WHEN GEORGE F. KENNAN TURNED 100 LAST week, his birthday was a reminder that ideas, as well as their originators, can live a long time. The Kennan birthday also called to mind much that has been right and much that has been wrong with American foreign policy for the last half century.
Mr. Kennan was the diplomat who in 1946 pioneered the idea that the best way to deal with Communism was not to try to defeat it, but to contain it. "Without flinching from the brutal, expansionist nature of the Soviet regime," says Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Shane, "Kennan proposed that the United States could outlast the Soviet Union and defeat it without resorting to catastrophic war. His belief-that American strength and values along with close cooperation with allies ultimately would lead to the crumbling of the Soviet system-was vindicated in 1991."
Nor did the Kennan concept of containment go immediately into retirement to celebrate that apparent vindication. Indeed, the containment idea is still at the core of much of the criticism of the Bush administration's decision last year to go to war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. "Why not just contain him?" many have asked. "Containment has worked for the last decade or two."
Experts disagree. On the one side is the doctrine of containment; on the other the doctrine of preemption. Mr. Kennan-perhaps the first to spell out the issue so clearly in modern times-said just before the Iraqi war that he had profound questions about the Bush plan. And, of course, the failure so far to identify specific weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq has prompted critics to boast even more loudly how well the containment idea has worked.
"I think containment is completely relevant," says history professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, "for any potential enemy that has a return address-Iraq, Iran, North Korea. We've been containing North Korea for half a century."
Half a century? It staggers the mind. The main thing wrong with such arguments is their arrogance, their condescension. To talk in such a manner should be an embarrassment to anyone with a truly compassionate spirit. For what of the millions of North Korean men and women and boys and girls who would love to speak out on the issue-but can't, because they lie silenced in their graves? Or, if not yet in their graves, so viciously threatened that they know they would soon arrive at that destination if they so much as whispered a protest?
The containment crowd seems casually to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost not just their freedom but their very lives while the Kennan doctrine was "working" over the last couple of decades. Liberals like to claim the high ground, as if they have a corner on compassion. They like to suggest it's the Bush conservatives, the Bush preemptionists, who are so inwardly focused that they can think only of America, and always of America first.
But in fact, of course, it's really the other way around. It's the conservative mindset that looks out beyond our own comfort zone to survey a hurting world-and then to respond compassionately by saying, "Even if it costs us, we're coming to help you." Can we do that in every single case where we see oppression? Of course not. But in extreme cases, and especially when those cases involve highly likely threats against our own well-being, we'll hurry to help. And in doing so, rather than thinking of America first we're actually thinking of our people first-and literally laying down our lives in the process.
Much of this debate-which, by the way, is hardly new-is rooted in a prior disagreement about the very nature of evil itself. WORLD reader David G.D. Hecht wrote me this week, after a couple of columns in which he and other readers thought I may have been overly critical of the Bush administration, to say: "Not one-not ONE-of the Democrat candidates appears to understand that we are in a war against evil. Indeed, the very word seems to make them uncomfortable." Mr. Hecht points us toward a useful insight. On a whole host of issues, a liberal perspective tends to underestimate the evil nature of what opposes us. The "containment" mentality makes the same mistake-evaluating much too gently and too forgivingly such monstrous evils as Saddam Hussein.
"Compassionate conservatism" is a term that's been applied mostly to domestic policy. Its implications for our dealings with other nations may be even more profound.