Bacevich: A New Cold War?

Andrew Bacevich in an op-ed in the Washington Post proposes an alternative to conventional war or global counter-insurgency, an approach evocative of the Cold War policy of containment:

Containment implies turning to the old Cold War playbook. When confronting the Soviet threat, the United States and its allies erected robust defenses, such as NATO, and cooperated in denying the communist bloc anything that could make Soviet computers faster, Soviet submarines quieter or Soviet missiles more accurate.

Containing the threat posed by jihad should follow a similar strategy. Robust defenses are key — not mechanized units patrolling the Iron Curtain, but well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports, and ensuring the integrity of electronic networks that have become essential to our way of life.

As during the Cold War, a strategy of containment should include comprehensive export controls and the monitoring of international financial transactions. Without money and access to weapons, the jihadist threat shrinks to insignificance: All that remains is hatred. Ideally, this approach should include strenuous efforts to reduce the West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which serves to funnel many billions of dollars into the hands of people who may not wish us well.

In principle, Dr. Bacevich is quite right. If we deny them cell phones, computers, access to the Internet, the ability to travel back and forth freely to and from Western countries, purchase munitions, or move money through the international banking system we have little to fear from organized radical Islamist terrorism. Controlling the airwaves and the flow of information and capital can be as effective as controlling the sea was a century ago. Incidental terrorism we will always have with us whether practiced by domestic maniacs or the imported sort. But we can mitigate the risk of organized terrorism by limiting its ability to organize.

However, Dr. Bacevich’s proposal founders on a single two part question: whom are we to contain and how? Al Qaeda and takfiris, generally, do not carry passports or membership cards identifying themselves as such. They have Pakistani, Saudi, Yemeni, or Jordanian passports. Or French, German, British, or American ones. Theoretically, we could ban all travel and trade other than oil, food, and pharmaceuticals between North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian countries and the rest of the world. I’m skeptical about pharmaceuticals because of their relative fungibility.

Would the Chinese go along? Would the Germans? I think the very limited effectiveness of our ability to limit trade with Iran so far is instructive in this context. Would we have greater success in containing a billion of the world’s people or more?

I think that containment could be an effective approach in dealing with Pakistan and I advocate it. Do we have the stomach to enforce the same policy on our trading partners without which the policy would be meaningless? I doubt it.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    We already have these controls in place via the export control regime. We even have a list of Specially Designated Nationals who are prohibited from receiving export controlled goods by name rather than nationality. Still they receive these products. Via unscrupulous re-exporters but also because the technology is of value to the non-terrorist people of the region.

    Cell phones were of value to the Iranians who hope to one day be free. Should we deny them access to the outside world in hopes that some terrorist won’t understand how to use a cell phone when he lands at Heathrow? Do we halt all travel and deny the NGOs from taking modern technology into countries known to contain terrorist groups, i.e., no computers, no phones, not a single luxury. Should we shutdown the internet and control access to scientific publications to prevent a terrorist from accessing information that might result in a “deemed” export?

    This op-ed strikes me as grasping at straws in hopes of avoiding the reality of the world in the 21st century.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    One aspect of the cold war was MAD (mutually assured destruction). That worked with the USSR and the USA. I don’t see it as a great inhibitor on al qaeda. The closest equivalent would be to say that we hold those who support terrorist directly or indirectly (e.g. Saudi Arabia) liable for terrorist attacks against us. And to make the response so harsh that they would rather do the dirty work of cutting off funding and support for the terrorist rather than risk our attack. Of course that would lead them towards using the oil embargo as a counter weapon, which pushes us towards invading to secure oil supplies, etc. The bottom line is that we had a backstop to the cold war, it is harder to see the equivalent with this war.

  3. steve says:

    The military approach of invading everywhere al Qaeda or an offshoot sets foot is simply not possible. We have already shown that we do not know how to nation build. Maybe given thirty year, thousands of lives and trillions of dollars we can do it, but even that is iffy. People do not like foreign troops on their land.

    An approach along the lines of what Bacevich advocates is the only practical one in the long term. This needs to be a combination of police type activity, focused military intervention, alliance building, economic warfare and diplomacy. We also need to recognize that there is no such thing as perfect security. The most security conscious country in the world, Israel, gets attacked all too often. If we choose to entangle ourselves in the affairs of other countries, Washington understood this, we will be a target. Hell, we have open borders and 12 million illegal immigrants, so AQ can come anytime they want if you think about it. We need to work on minimizing their efforts and learn to control our responses.

    Steve

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    An approach along the lines of what Bacevich advocates is the only practical one in the long term.

    That’s handwaving just as it is for Dr. Bacevich. It’s manifestly an impractical option, for reasons I’ve suggested above. Unless you have details on how it can be made practical, e.g. by inducing the Chinese or Germans to go along with it, it cannot be practical and hence can’t be the “only practical” plan in the short, medium, or long run.

    BTW, I see no evidence that either our military or our political leaders have a policy of invading anywhere that “al Qaeda or an offshoot sets foot”. As substantiation I’d point out that since 2001 we haven’t invaded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Germany, Spain, or the United Kingdom, all demonstrably places where al Qaeda or an offshoot has set foot. A classic strawman argument.

