspective on today's debate over Iraq.

Harry Truman first began drafting a get-tough approach against the Soviet Union in 1946. Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, the liberal standard-bearer, argued instead for a policy of cooperating with Stalin, even advocating that we share the atomic secret with the Soviet dictator. Truman booted him out of the cabinet, but Wallace and his followers remained firmly opposed to the hard-line policies of the administration and its successors.

In 1958 Bertrand Russell and other peace activists organized the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, calling for unilateral British disarmament. Their Ban the Bomb movement spread across Western Europe, leading to regular protests and marches. In 1961, just after the Berlin Wall had gone up, Russell got himself arrested trying to block the deployment of the first U.S. Polaris submarine to a base in Scotland.

Every major deployment of U.S. weapons systems thereafter prompted protests, many of which make today's anti-American rallies seem tame by comparison. In the late 1970s, NATO decided it had to counter Soviet medium-range SS-20 missiles by fielding Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. As the deployment drew near in 1983, millions of Europeans, many wearing ghoulish costumes, took to the streets to protest. In England, which was due to receive the first cruise missiles, protesters pelted the defense minister with eggs and sprayed him with red paint.

Many moderate liberals, including German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, supported the deployment, but nevertheless argued that the primary Western approach should be not to confront the Soviets militarily, but to negotiate arms-reduction agreements with them. Implementing "Detente," the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations negotiated ambitious arms control accords with the Soviet Union, notably SALT I and SALT II. The Soviet Union, however, saw detente as an opportunity to build a nuclear missile force capable of carrying out a first strike against the United States. Meanwhile, attempts to strengthen America's nuclear deterrent, by building B-1 bombers or MX missiles, were either blocked or scaled back by Democrats in Congress.

But even this didn't go far enough for some people. Many on the left in the early 1980s, including Ronald Reagan's own daughter, Patti Davis, were beguiled by the prospect of a nuclear freeze, and damn the consequences. A June 1982 nuclear freeze rally in New York's Central Park drew some 700,000 participants, making it the largest political assembly in the nation's history. In West Germany 5million people signed the Krefeld Appeal in favor of unilateral disarmament.

The mood of the time was summed up by two events in 1983. The first was the ABC movie "The Day After," which depicted in graphic terms a nuclear attack against a small, Midwestern town, and ended with a stark message: "It is to be hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this Earth, their people and leaders, to find the means to avert the fateful day." Suffice it to say, the producers did not hope to avert "the fateful day" by deterring Soviet aggression. Their worldview was shared by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which earlier that year released a famous pastoral letter protesting the nuclear arms race.

"We see with increasing clarity," the bishops wrote, "the political folly of a system which threatens mutual suicide, the psychological damage this does to ordinary people, especially the young, the economic distortion of priorities— billions readily spent for destructive instruments while pitched battles are waged daily in our legislatures over much smaller amounts for the homeless, the hungry, and the helpless here and abroad." The bishops didn't rely on deterrence: "We cannot consider it adequate as a long-term basis for peace." Instead they urged "accelerated work for arms control reduction and disarmament" and "efforts to develop non-violent means of conflict resolution." This letter caused apoplexy among hard-line Reagan officials but was warmly greeted by Democrats, many of whom endorsed the nuclear freeze movement and accused Reagan of being a warmonger.

The only time the Left showed any enthusiasm for deterrence was in bashing "Star Wars," as they dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative unveiled by Ronald Reagan in 1983. After years of protesting deterrence and ridiculing its architects as crazed warmongers (see, for example, "Dr. Strangelove"), liberals suddenly sounded like Herman Kahn disciples as they preached the virtues of Mutual Assured Destruction. This wasn't a fundamental shift in thinking, however. They praised MAD in order to protest Star Wars, but argued against deterrence in general by advocating a nuclear freeze and a "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons. The Left's stance in the Star Wars debate should therefore be seen as a politically convenient, if not terribly sincere, embrace of an ideology they loathed in order to defeat something they hated even more— Ronald Reagan and his "peace through strength" philosophy.

Containment was even less popular on the left than deterrence. "Containment" is depicted these days as a passive doctrine of peace, as opposed to the warmongering of "preemption" advocates. The reality was a good deal more sordid. What did containment entail? It meant support for the Greek colonels, the Argentine generals, the shah, Pinochet, Marcos, Somoza, and other unsavory characters who were in "our" camp. It meant helping to overthrow rulers, such as Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, and Allende in Chile, who were seen as drifting toward the other side. It meant major wars against North Korea and North Vietnam. It meant invasions of the Dominican Republic and Grenada. It meant support for anti-Communist guerrillas in places like Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.

The Left still brandishes many of these episodes as evidence that America has been guilty of immoral and even illegal conduct. Indeed Christopher Hitchens is now leading an effort to indict Henry Kissinger for, essentially, the crime of practicing containment a little too vigorously. This might be Hitchens's last area of agreement with his old comrades.

