George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Eisele is the editor of The Hill.

George F. Kennan, the chief architect of the containment and deterrence policies that shaped America foreign policy during the Cold War, said Sunday that Congress, and not President Bush, must decide whether the United States should take military action against Iraq.

In a wide-ranging interview at a Georgetown senior citizens home where he spent the past month, the 98-year-old historian and former top U.S. diplomat repeatedly warned of the unforeseen consequences of waging war.

Speaking out even as the Bush administration unveiled a new national security strategy calling for preemptive strikes against hostile states and terrorist groups suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction, Kennan said, “This decision should really rest with Congress.”

He added, “Congress is there for the exercise of that responsibility. I think our Constitution and our tradition are quite sufficient here. [Bush] should not do what he’s planning to do without a clear congressional mandate. This is against all American tradition.

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before,” he said."In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

Kennan is the author of the history-making 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs, which he signed as “X” and enunciated the policy of containment that helped define American foreign policy after World War II. In the interview, he also:

• Characterized the new national security document issued by the Bush administration last week as “a great mistake in principle”;

• Voicing the same view that Vice President Albert Gore would take a day later, he warned that launching an attack on Iraq would amount to waging a second war that “bears no relation to the first war against terrorism”;

• Declared that efforts by the White House and Republicans in Congress to link al Qaeda terrorists with Saddam Hussein “have been pathetically unsupportive and unreliable”;

• Said Bush “shouldn’t speak contemptuously” of the inspection teams that previously worked in Iraq, “because they succeeded in destroying and removing from Iraq very, very sizeable quantities of dangerous arms”;

• Called the failure of Democratic congressional leaders and the party’s would-be presidential candidates to question Bush’s war plans as “a shabby and shameful reaction”;

• Insisted that there is no evidence that Iraq has succeeded in developing nuclear weaponry, and even if they had, it would be targeted on Israel and not the United States;

• Said the Israelis almost certainly possess nuclear weapons, and would be “quite capable of mounting a devastating retaliatory strike” if Iraq ever uses weapons of mass destruction against Israel;

• Praised the diplomatic skills of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom he called a “man of strong loyalties in a difficult position [who] has been much more powerful in his statements than” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; and

• Cautioned that the United States, even as the world’s sole superpower, cannot “confront all the painful and dangerous situations that exist in this world. … That’s beyond our capabilities.”

Kennan, who was in Washington with his 93-year-old wife this month while the couple that lives with them in Princeton, N.J., was on vacation, appeared vigorous and alert — although arthritis has confined him to a wheelchair.

The interview took place in the apartment of former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), whose anti-Vietnam War candidacy in 1968 was endorsed by Kennan.
Reminded that some people are comparing Bush’s request to Congress for broad warmaking powers with the 1964 congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to escalate in Vietnam, Kennan said such resolutions “lead to no good.”

He concluded, “You have to look at things all over again, every day, every week, every month, and adjust what you are doing, but do it in the light of the experience of the past.”

Asked what advice he would give Bush and his national security team in dealing with Iraq, Kennan replied, “First, I would say consult with the Israelis, who stand in the line of fire.”

He added, “But also, there is a very, very basic consideration involved here, and that is that whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods of for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results.”

Declaring that Hussein “is not the only horrible, evil dictator in the world” who might have weapons of mass destruction, Kennan said the United States made a great mistake in backing out of the nuclear test ban agreement.

“If we had stopped testing, the greater part of the nuclear weaponry of all the countries who had signed the test ban treaty would have become inoperable in 20 or 30 years.”

Shown a New York Times article describing Bush’s new national security document as a “doctrine” and “strategy” that declares the ideas of containment and deterrence “are all but dead,” Kennan said, “I don’t care what you call it. I don’t have any use for either word.

“A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct and dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain situation then prevailing, and as a response to it.”

He said the only relevance between containment and deterrence on the one hand, and the new Bush approach on the other, would be “a very general one, because it rests partly on the theory, and I think the correct theory, that if you ever had a chance to do something without the use of military force, by all means choose it rather than put military force into the picture.”

Kennan was particularly critical of congressional Democrats for failing to oppose Bush’s request for a blank check on Iraq.

“I wonder why the Democrats have not asked the president right out, ‘What are you talking about? Are you talking about one war or two wars? And if it’s two wars, have we really faced up to the competing demands of the two?”

He added, “This is, to me, as a very old, independent citizen, a shabby and shameful reaction. I deplore this timidity out of concern for the elections on the part of the Democrats.”

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Rhya Turovsky - 12/21/2003

Unfortunately, now that Sadam Hussein has been captured which is good but bad for us democrats because the president holds it up as his achievement, it's hard to refute a victory over evil.

I know it's far from over, and we don't know what the outcome will be, but this war has taken on new momentum. Bush can now say: "See this dictator is in our hands and others will most likely follow." I can just see the Saudi Arabian dynasty follow, and they are the prime dictators.

Jim Hassinger - 3/28/2003

I think you simply have to see Kennan as a man of an historical moment. Truman was faced with two extremes: one, continue being allied with the Soviets -- not a viable alternative -- or pre-emptively bomb them into oblivion, as the conservatives of the era, and MacArthur and LeMay had in mind. Containment was a moderate, middle course. We would not be party to any further expansion of this particular slavery, nor would be inflict a nuclear nightmare on the world in order to liberate it.

