On Containment and Islamism: Moderate Realism for a Fractious Age

Hadrian's Wall. Image: Anita Gould After more than a decade of costly wars, occupations, and humanitarian interventions in distant lands, the United States should critically reassess the basic premises of its foreign policy, especially as regards its ongoing conflict with radical Islamist movements, their origins, and the potential for a satisfactory resolution. The United States needs a more practical and integrated approach to policy, a basis for grand strategy I call “Neo-Hadrianism” after the consolidation practices of the second-century Roman emperor who pulled back from certain far-flung reaches of the Empire for the sake of preserving Roman strength and stability.[1] This model of moderate realism could strike an optimal balance between serving practical U.S. interests as a global maritime superpower and recognizing the limits imposed on U.S. goals as it encounters other nations and cultures with their own regional claims, security concerns, and fundamental interests. Neo-Hadrianism could serve as a middle way that averts both hegemonic overreach on the one hand and a return to isolationism and “Fortress America” autarchy on the other.

Michael F. Duggan teaches American History as an adjunct professor in the Department of Graduate Liberal Studies at Georgetown University. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown, with emphases in American and Modern European history, and his research interests range from 20th century U.S. foreign policy and the American presidency to critical rationalism and the history of ideas. His published works span topics in history and philosophy while also reflecting his passion for poetry and creative writing. At Georgetown, Dr. Duggan co-founded the Liberal Studies Philosophy Roundtable, an ethics discussion group. 

Islamic extremism, with its terrorist networks and regional appeal, presents a formidable threat to U.S. influence and values, especially in the Near East. U.S. engagement with this dangerous enemy has been excessively confrontational and destabilizing to the already-troubled Near East and beyond. A deliberate but watchful disengagement by the United States from much of this region would serve the country better than its recent policies of counterinsurgency and nation building, as well as its shadowy, open-ended quasi-war of drone strikes.[2]

The U.S. Cold War strategy of containment hastened the collapse of Marxist-Leninism under the weight of its own inefficiencies, contradictions, and unsustainable historicist ideology. Similarly, a U.S. policy of gradual disengagement today from the Near East would lead to the eventual self-destruction and implosion of jihadi Islamism. A program of watchful non-interference in this region would furthermore reduce considerable unnecessary U.S. public waste and sacrifice in ventures that have done little more than exacerbate conflict with rival regional powers, especially China and Russia.[3]

Cold War Parallels to Today

A sensible reading of history, long-term national interests, and sustainability should form the basis for U.S. foreign policy, as was the case in U.S. Cold War strategy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in large measure the result of Ambassador George F. Kennan’s idea of a grand strategy of containment, a deep and intimate—as opposed to a formal and remote—understanding of Russian history and cultural psychology and its ideological overlay of Marxist-Leninism. The victory was in part due to the avoidance of rigid historical narratives or ideology such as those embraced by the Soviet Union, and to think otherwise is to dangerously misread the lessons of 1946-1991 and those of our own time.[4] Ambassador Kennan’s general outline for containment accurately diagnosed the situation, provided a durable and flexible model, and bought the necessary time that allowed for the internal collapse of the Soviet system, a collapse which seems inevitable in hindsight.[5]

Far from discrediting deterministic historical narratives such as Soviet Marxism, the end of the Cold War actually inspired and instilled the West with heady, pernicious myths of its own. If Soviet Marxism was not the correct historical model, it was reasoned, then the true model must be one embracing the opposite: the active spreading of democracy, rights-based liberalism, rule of law initiatives, free markets, and deregulation. Consequently, from the 1980s until the present, the U.S. policy outlook has been captivated by such ideologies as neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, notions of American exceptionalism, and the free market and deregulatory ideas subsumed under the catchall term of “globalization.”[6] These ideas and programs, if held in earnest, are every bit as much of a historical narrative as others such as Marxism, Puritanism, or Islamism.[7] When a nation holds to ideological or moral imperatives at the expense of national interests, it puts its long-term prospects in serious jeopardy. There are no silver bullets in the course of human events and, as with the narratives of the past and current U.S. foes, our own outlook “bears within it the seeds of its own decay.” While “the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced,”[8] the United States should alter its course in realization that any program or set of policies put in motion by human hands can be undone by human agency.[9]

The success of containment strongly suggests that a pragmatic reading of history is a more effective basis for policy than ideology or morality. History never repeats itself exactly, and the transferability of strategic concepts is a tricky business. Upon close examination, one can see that, in spite of their differences, Cold War Marxism and today’s Islamism share important macro-historical conceptual commonalities and grounding in historicist ideology, or a fatalist view of the end of history.

