Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another Cost of Containment

In yesterday's post, my purpose was to highlight one of the costs associated with pursuing a policy of containment with Iran, a country whose leadership is hostile to us, our allies, and our mutual interests, and apparently determined to produce a nuclear weapon. That cost is that to the American mind, containment is at best a necessary evil, an extremely frustrating concession to the fact that confronting an enemy more directly and thereby defeating it, the preferred policy option, is simply too dangerous, the associated risks too great. This was the case during the Cold War and our long struggle with the Soviet Union.

Today I want to highlight yet another cost: Over the long run, a policy of containment slowly but surely corrupts the otherwise clear purpose of an armed force and in the process erodes the discipline that keeps it at its most effective.

In the fall of 1999 I was assigned for several months to Ali al Salem Air Base located in northern Kuwait near the Iraqi border. (It's still in use today. In fact, my son went through there on his way to Iraq last year.) Anyway, our presence there then was as a small part of the larger Operation Southern Watch, which itself was part of the policy of containing, yes containing, Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of our successful liberation of Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1991. As part of my duties, I attended a conference held in Bahrain at which representatives of the various fighter units in the region would gather routinely to discuss and evaluate the tactics employed in holding Saddam at bay. My attendance there was more as an observer than as a participant.

At that particular conference, I witnessed something that caught my attention at the time and I have remembered ever since. To an audience that contained several flag rank officers from both the Air Force and Navy, an Air Force full colonel, as a diversion in an otherwise dry briefing that unavoidably included lots of slides with lots of graphs and numbers, told a story about how some of the fighter units were deliberately trying to lure a particular Iraqi pilot into the air in order to engage and destroy him. I was never quite sure how they had identified this particular pilot, but by then we had been flying over Iraq for more than eight years, and what with radar and satellite technology they had nevertheless become convinced that he was one of their best.

Engaging this particular pilot had absolutely nothing to do with the larger effort to contain Saddam within Iraq's borders. So how had it become important? No, that's not fair. Even as the colonel briefed us, he, along with everyone else in the audience, was laughing. No one was under the illusion that shooting down this pilot was in any sense important to the overall mission. What struck me was not that they had foolishly come to think it important, but, rather, that it was even discussable in this fashion and at this level. The whole episode seemed to me even then as something of a breach of discipline, something a bunch of generals wouldn't want "60 Minutes" cameras in the room recording.

As I thought more about what had transpired at that briefing, it occurred to me that perhaps this small incident was not isolated after all, but was rather itself a product of pursuing a policy of containing rather than defeating Saddam Hussein. At that point, we had been over there for eight-plus years and the mission had become, and I'm afraid I can't think of a better word, a bore. In order to relieve the boredom, the pilots had turned the mission into a game, in this case a game of luring a particular Iraqi pilot into the air in order to shoot him down.

Now imagine that attitude, our mission is a bore, spreading to an entire army. At the very least this is not conducive to the maintenance of a highly disciplined fighting force. With respect to Iran, containment may well be the policy our political leadership finally decides to pursue. Or, in the absence of more decisive action, it may come to be so by default. In either case, we should be under no illusion that it's a strategy of defending the nation on the cheap. The costs are considerable and they are not always immediately apparent.


  1. Sage,

    Great post. Nice use of an anecdote to illustrate a larger point. You need to move to NRO.....