Hirsh: On to Containment

Compare and contrast. Here is a quote from Condoleezza Rice from almost exactly a year ago, when the war in Lebanon between Hizbullah and Israel was raging. The secretary of State was then still in her "birth pangs of a new Middle East" era, when she was condemning the U.S. approach to the Mideast from "decades past" that simply accommodated the old Arab regimes. "What you had in the Middle East before was American policies—bipartisan, by the way, it had been pursued by Democratic presidents and by Republican presidents—that engaged in so-called Middle East exceptionalism [in other words, democracy won't work with the Arabs] and was pursuing stability at the expense of democracy."

Rice was only echoing her boss, George W. Bush, of course, who in his second inaugural speech in January 2005 laid out a bold transformational plan for spreading democracy around the world, especially in the Mideast. A year later, in 2005, Bush declared: "A status quo of tyranny and hopelessness in the Middle East—the false stability of dictatorship and stagnation—can only lead to deeper resentment in a troubled region, and further tragedy in free nations."

And now listen to Condoleezza Rice from Monday night, when she and other senior administration officials sought to explain a new policy by which billions of dollars more in U.S. military aid will be going to the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the gulf states, thus shoring up "the status quo of tyranny and hopelessness." Rice and her undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns, explicitly denied that there would be any conditions or "quid pro quos" attached to this new aid. This is what Rice said by way of explanation: "These are our longstanding and close friends and allies. These are strategic relationships that go back decades. And we are really determined to signal our commitment and to provide for the security of our allies … It goes to the stability and prosperity of the gulf region, which is of great interest to the United States and great interest to our friends."

So, in the space of a year, the Bush team seems to have gone from condemning the decades' old U.S. policy of backing the Arab regimes to championing precisely that course. Am I being unfair here? We all know this new multibillion-dollar aid package is about containing Iran (Rice, in her comments en route to Egypt Monday, didn't deny that the new U.S. policy was "akin to postwar containment," saying, "Situations are different, but there isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."). And containment of Iran seems to be a fairly reasonable policy, especially compared to the alternative of a military strike.

What's not as reasonable is the Bush administration's habit of repeatedly changing course while pledging to "stay the course." And if we're moving on to containment and away from "transformation," let's talk about what that means, rather than merely grudgingly acknowledge the shift with oblique comments. Just as cold war containment overreached when it portrayed Soviet menace as monolithic (resulting in Vietnam, among other things), the new version is in danger of making an analogous mistake. Consider the administration's policy of blaming every ill development in Iraq on Iran, while giving the Saudis a pass. Rice, again, on Monday: "The Saudis on the border issue with Iraq have been very active in denying entry of the—of terrorists trying to cross into Iraq from Saudi Arabia …" Uh, that doesn't quite comport with the facts. There is substantial evidence from U.S. intelligence that the Saudis are allowing insurgent aid to cross the border, and nearly half the foreign fighters who enter Iraq are Saudi. Yet both Rice and Burns firmly denied that Riyadh was being asked to deliver any new concession when it came to stopping that traffic in return for the newest weapons systems. At a briefing, Burns repeatedly used the phrase "we hope" to nudge Saudi Arabia in the right direction—which is a long way from the uncompromising language directed toward terror-supporting states after 9/11.

This hypocrisy is lost on no one. As I wrote in this column more than a year ago, containment is probably the only approach left in the Mideast. "You may be hearing a lot more of it as the Bush administration hunkers down for its final two years. Containment of Iraq's low-level civil war, which shows every sign of persisting for years despite the new government inaugurated this week. Containment of Iran's nuclear power, which may lead to a missile-defense system in Europe. Containment of the Islamism revived by Hamas and Hizbullah, by the Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq, as well as by the "Shiite Crescent"—as Jordan's King Abdullah once called it—running from Iran through southern Iraq and into the gulf.

A year ago, containment was a furtive, unacknowledged policy; the administration was still pretending that "transformation" was its preeminent agenda. Now it's a little more out in the open. But the huge aid package to these unreconstructed Arab autocracies is likely to touch off yet another rancorous fight on Capitol Hill. "Not since the 1920s and 1930s has U.S. foreign policy been so bedeviled by partisanship. During those decades, the United States lurched incoherently between stark alternatives, ultimately settling on the false security of isolationism," Charles Kupchan, a prominent Democratic foreign-policy expert, and Peter L. Trubowitz, Republican-aligned professor of government at the University of Texas, wrote in Monday's International Herald Tribune. As they say, it may be the only way to achieve the bipartisan foreign policy that is still so sorely lacking in the post-9/11 era. In return for Democratic cooperation, they say, "Bush will have to acknowledge that … the United States must opt for a much more limited strategy of containment." That may be the only way out of morass.