What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS

It may have been William F. Buckley, Jr., who observed that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is as oft cited as it is infrequently read. Something similar might be observed about Containment, the doctrine articulated by George F. Kennan in his famous 1947 essay. It is paradoxical that containment, an indisputable cornerstone of American Cold War statecraft, is so widely (and seemingly at times, willingly) misunderstood. Today, there is much consternation over suggestions that ISIS be contained within the fluid battlespace of western Iraq and eastern Syria. In some instances it is either implied or inferred that containing ISIS means something qualitatively different than defeating ISIS (whatever that itself means).

The question of containing ISIS begins with distinguishing its two key embodiments within the battlespace, Territorial ISIS and Political ISIS. The former refers to the de facto territorial state that ISIS has established in the otherwise ungoverned space of western Iraq and eastern Syria. The latter refers to ISIS as the vanguard of a metastatic revolutionary movement. It is “Islamic” only in the restricted sense of using Islam to establish a group identity and a political power base. ISIS’ governance, terrorism, and ideology constructs give it several dimensions, each of which must be understood before any effective containment strategy can be devised. The role of local forces and a Syrian ground partner — the proverbial “Arab boots on the ground” — are also assessed as elements of containing ISIS.

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