Iran and the Costs of Containment
Before we say containment is "the only viable option" in dealing with Iran, we need to calculate its costs.


‘Even as momentum for Iran sanctions grows, containment seems only viable option,” reads a Washington Post headline from April 22. Leaving aside for the moment the dubious character of the first half of that assertion, is it really true that containment is now the “only” option?

It is certainly true that nearly everyone in Washington — from administration officials to the permanent civil service to the foreign-policy establishment — believes that, and has believed it for at least a year, if not longer. The intellectual groundwork was laid long before President Obama came into office, in part as a way of sketching an alternative to an American or Israeli military strike, which seemed a much more likely possibility when the president was named Bush.

In recent days — as one senior administration official after another has either downplayed the significance of an Iranian nuclear weapon or spoken in nigh-apocalyptic terms about the use of military force to prevent one from emerging — it would seem that the triumph of containment as America’s chosen Iran strategy is complete.

The working assumption of containment’s adherents is that it is the low- or lower-cost alternative to tough sanctions or military action. The former are believed to be either impossible to impose (because Russia, China, and other nations won’t go along), undesirable (because sanctions would harm the Iranian people more than the regime and turn popular anger against us), or ineffective (because Tehran is determined to ride out even the most crippling sanctions in pursuit of the bomb). The latter is just dismissed out of hand as the precursor to Armageddon.

But is it really true that containment carries relatively low costs? To answer that, we must first grasp what those costs are likely to be.

It is instructive to begin with a comparison to the lodestar example cited by containment advocates: the decades-long American and allied effort to restrain the expansionist impulses of the Soviet Union. The very term “containment” originated in arguably the most famous foreign-policy essay of all time, George Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct” [registration required]. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, the article outlined a policy that would — short of war — allow America to confront and oppose Soviet aggression.

In order to make containment work, the character of our country had to change in many respects. In 1945, America began its traditional rapid post-conflict demobilization. Defense spending fell from nearly 40 percent of GDP during the war years to 3.5 percent by 1948. The number of men in uniform declined from a high of 11 million to around 1.5 million on the eve of the Korean War. But as the realities of containment sank in, policymakers realized that a repeat of the post-1918 drawdowns and a return to anything like “splendid isolation” would be impossible.

Liberal critics have long fingered the immediate postwar years as the dawn of a sinister “national-security state” in which civil liberties, national resources, and previously cherished priorities were subordinated to the costs of maintaining a permanent domestic and global garrison. This critique is in part facile — isn’t the fundamental question whether what was done was necessary or not? — and in part overblown. But it is not entirely manufactured. America did have to maintain a far larger and more expensive peacetime military than we had ever had before — and with it an unprecedented peacetime draft. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of our troops had to be stationed far from home, in overseas bases partly, or in some cases entirely, financed by American taxpayers. Billions were poured into research and development of cutting-edge weapons systems, with layers of security and secrecy surrounding the labs and manufacturing facilities. We designed and built an enormous, potentially civilization-ending thermonuclear arsenal. For the first time in our history, America established a permanent civilian spy agency.



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