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The Containment Debate, Round Two

PARIS – At the Cold War’s outset, there was an intense debate in the United States between those who wanted to contain communism and those who wanted to roll it back. Was it sufficient to fix limits on the Soviet Union’s ambitions, or was a more aggressive stance, sometimes described as “containment plus,” necessary?

The recent spat between US President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state (and possible successor), Hillary Clinton, seems to have revived that debate. But are its terms of reference useful today, as the West faces the simultaneous challenges of the Islamic State in the Middle East and a revisionist Russia? Are Western leaders right to assume that the two challenges are distinct, and that containment will suffice in the case of Russia, while rollback is absolutely necessary in the case of the Islamic State?

The West needs Russia as much as Russia needs the West, the thinking goes, whereas no one (to say the least) needs a sanctuary for Islamist fanatics in the heart of the Middle East. That is why Russia must be persuaded to change course through a combination of economic sanctions, strategic unity, and diplomatic engagement; by contrast, the Islamic State’s ambitions cannot be contained, so they must be suppressed.

But the West needs to rethink its strategy, because the two challenges are not entirely distinct. Had Obama not failed to enforce his chemical-weapons “red line” in Syria a year ago, following an attack on a suburb of Damascus, Russian President Vladimir Putin probably would not have been as daring as he was in Ukraine. Likewise, helping the Kurds to confront the Islamic State could send the right message to the Kremlin.

Confronting this dual challenge presupposes a combination of long-term, coordinated strategic thinking and pedagogical skill. Leaders must explain and clarify. To say, “I don’t do stupid things,” as Obama did recently in an interview with the New York Times, is not enough, given the complexity, urgency, and scale of the threats America and the West are facing.

The simplicity of the Cold War left little need for explanation. The West had only one opponent, and both sides understood the rules of the game (that is, the logic of the balance of terror). Above all, the “Soviet mind” was relatively easy to decipher.

The complexity of today’s challenges consists not only in there being more than one, but also in the difficulty of understanding the “jihadi mind.” Of course, one can say that the Islamic State’s dream of restoring a Sunni caliphate is as anachronistic as Putin’s neo-imperial ambition. One can also say that both Putin and the Islamic State have drawn much of their strength from the West’s weakness, particularly its failure to have enforced clear and credible limits to their actions.

But, if Putin and the Islamic State have benefited from the West’s confusion, hesitation, and division in dealing with them, they are not paper tigers. If they were, the West would need only to wait for its adversaries to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions: Russia’s overestimation of its means, and, in the case of the Islamic State, the consequences of its appallingly cruel behavior.

That scenario seems optimistic at best. Though the Islamic State is resistible, it represents a much bigger challenge than Al Qaeda ever did. It has set for itself a concrete territorial goal, and has ample financing, sophisticated weapons, and a highly competent military command. At the same time, it would be as dangerous to overestimate the Islamic State’s capabilities today as it was to underestimate them yesterday.

The same logic applies to Putin’s Russia. The seizure of Crimea was a swift, well-executed move, but the same tactics have not worked in the more complex and divided context of eastern Ukraine. By winning Crimea the way that it did, Russia may well have lost Ukraine.

In his classic treatise Strategy: The Indirect Approach, B.H. Liddell Hart, reflecting on his World War I experiences, insisted on the foolhardiness of direct attacks on an entrenched enemy. “In strategy,” he argued, “the longest way round is often the shortest way there.”

Today, Liddell Hart would probably encourage the West to concentrate its efforts on helping the Kurdish fighters in the Middle East and aiding Ukraine’s government in Eastern Europe. That dual effort should be pursued without idealizing these partners. They are not “good” simply because the West is backing them; but they are, in any case, infinitely better than the forces they are resisting.

Be it containment or rollback, the rules of the game should be clear. By setting limits to “them,” the West will define – with newfound clarity – who and what it is.