Michael Mandelbaum starts off his essay calling for “triple containment” of Russia, China, and Iran with a gigantic whopper:
And the Islamic Republic of Iran has expanded its influence over much of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen and is pursuing nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL].
Iran isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons, and we know they aren’t. The IAEA has confirmed Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal 14 times in a row. As long as Iran is complying with the JCPOA, it is practically impossible for their government to develop or build nuclear weapons. Saying that they are pursuing nuclear weapons is simply dishonest, and it discredits everything else he has to say about Iran. The idea that the U.S. needs a policy of “triple containment” is bad enough on its own, but making an obviously untrue assertion in the opening paragraph is a lousy way to begin an argument. It tells us right away that the author is willing to make things up if he thinks it will strengthen his case, and that gives us another reason to assume that his case must be exceptionally weak.
The decision to include Iran among the states that he wants the U.S. to “contain” is another giveaway. It is an attempt to exaggerate the threat from Iran by making it seem as if it is somehow comparable to the threat posed by the world’s two nuclear-armed major authoritarian powers, but the effect of including Iran with two vastly more powerful states makes the entire argument seem even more absurd. Mandelbaum selects these three because he needs an enemy in each region to contain, and he wants to portray them all as revisionist powers that the U.S. needs to oppose.
While he claims that he is proposing a “new foreign policy” for the U.S., he is really just arguing for escalating existing confrontational policies against these three states. “Triple containment” isn’t all that new. It is the expression of a familiar hawkish vision for confronting all adversaries at the same time. It is strategically foolish, and the costs of pursuing this course are exorbitant and unsustainable. Trying to contain one major power would be difficult enough and would require marshaling tremendous additional resources. The expense of containing both Russia and China while also continuing to strangle Iran would be ruinous, and it would be a massive waste to do this when it doesn’t appear to be necessary. Mandelbaum anticipates the complaint about the cost of the policy, but in doing so he undermines the case for doing it at all:
Fortunately, Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union, China is restrained by both deterrence and the knowledge that military conflict would damage its economy, and Iran is a regional power. So the United States can afford to pursue the containment of all three simultaneously (so long as it does so as part of robust coalitions).
Cold War-era containment is a questionable model to use in each case. Containment implies that there is an expansion that needs to be contained. None of the three states is the old USSR, and none of them poses the threat that it did. Mandelbaum acknowledges as much. He admits that neither Russia nor China “has such a crusading ideology” as the Soviets did, and as for Iran he acknowledges that “the potential appeal of its ideology is largely limited to the Muslim world and, primarily, its Shiite minority.” In other words, none of the three states is engaged in the sort of expansionism or aggressive exporting of ideology that warrants a policy of containment. Likewise, the military threat from all of them is far less than the Soviet threat: “None of today’s revisionist powers possesses the Soviet Union’s fearsome military capabilities.” Their goals are consequently limited to seeking “greater regional power and autonomy.” If that’s case, there is no reason for the U.S. to bother with policies of containment because none of the three represents enough of a threat to require it.
Because it is unnecessary, there would also be scant international support for this “triple containment” policy. When the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union, it had regional allies that perceived the same threat and accepted the costs of containment policy as necessary and in their own interests. Today there would be very few other states that would want to sign on to a policy of containing these three, and the states that would want to join the effort would have little to offer the U.S.
The “triple containment” idea appears to be little more than an excuse to justify increasing existing U.S. deployments and commitments, many of which have outlived their usefulness. It is a solution in search of a problem, and pursuing it will almost certainly cause the U.S. more grief at great expense. The U.S. doesn’t need a policy of “triple containment,” and if it made the mistake of attempting one it would drive these states together into a formidable coalition against the U.S.