So forgive me if I question the Left's sincerity in advocating containment and deterrence for dealing with Iraq. Actually I have more sympathy with their old arguments during the Cold War. They were right to criticize many aspects of deterrence and containment as immoral and dangerous. The cost of the Cold War was high. More than 100,000 American soldiers died fighting communism. American taxpayers spent countless billions of dollars on defense. And, worst of all, the world was repeatedly brought to the brink of annihilation. The closest call came during the Cuban Missile Crisis, whose 40th anniversary we marked last month. But there were other moments of extreme danger. One occurred in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when the United States went to DefCon 3 in order to deter the Soviet Union from intervening against Israel. Another occurred in 1983, during NATO's Able Archer war games in Europe, which some in the Kremlin misinterpreted as the prelude to a first strike against the Soviet Union.

The world was right to breathe a sigh of relief in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed with a whimper, not a bang. Yet now activists who claim to be "antiwar" are advocating that we undertake another prolonged bout of nuclear brinksmanship against Saddam Hussein. What's wrong with this picture?

The only reason that deterrence and containment were worthwhile policies to pursue against the Soviet Union is that there was no good alternative. In the 1952 election, Dwight Eisenhower and other Republicans criticized the Truman Doctrine and promised to replace containment with "rollback." But once in office, they didn't deliver. When Soviet troops crushed uprisings for freedom in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956, the United States stood by and essentially did nothing. There was a good reason for American inaction: Our nuclear arsenal may have deterred the Soviet Union, but its nuclear arsenal also deterred us. Eisenhower was unwilling to risk nuclear war to liberate Eastern Europe.

The Soviets understood the value of deterrence. They never directly attacked the United States or its closest allies in Western Europe, but everything else was fair game. The Soviets trapped the people of Eastern Europe in a giant prison, and built a wall across Berlin to keep them from escaping. They invaded Afghanistan. They backed allies who took over China, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, and numerous other countries. They supported the Baader Meinhof Gang, Red Army Faction, Irish Republican Army, Palestine Liberation Organization, and numerous other groups that terrorized Western Europe and the Middle East during the 1970s and '80s. The Soviets committed numerous outrages, from sponsoring, through their Bulgarian proxies, an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 to shooting down KAL flight 007 in 1983. The West could do little more than sputter in outrage. After all, what concrete steps could one take against a nation that deployed thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs?

The United States today faces a similarly grim logic when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Now that Kim Jong Il has let it be known that he has nukes and even "worse weapons," everyone is treading warily around his Stalinist regime. We dare not preemptively attack North Korea, goes the logic, because it would be too dangerous to do so. Yet critics of the Bush administration seem sanguine about the possibility of Saddam acquiring nuclear weapons. We'll be able to deter him, they confidently assert. Perhaps, but, like the Soviet Union of old, he'll also deter us. Given his past record of aggression, it is not reassuring to think of what he might do if the United States were afraid to intervene against him. If Saddam acquired nuclear weapons and invaded Kuwait again, would today's antiwar activists really support a massive American response? If not, a policy of "deterrence" is meaningless.

The Left's position on containment of Iraq is equally incoherent. Critics denounce the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, arguing that they have led to great misery for the Iraqi people. A fair point. But keep in mind that sanctions are the cornerstone of containment. The choice today is between sanctions and war; no one to the right of Ramsey Clark seriously advocates not fighting Saddam and lifting all outside controls on Iraq. Sanctions will end only if a new, more humane regime takes power in Baghdad. If Saddam stays in power (as he likely will, absent U.S. intervention), we will continue the containment policies of the past 11 years, which haven't proven any easier to implement than during the Cold War.

As part of this policy, the U.S. Air Force has to make a significant, costly commitment to patrol the no-fly zones of Northern and Southern Iraq, where its pilots face constant sniping from Iraqi air defenses. The U.S. armed forces have to base substantial numbers of troops on Iraq's borders, where they have caused much resentment, and where they have not infrequently become the targets of terrorist attack (the shooting at the Marines in Kuwait last month, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996). Despite all this activity designed to pen him in, Saddam has flouted the terms of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program, using oil money to build up his arsenal of weapons of mass murder, while letting his people starve. And he appears to be as firmly entrenched in power as ever— hardly a glowing testimonial to the efficacy of "containment." But this should be no surprise, considering that it took more than 40 years of containment before the Soviet Union collapsed, and that occurred only after Ronald Reagan ratcheted up the pressure in numerous ways that are still criticized by many commentators for being too bellicose.

Luckily we don't have to stick with a passive policy in Iraq. The only reason the United States chose deterrence and containment during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union was too powerful to be preempted or rolled back. Well, Saddam isn't too powerful— yet. But he may become so in a few years' time, if he acquires nuclear weapons. At that point any attempt to stop him would result in a sequel to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with no guarantee of another happy ending. Surely, that would be carrying the Left's Cold War nostalgia too far.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" (Basic Books).

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