Writing as “Mr. X,” George Kennan promulgated the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union in his famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article “The sources of Soviet conduct.” Kennan’s conclusion was 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.” The State Department Office of the Historian explains: “Containment provided a conceptual framework for a series of successful initiatives undertaken from 1947 to 1950 to blunt Soviet expansion.”
The doctrine of containment did not address the Soviet Union’s nuclear program or its development of nuclear weapons. Rather, the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons vastly complicated application of the doctrine of containment.
In one of the worst columns ever written by an outstanding columnist, George Will offered “the need to plan serious, aggressive containment” in response to Iran’s pending development of nuclear weapons. Will offered “containment” in lieu of military action to set back Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Will asserted that “containment can involve much more than mere deterrence of Iran, against which the United States has already waged cyberwarfare,” but he didn’t pause to explain what “containment” means in this context or what it would do.
In the last paragraph of his column, Will seems to serve up “deterrence” as the equivalent to “containment.” “The logic of nuclear deterrence has not yet failed in the 64 years since the world acquired its second nuclear power” (i.e., the Soviet Union). Will concludes: “Containment is the least awful response to Iran’s coming nuclear capability.”
Does the logic of deterrence apply to Iran’s mullahcracy? Will doesn’t argue the point. He assumes it based on the history of the past 64 years.
Norman Podhoretz disputes the argument implicit in Will’s column in the Wall Street Journal column “Strike Iran now to avert disaster later.” Podhoretz summarizes the elements of “the old consensus” refusing to accept a nuclear Iran and concluded: “I remain convinced that containment is impossible, from which it follows that the two choices before us are not war vs. containment but a conventional war now or a nuclear war later.” Podhoretz’s column essentially invited Will to engage the question that he had begged in his very bad column on the subject.
Now comes Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard to deduce the lessons of containment and apply them seriously to Iran: “A misleading Cold War analogy.” The article expressly addresses what Abrams finds to be the illusions of Israel’s security establishment. I think it’s also another invitation for Will to engage the issue with the seriousness and care it deserves.