In many ways, it was much like Lincoln's position on the slave states; the underlying idea was to avoid the apocalypse by sitting down to a long siege of communism. Of course, there are those who insist that it would have been better had we followed MacArthur's advice, bombed China and unleashed Chiang-Kai Shek. Thank God for Kennan. We need another man like him to rescue us this time from the madness of the Perles and Wolfowitzes.

What is particularly wince-making in the modern conservative view of Kennan is that this was supposedly a losing, compromising strategy. It was compromise, but it won. In fact, St. Reagan, though he threatened to come up with a new policy, never did.

James Steidle - 3/14/2003

The comments made above don't seem to give Kennan credit. He has had good ideas, and many more of them than simple reading would suggest. Sure his ideas may have been inconsistent over the years, and tinged with utopianism. But is this a charge that one should be ashamed of? And besides, if we all appreciated nuclear weapons for what they are, and that is that they are no better than anthrax, the eradication of the weapons would not seem so utopian. What about kennan's observations of american society and the american city? These are highly relevant today, something he was onto long ago. As for the charge of him being a friend of authoritarianism, well this is just slightly a misstatement. Perhaps he values hierarchy, and the notion that a given set of rules and laws should exist to correct the flaws of humanity and the market, but that he is a friend of authoritarianism disrespects the fact that he abhored the authoritarianism of Stalin and the USSR. The one weakness with Kennan's ideas is that he is too committed to the national entity, when it is a global entity or community that is necessary to solve the worlds problems and rid the world of nuclear weapons.


Alec Lloyd - 9/30/2002

Fascinating bit of logic:

“If we had stopped testing, the greater part of the nuclear weaponry of all the countries who had signed the test ban treaty would have become inoperable in 20 or 30 years.”

Right. But what about the countries that DIDN’T sign the treaty? Or, what about countries that signed the treaty but then violated it? This smells strongly of either pie-in-the-sky utopianism or the old Soviet canard: "unilateral disarmament."

Kennan’s policy prescriptions are erratic at best. He wants us to consult Israel (because they know so much) but downplays the danger of Iraq developing atomic weapons because they’d be aimed at Israel.

Of course, Israel also has its own nukes, which may or may not act as a deterrent. If they did, why would Iraq bust its budget and bankrupt its people to develop a weapon deterrent theorists posit it cannot logically use?

Furthermore, why is it that the same people who carried “no nuke” bumper stickers on their VW busses are now not bothered in the least about a rabid dictator developing nuclear capability? Okay, maybe they are bothered, but not enough to do much more than send inspectors over to play a game of hide-the-pea until Saddam gets bored and kicks them out (again).

Kennan may have had a good idea 50 years ago, but he is sadly irrelevant.

mark safranski - 9/30/2002

While we are nitpicking, who is " Keenan " ?

mark safranski - 9/30/2002

Character assassination ? Try reading firsthand for yourself Kennan's memoirs. Or his articles on the Soviets. To say someone who expressed admiration in print for Germany of that time is somewhat of an admirer of authoritarianism is to my mind, rather mild. But then again for modern liberals, it is the party line of the moment that matters, not consistency. If Kennan had come out for the war I'm sure your position on him would be 180 degrees in the other direction.

It should have been " obliterate " - my mistake.

Alec Lloyd - 9/30/2002

Maybe the Soviet body count would have hit the hundred million mark? Maybe the Soviet Union might even still be around? Wouldn’t that be great!

Jerry West - 9/28/2002

Ephraim Schulman wrote:

The fact remains, it was his ideological support of Truman's violations of President Roosevelt's polcies of frienship with the Soviet Union that has lead to the militarization of our society.


Good point, though not related to the issue of Iraq. To take the point about US/USSR relations further than Keenan we can go all the way back to the Western/Japanese intervention in the USSR against the Red Army circa 1918-1925.

Who knows how history would have progressed had the rest of the world stayed out of their internal affairs instead of attacking them from day one.

Ephraim Schulman - 9/28/2002

September 28, 2002
It is nice to see that Kennan in his later years has shown signs of reasoning. Too bad it was not in evidence during his tenure while serving as an State Department apparatchik. The fact remains, it was his ideological support of Truman's violations of President Roosevelt's polcies of frienship with the Soviet Union that has lead to the militarization of our society. Sincerely,

Ephraim Schulman

Gus Moner - 9/27/2002

Well, after the 100 + word character assassination (why is that so imperatively a part of all conservative commentary?) I’ll anyway agree with your conclusion that Mr. Keenan at his advanced age has finally had “One high point of clarity”.

I cannot say more as I cannot locate ‘obliviate’ in any dictionary.

mark safranski - 9/27/2002

Kennan, as is accurately pointed out in _The Fifty Year Wound_ , was in intellectual retreat from Containment almost from the moment of publication of his X article. One gets the impression,when reviewing his advice in the 1970's regarding the Soviets that he was in awe of the USSR and counseled accomodation to an unstoppable behemoth. Kennan also once very much admired the Prussian hierarchical-militarist values of pre-Nazi Germany. He's not much of a democrat personally nor particularly in tune with American as opposed to European ethos. One high point of clarity does not obliviate decades of bad advice.