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George Kennan’s classic 1947 “X” article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs under the title The Sources of Soviet Conduct, laid the foundation for more than 40 years of American Cold War policy toward its Soviet adversary. Kennan’s article is a model of analytical clarity and grand-strategic vision, best known for formulating the strategy of “containment”. But while containment was Kennan’s famous – and famously successful – policy prescription for the challenge facing the United States in 1947, what is often forgotten is his thesis, which is hiding in plain sight within the article’s title: if you want to prevail over your adversary, you must first understand what motivates him. What are the sources of his conduct? What is his “political personality”?
In the case of the Soviet Union, Kennan identifies the basic source in Marxist-Leninist ideology, and in particular, two of its key postulates: the innate and irreconcilable antagonism between capitalism and socialism; and the infallibility of Soviet political leadership. All Soviet conduct in foreign affairs flows from these two elements. In light of which, Kennan deduces that “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”
Secretary of State George Marshall and President Truman were persuaded by Kennan’s analysis and, with much public debate, committed the United States to a costly, long-term national effort to contain Soviet Communism. The precise meaning and form of this effort were subject to some disagreement around the edges, but its main contours remained firm and constant for over 40 years. This massive commitment was made while the smoking ruins of World War II still smoldered, and with the catastrophic failure of the major democracies to understand and confront the sources of Nazi conduct still fresh in the minds of America’s leadership class.
In the next few days the United States will conclude negotiations regarding the precise size, shape and weight of the silver platter on which we will deliver a nuclear weapon capability to the Iranian mullahs. If there has been a vigorous, high-level public debate about the sources of Iranian conduct, I must have been napping when it happened. It seems to me that these sources are clearly analogous to those identified by Kennan in 1947: a firm belief in the irreconcilable antagonism between Shia Islam and its enemies; and the infallibility of Iran’s theocratic rulers.
I am by no means an expert on Iran, and therefore I don’t insist that this analogy is perfect. Indeed, it fails in at least one respect: Iran’s leadership is far more aggressive, provocative and expansionist than Stalin and his successors, who were exceptionally cautious when it came to provoking the West. The correct response may therefore be something more than containment. But surely somewhere in the State Department’s sub-basement there are smart, moderately-paid experts who think about such things. Are any of them asking these questions? If they are, is anyone in power listening to them?
Of course, Kennan’s analysis presupposes that the point of a national security strategy is to prevail over one’s adversaries, or at least to prevent them from imposing their will on you and your friends. But this presupposes too much. You may or may not be surprised to hear this, but the United States actually has an official thing called a National Security Strategy, which is published roughly annually. The 2015 version was published this past February. The word “Islam” appears in it exactly once (not counting the single instance of the term “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) – to dismiss as a lie that the United States is at war with it. As far as Iran is concerned, here is our official strategy in its entirety:
We have made clear Iran must meet its international obligations and demonstrate its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Our sanctions regime has demonstrated that the international community can— and will—hold accountable those nations that do not meet their obligations, while also opening up a space for a diplomatic resolution. Having reached a first step arrangement that stops the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited relief, our preference is to achieve a comprehensive and verifiable deal that assures Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This is the best way to advance our interests, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and enable Iran to access peaceful nuclear energy. However, we retain all options to achieve the objective of preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.
Practically every word of this is false, including “and” and “the”. Nonetheless, having thus checked the nuclear proliferation box, the document quickly moves on to more important stuff: climate change, global health, women’s equality and AIDS. You can read this entire embarrassing piece of mendacious, passive-aggressive mush here.
Kennan’s approach also presupposes that grown ups are in charge of things. Unfortunately, our historic civilizational rapprochement with Persia takes place against the backdrop of the Great Enstupidation and Ballsification of our elite institutions. For example, in his just-released book, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren reports the following exchange with New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, concerning a dishonest editorial penned by PLO honcho Mahmoud Abbas:
“When I write for the Times, fact checkers examine every word I write,” I began. “Did anybody check whether Abbas has his facts exactly backwards?”
“That’s your opinion,” Rosenthal replied.
“I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”
“In your view.”
“Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach.”
Rosenthal, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter and famed executive editor, replied, “Some might say so.”
Of course, the sources of Iranian conduct are as plain as day. The far more interesting question is, what are the sources of U.S. conduct? What is our political personality? Some Iranian or Chinese Kennan may have the answer. The words “unreality” and “nihilism” come to mind.Published in