The British philosopher John Gray sees Islamism, like the Marxist ideology of the Soviet Union, as a revolutionary and utopian eschatology. It is utopian in its belief that human beings are perfectible under its prescriptive model, eschatological in its belief that world history is unfolding via a preordained narrative toward a post-historical endgame, and revolutionary in its willingness to advance its program dynamically and even violently.[10] Gray’s work highlights that all eschatological programs to date—including millennialism, Puritanism, and Marxism—have had two things in common: a historicist point of view and repeated failure of all their predictions to materialize. Given the impossibility of sustaining revolutionary fervor over an extended period, eschatological movements tend to burn themselves out within a few generations unless given fuel from external sources. In the case of Islamism, that fuel has been supplied in large measure in the form of external pressure and foreign interventions in Muslim parts of the world.

The Islamist movement itself was, at least to some extent, influenced by the West. Interestingly, Gray notes that, though Islam has long had violent aspects, the idea of perfecting human nature and bringing about the post-historical Islamic world through the use of terrorism is not a tenet of Islam but of modern secular ideology. In this sense, the violent eschatological element of modern jihadi owes more to Western millennialism and even Bolshevism than it does to traditional Muslim thought.[11]  

With freedom of action, the aggressiveness of radical Islamists may be more like that of non-eschatological extremists who give themselves short-term deadlines to meet their immediate objectives based on their own mortality rather than open-ended inevitability.[12] As with the USSR and all historicist models, however, Islamism could plausibly be taking its time to implement its larger historical vision; if something is inevitable, then why rush? Though the Islamist and Soviet Marxist-Leninism narratives share the view of historical inevitability of their programs, the realism of the Soviet leaders restrained them from risking violent extinction, while followers of radical Islam are more aggressive in their actions with less fear of mutual or one-sided annihilation. The eschatology of Islamism, being theistic in nature, may lead to a welcoming of an apocalypse from whose ashes a new world may rise. However, while the long-term vision of Islamism is utopian, the short-term goal of Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda is geopolitical rather than eschatological. Unlike the Soviet Union, the immediate goal of the Islamist violence of recent years likely has less to do with the end of history than it does with the far more limited geopolitical or “tactical” objective of driving outsiders from Muslim regions of the world.

Neo-Hadrianism as the Way Forward

How is the United States to deal with Islamism—an opponent who believes that God is on its side, who is willing to die for its cause, with whom it is difficult or impossible to negotiate, and whose reach extends beyond national borders? The way to deal with such an adversary is to vigilantly ignore it. I do not propose full-scale containment, as the United States employed in the Cold War. Rather, I propose that the United States and its allies seek merely to isolate radical Islamist actors through non-interference and a gradual Hadrian-like disengagement from parts of the world where they flourish.

Islamist jihadi fighters use violence, but they are straightforward regarding their intents; they are righteous killers, true believers, and not sociopaths for the most part.[13] They oppose Western liberal values, but their stated purpose is to drive Western influences from Muslim lands. They attack the West more for what the West does and what it has done rather than for what the West is, and they will likely discontinue attacks on U.S. interests if the United States leaves the region. Islamist groups have not waged attacks, for the most part, on countries with no significant presence in the Near East and Muslim regions.

Complying with enemy desires, in this case the ridding of Islamic regions of “infidels,” is the exception to conventional strategy, not the rule, yet it serves U.S. interests to do so when such action would lead to the enemy’s self-destruction. As Napoleon put it, “When the enemy is making a false movement we must take care not to interrupt him.”[14] If the United States accommodates the radicals’ immediate goal of disengaging from the region, it will hasten the failure of their ultimate objective and bring the downfall of their more radical elements. One case in which this phenomenon is already at work is that of the growing dissatisfaction of Iran’s youth toward their militant theocratic rulers. In general, the United States should consider if its interests in the Near East are so important that it would not be better served filling them elsewhere, if possible.

Practical Implications on U.S. Policy

The United States should adopt a foreign policy based on a more limited, regionally-based balance of power-oriented, internationalist outlook, with parallel domestic and economic policies such as sensible re-regulation and trade bilateralism. Thus, it would be able to sustain much of the economic success and an even greater degree of security than it knew after World War II. Such a cohesive particularist position would do away with the ever-increasing disparities and quasi-imperialist power relationships created by the foreign policy outlook dominant over the past three decades.[15] The historical record also shows that this sort of realism would likely produce better “moral” results than policy specifically crafted toward moral or ideological ends.[16]

