Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, U. S. policies toward that strategic
region of the world have been characterized by a policy of dual containment,
aiming at isolating and restraining Iran and Iraq. That policy has shown
some successes but also many failures. It succeeded in putting together
a broad coalition against Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait leading
to his withdrawal. But it failed at removing him from power. Bush and Thatcher
are long gone; Saddam still sits on his throne in Baghdad.
That policy succeeded in exposing the Iranian regime's human rights
violations against its own citizens and others such as Salman Rushdie,
but it has failed in persuading the Europeans and Asians to join the U.
S. economic sanctions against Iran. In the latest round of brinkmanship
between Saddam and Clinton, the Western coalition is showing serious signs
of breaking up. It is time, therefore, to rethink U. S. gulf policies.
The term containment itself is a relic of the Cold War years. The term
was coined by George Kennan, who in an article in Foreign Affairs (1945),
argued that Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and Asia should be actively
contained by the United States and its allies. The Containment Doctrine
subsequently laid the foundations of U. S. policies until the end of the
Cold War in 1989.
In the Persian Gulf region, it led to the withdrawal of Russian troops
from Iranian Azarbaijan in 1946, the 1953 CIA intervention in Iran to reinstate
the Shah against a popular nationalist movement, support of the Shah and
the Saudi regimes as the dual gendarmes of the gulf during the 60s and
70s, encouragement of Saddam Hussein to attack revolutionary Iran thus
creating a Frankenstein monster out of him during the 80s, and finally
the Gulf War and its aftermath. Frequent foreign interventions in the region
have reaped a bitter harvest of popular resentment and a grassroots anti-American
Islamic movement in the region.
Containment policies are based on competitive rather than cooperative
concepts of security. They may have been suited to the Cold War years when
the U. S. was engaged in a worldwide struggle against the Soviet Union.
In this struggle, security was conceived of as a zero-sum game. More security
for the United States and its Western allies meant less security for the
Sino-Soviet bloc, and vice versa. However, with the appearance of the Sino-Soviet
dispute in the 60s and Gorbachev's glasnost and dtente policies
in the 80s, containment policies had already lost much of their raison
In the post-Cold War era, containment is a counter-productive policy.
However, politicians like the generals often seem to fight the last war.
Circumstances have changed, yet strategic thinking has not. As a result
of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the United States
as the only superpower, albeit with a reduced freedom to act unilaterally
around the world, the time has come to think of national and international
security primarily as a cooperative enterprise. This means that security
must be conceived of a positive-sum game in which adversaries stand to
gain from an arrangement in which their vital security interests are mutually
In the Persian Gulf region, all contending parties share in two vital
interests: 1) to maintain the long-term security of supply and price stability
of oil exports, and 2) to safeguard the current international borders against
external aggression. As a region with two-thirds of the world's proven
oil reserves, the Persian Gulf is vital to both oil exporters and importers.
As a region whose current borders were primarily drawn by its past European
colonial masters, the gulf is also vulnerable to temptations by ambitious
potentates such as Saddam to conquer their neighbors. But the common interests
of the people of the region as well as oil importers is to arrive at a
security arrangement that does not invite outside interventions and bloody
A Persian Gulf Peace Conference, bringing all of the gulf states and
the major oil importing countries together to work out such a security
arrangement, would be the surest path to the region's long-term stability.
The conference agenda should include international guarantees for the current
borders with some possible mutually-agreed upon minor adjustments, price
stability and security of oil supplies commensurate with world inflationary
pressures, regional disarmament and cooperation for economic and social
Instead of playing cowboys against Indians and goodies against baddies,
the post-Cold War years call for statesmanship, visions of cooperative
rather than competitive security, and strategic rather than tactical thinking.
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