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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.