The downside of a Neo-Hadrian approach to foreign policy would involve the disposition of long-term friends and alliances—for example, Israel, Ethiopia, and the Kurds—as well as maintaining access to crucial material resources in the regions affected. Needless to say these things would have to be watched very carefully and managed with great sensitivity. The guiding principle of this outlook would be to identify nations and regions of fundamental interest to the United States and to fashion our international role accordingly. The United States is a large and powerful nation, and even within such parameters would still require a fairly robust presence and involvement in the world. U.S. national interests would include an immediate sphere of influence encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean Basin. Our geopolitical interests would include Israel and parts of the Near East due to the stark reality of nuclear proliferation and the emerging potential for actual nuclear conflict. India and Pakistan would remain U.S. interests for the same reason. Areas of important economic interest would include the Atlantic and Pacific sea lanes as links to the Near East, the Pacific Rim, and East Asia. Except for those areas immediately adjacent to our borders, we should walk very softly in terms of our engagement—keeping an eye on potential dangers while toning down our righteousness, rhetoric, and sense of entitlement in terms of intervention. The United States should ignore as much as possible those countries that are affirmatively hostile to us and should avoid direct or covert military action to destabilize them. Our goal should be to remain economically and technologically strong—vigilant but not threatening or aggressive.

The idea would be to be involved in the world only insofar as necessary. The United States would reserve the right to act in a multilateral military capacity in the event of threats to international stability such as the violation of territorial sovereignty, as in Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-1991. The United States would also be involved with international law enforcement and environmental initiatives. We should adhere to Ambassador Kennan’s admonishment to treat foreign nations on a basis of equal respect regardless of their relative importance to us.[17]

This comprehensive basis for policy would embody both moderation and tactical flexibility toward a long-term national vision geared toward goals of fundamental interests, regional spheres of influence, a sustainable combination of free trade and protection, and a non-ideological approach to problem solving. Specifically, the United States would gradually disengage from areas of the world where its vital interests are not demonstrably at stake, where it is not needed or wanted by the local people, and where its mere presence has actually increased the threats to its national security. As long as the United States remains in Muslim regions of the world, Americans will be regarded as infidels, occupiers, and meddlesome outsiders, and there is nothing we can do to change these perceptions. The United States must begin to take a more conciliatory attitude toward the indigenous peoples of the Near East by stepping back.

Reservations on Containment of Islamism

In divining a strategy from history, the greatest challenge is determining when to apply which lessons of the past and knowing when those lessons no longer apply to the current situation. The historical record on containment is mixed, as is the opinion on whether it applies to current U.S. confrontation with radical Islam. While the containment of the postwar Soviet Union was a success, other historical attempts to contain emerging powers such as Germany during 1894-1914 and the infant USSR during 1918-1921 and to level economic sanctions against Japan in 1940-1941 were notable failures.[18] What this suggests is that although the containment of rising powers may force their radicalization and eventually a violent response, it may be productively used to allow historicist ideologies to burn themselves out.

In his 2005 article “After Containment,” Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis argues that Kennan’s strategy of containment would probably not be effective in addressing the threat of non-state entities of the Islamist cause.[19] Gaddis argues that, in order for containment to be effective, it must be oriented towards a state. Such a focus on the formalities and trappings of containment as a policy against a rival state limits Ambassador Kennan’s vision to a single structural doctrine—“principle” in Kennan’s words—rather than a broad and flexible general policy of history and interest-based realism with potential regional applications against even Islamism. Most significantly, by focusing on structures over ideological psychology as a basis for strategy, Gaddis misses the bigger point that, in spite of their differences, theoretical commonalities and historicist foundations shared between Marxism and Islamism provide key insights and opportunities for U.S. policy.


One of the primary functions of the study of history is to learn from past experience—to understand why some policies and strategies work while others do not, and to correct our mistaken beliefs in light of such understanding. History still provides the best means for area specialists and cultural and intellectual historians to understand the course of the Islamic Revolution and determine the best basis for policy to effectively address it.

This article has presented the case that a nuanced understanding of the historical record and of human nature suggests to us a policy path based on the gradual reduction and withdrawal of military and economic elements from regions of little importance but of high consequences in terms of the agitation of traditional peoples, and to do so as part of a comprehensive reevaluation of our interests abroad. While not technically identical to containment, this detachment and non-interference would have the same practical effect of letting radical eschatology burn itself out by depriving it of external fuel sources as it has at other times and places historically. Though multifaceted and decentralized, Islamism is unlikely to spread as a large-scale proselytizing movement beyond its current range. A non-interventionist policy would deprive it of moral authority and limit its presence to where it already exists and to “lone wolf” conversions.

Terrorism remains an immediate and persistent danger to the United States, even if it is not an existential threat. Thus, the United States would reserve the right to respond to any future attacks though the judicious use of precision drone strikes and special unit operations, with congressional and judicial oversight, while avoiding the pitfalls of maintaining a conventional heavy footprint, or “boots on the ground,” in radical Islamic hot-spot regions.