    That having been said I don’t support a policy of continuous invasion, either. I think we have to set our sights a lot lower than we are.

  5. […] morning I’ve published a foreign policy-related post at Outside the Beltway: “Bacevich: A New Cold […]

  6. TangoMan says:

    Sure, it’s practical, it’s just raises unpleasant issues. I’ve argued for this type of containment pretty much this whole decade.

    Even if the US can’t achieve a global unified containment fence, it can still implement a “safe zone” around the US by very strict control of immigration, customs and border control. Immigrants are fungible, so when we deny permission to immigrate to Muslims from the contained region we simply make up for it with non-Muslims from some other region, Africa, India, Oceania, Asia, South America. Secondly, if you look at the economies of the MENA zone and exclude oil exports, you quickly find out that this region of nearly a billion people exports less in goods and services than does the country of Spain.

    How Europe will deal with its substantial population of marginalized Muslims is really for Europe to figure out. Our population is far smaller in proportion to the nation, is less marginalized, and more integrated, so our problems on the home front aren’t as drastic as those found in Europe.

    Islam needs to foment its own reformation, this isn’t something that can be imposed from without.

    Look, the Czech Republic doesn’t experience much threat from Islamic Terrorists because it’s largest non-European minority is the Vietnamese, who numbered only 17,462 in 2001. There’s a significant lesson there.

    So, in the end denying cell phone technology to the region isn’t as crucial as denying radicals the ability to target you. They can have all the bombs and AK-47s and shoulder missile launchers and IEDs they can pay for, but if they can’t get close to Americans or the American homeland, then they can’t use their weapons on Americans.

  7. […] one thing, as Dave Schuler notes it’s not entirely clear who or what we would need to contain. Unlike the Soviet bloc, […]

  8. DL says:

    To deny them oil billions it mean drill, drill, drill, and it is clear that the intent of this administration is to make us vulnerable to all energy threats. Those windmills wont fit well on smart cars. I still ask, since he’s not dumb, is he doing all this on purpose?

  9. anjin-san says:

    so when we deny permission to immigrate to Muslims from the contained region

    So we punish all muslims because a few are assholes? Brilliant plan. Timothy McVeigh was a white American, how are we going to deal with the threat by those folks?

    Then of course, there is the issue that the people inside “the containment zone” might just get annoyed and stop selling us oil. I presume that Saudi Arabia, home of the 9.11 terrorists, would be in the zone…

  10. TangoMan says:

    So we punish all muslims because a few are assholes? Brilliant plan.

    Hey, do you feel I’m punishing you if I don’t agree to pay for your vacation? There is no such thing as a right to immigrate. The opportunity that is denied to folks within the containment zone is now an opportunity extended to other folks outside of the containment zone. Think about them. On balance, it nets out.

    Timothy McVeigh was a white American, how are we going to deal with the threat by those folks?

    A rare psychotic who acted out. The fact that he is American means that we have to deal with his malignancy in our own house and we have to use different methods for Americans than we have to for foreigners.

    Then of course, there is the issue that the people inside “the containment zone” might just get annoyed and stop selling us oil.

    Not likely. Oil sales are not some windfall for these nations. Just as we need oil they need the income from oil sales. As I said, look at their economies – they have hardly any export capacity, their domestic manufacturing and service infrastructure is anemic. They need to import goods and services from the West in order to semi-function as societies and in order to import essential goods and services they have to pay for them – oil sales are the principal means of earning foreign currency. Their people are going to be pretty pissed off when there are no spark plugs (imported) for their cars, no insulin for their diabetics, etc because these countries decided to stop selling oil to the world.

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, God forbid they get to set one off here, but if they do. I hope it is right next to your house. And I hope all of the people claim to love are at home at the time. I want you to be out of town so you are safe. I want you to live the rest of your life knowing you did nothing to save them. That will be the case for some people. I wonder WTF is wrong with people like you and then I read liberalism is a mental disorder and I understand.

  12. anjin-san says:

    The opportunity that is denied to folks within the containment zone

    Yes, and think of all the folks in the containment zone who will now take the opportunity to become real live terrorists. By all means, lets give a billion people a reason to hate us…

  13. TangoMan says:

    Yes, and think of all the folks in the containment zone who will now take the opportunity to become real live terrorists.

    The same argument applied to the Communists of the world that we didn’t allow to immigrate to the US. Most folks believe that we’re better off not having allowed, say 10 million, dedicated Communists to immigrate and start fomenting revolution in the US.

    Further, they should a.) apply their energies to reforming their own societies, and b.) if they want to become terrorists (which is a pretty ludicrous causal relationship you’re advancing) then it still doesn’t affect us in that they’re over there and we’re over here.

  14. anjin-san says:

    Most folks believe that we’re better off not having allowed, say 10 million, dedicated Communists to immigrate and start fomenting revolution in the US.

    Most folks with a working brain know that if 10 million dedicated Russian communists had moved here during the cold war, in a year they would have been 9.95 million dedicated capitalists…