Renowned American historian and diplomat George F. Kennan died last week at the age of 101, a day after U.S. President George W. Bush announced that he was nominating Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz to head the World Bank.
So it was not surprising that I ended up going over the obituaries for the leading strategist of the Cold War on the same day that I was reading the bios on the main architect of the invasion of Iraq.
And that got me thinking not only about the differences between these two foreign policy thinkers and practitioners; it also raised an intriguing question: Is the U.S.-led war on terrorism that the neoconservative Mr. Wolfowitz helped to design looking more and more like a never-ending American engagement in global military confrontation the kind of dangerous situation that the paleoconservative Mr. Kennan had tried so much to prevent?
When you recall the scholar and statesman Mr. Kennan his superior intellect and magisterial works on history (including two Pulitzer Prize-winning books) as well as a moving memoir you cannot but feel nostalgic for the days when giants roamed the earth; compare that era to our age when every midget can and does become a media star.
You would assume the 61-year-old Mr. Wolfowitz, who has been described by his admirers as the “brain” behind Mr. Bush’s foreign policy and as a great Kissinger-like “strategic thinker,” would have authored by now several important books on global affairs.
But search Amazon.com or Google the Internet and you discover nothing more than a few mediocre “policy analyses” penned by the former dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Whereas Mr. Kennan, spending the last 50 years as an intellectual recluse at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, did his best in avoiding the public and media limelight, Mr. Wolfowitz, the consummate Washington operator, has never encountered a television camera to which he wouldn’t grant an interview. The scene in the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, when he was caught on tape spitting on his comb and then fixing his hair, was in preparation for a TV appearance.
Mr. Kennan, while serving in a U.S. embassy in 1947, had written the famous “Long Telegram,” which stated the principles of the “containment strategy” (and which were restated later in a Foreign Affairs magazine article that was signed “X”), calling for a patient diplomatic effort, backed by military power that would set obstacles to the global expansion of the Soviet Union, and waiting until it would gradually mellow or break up.
His “containment strategy” was adopted as the official U.S. policy under several American administrations and proved to be a winner when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989.
Mr. Wolfowitz, serving in the Pentagon in 1992, authored a policy paper that called for the establishment of a global Pax Americana, which was rejected by the first President Bush and President Bill Clinton.
His unipolarist approach to global affairs was eventually adopted by the second President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, with the war in Iraq, and has been seen as the first stage in the implementation of a unilateral strategy aimed at remaking the Middle East under American hegemony.
He was one of the sponsors of the infamous Ahmed Chalabi and predicted (among other things) that the United States would discover in Iraq weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden; that Iraq would be pacified by a few American troops; that Iraqi oil revenues would help pay for the occupation and reconstruction of the country.
As New America Foundation scholar Michael Lind has written recently, Mr. Wolfowitz has been “the Mozart of ineptitude, the Einstein of incapacity,” proving to be “consistently, astonishingly, unswervingly wrong” about foreign policy.
In a way, Mr. Kennan represented the coherent and cautious realist tradition in American foreign policy, stressing again and again that the U.S. couldn’t and shouldn’t reshape other countries in its own image, and that its efforts to police the world on a permanent basis are neither in its interests nor within the scope of its resources.
“This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable,” he said in an interview in 1999. “I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights,” he proposed.
Cold War Management
But trying to reshape other countries in the American image and promoting democracy and human rights through the use of military power is what Mr. Wolfowitz and the rest of the neoconservative ideologues believe that the U.S. could and should do in the world, particularly in the Middle East.
It represents the strain of Wilsonian idealism in American thinking about world affairs that tends to frame U.S. responses to international crises in grand messianic terms of “us” against “them” and whose proponents lack the skills to deal with the nuances of diplomacy.
Indeed, Mr. Kennan was concerned during the Cold War that foreign policy ideologues would fail to manage the confrontation with the Soviet Union. He had opposed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which he predicted would divide Europe into two armed camps, and proposed ways to reduce tensions with the Soviets.
But after the establishment of NATO and especially as a result of the Korean War, much of the debate in the U.S. shifted from a focus on how to end the Cold War to how to manage it.
It is possible that the occupation of Iraq and U.S. military involvement in the Middle East will ensure that the kind of war on terrorism envisioned by Mr. Wolfowitz will continue and escalate for many years to come, demonstrating that not only Mr. Kennan but also his kind of wise and cautious diplomacy is dead and missing in Washington.
Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.