The more general elements of Ambassador Kennan’s Cold War-era outline for containment could be easily adapted to the challenges of current geopolitical and security horizons. These elements are an intimate cultural and historical knowledge of our opponents, the avoidance of engaging with actors espousing righteous ideologies, and the acceptance of an adaptive, long-term policy run by professionals where domestic political interference is minimized. Through such prudent application of historical lessons, the United States could better guarantee the long-term physical and economic security of its people.

[1] See Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Abridgement, D. M. Low, ed., (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960 [1776]), 8-9. Regarding Hadrian and his successor, Antoninus Pius, see Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997 [1985]), 76-88.
[2] Rather than thinking in terms of what specific areas the United States should withdraw from, our policy should be guided by the converse: most of the Islamic world should be of little concern to us, except insofar as local or regional conflicts are likely to dangerously spill over into our domestic or regional sphere.
[3] Watson Institute at Brown University has produced a report titled “Costs of War” which gives the costs of the Iraq War as 189,000 deaths and upwards of $2 trillion dollars. Estimates for the total number of deaths in Iraq since 2003 range from around 110,000 to more than one million. Total U.S. casualties for the war in Afghanistan are currently 20,904 with 2,229 killed. Total U.S. casualties for the war in Iraq are 36,710 with 4,488 killed. For up-to-date costs and casualty rates, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assetsbudget.pdf. Regarding the costs of the U.S. contribution to the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya, go to http://washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/libya-war-costs-for-us-896-million-so-far/2011/08/23/glQA5KplYJ_blog.html. See also http://www.forbes.com/sites/beltway/2011/03/28/the-real-cost-of-u-s-in-libya-two-billion-dollars-per-day/. Considering costs versus benefits of the deep U.S. involvement in the Near East and specifically its implications on economic and trade considerations, I believe that we should only be engaged insofar as is absolutely necessary. This would include, first, keeping the Suez Canal opened and maintained and, second, keeping open and accessible the sea lanes leading to and from the major oil producers, for example the Persian Gulf.
[4] Historical narratives proceed from the assumption that history has a specific plot or “narrative” that can be known and anticipated through a filtering of a particular ideology or world view (eschatology). See generally John Gray, Black Mass (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007). The related idea that history is guided by deterministic “laws” that can be known through a study of the past is sometimes called historicism. The philosopher Karl Popper discredits this idea in his book The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1957). In contrast are less ideological approaches to history that concede the fundamentally unpredictable nature of the course of human events, but maintain that we may glean some modest insights from the past as a basis for policy in addressing present-day situations.
[5] On the idea of containment, see George F. Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (July 1947): 556-582. Reprinted in American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1951]), 107-128. Regarding the development of containment as a basis for grand strategy, see generally John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford, 1982).
[6] On globalization see for instance Francis Fukuyama, The End of History (New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1992) and Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005). On the neo-conservative movement in foreign affairs, see generally James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans (New York: Penguin, 2004).
[7] See generally, John Gray, Black Mass (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007).
[8] Kennan, American Diplomacy, 125.
[9] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin, 2010), 293.
[10] Gray, Black Mass.
[11] Ibid., 69-72.
[12] See John Lewis Gaddis, “After Containment,” The New Republic, 25 April 2005.
[13] There are certainly exceptions, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
[14] Archibald Alison, History of Europe from the commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1852), 5: 476.
[15] On the foreign policy of the George H. W. Bush Administration, which was the exception to this majority foreign policy outlook, see George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998).
[16] The position that moderate realism actually produces better moral results and is less problematic than righteous, ideologically-inspired policy more specifically calculated toward moral ends is well supported by the historical record. Likewise the worst acts of mankind are generally justified at the time in terms of righteous ideology or moral necessity, and in hindsight, if successful, as forwarding the cause of the good. American ventures in Vietnam, Lebanon in 1983, and Iraq were all justified in ideological or moral terms. By contrast the U.S. intervention in the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Japan, and the Persian Gulf War of 1991 were first and foremost realistic policy measures.
[17] Regarding the idea of a more modest basis for U.S. foreign policy, see George F. Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill (W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1993), 183-184. On the courteous and uniform treatment of smaller nations, see page 210.
[18] As Noah Feldman notes in his recent book Cool War, containment, although intended to avert war, equally signals hostile intent.
[19] Gaddis, “After Containment.” In this article, Gaddis outlined four criteria necessary for containment to be effective: 1. The foe “must share one’s own sense of risk”; 2. It is a state-oriented strategy; 3. The containing power must have more to offer than the power being contained; and 4. The strategy must be coherent in its policy and application.