An ISIS Containment Doctrine

Adapting Kennan when the enemy is at once a state, a social movement and a transnational organization.

As the presidential campaigns launch into full swing, there is little doubt that debating the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to combat ISIS will take center stage. Critics of the current administration’s policy have argued that the strategy of containment to “degrade and destroy” ISIS has been ineffective. This camp asserts that ISIS is a long way from being destroyed and is not even being contained: ISIS has expanded its reach to other territories, increased its attacks on targets outside its borders, and its ideological appeal shows no sign of decline. Meanwhile, supporters of the current approach remind us that this will be a long war and also point out that Islamic State has lost significant territory, its finances are being depleted, its recruitment is down, and local counter-ISIS forces are getting stronger.

Yet both views miss the mark about a crucial aspect of U.S. policy: containment. Cultivated in the early days of the Cold War to prevent the expanding influence of the Soviet Union, a massive state with a strong ideology and robust military, George Kennan’s interpretation of containment highlights its limitations within the context of ISIS. Containment cannot be applied the same way it was against ISIS, an elusive adversary that has the characteristics of a state, a transnational terrorist organization and a social movement. Moreover, it is much harder to contain an ideological threat than a military one, as the U.S. experience with the Soviet Union showed. It is essential that policy makers recognize what containment can and can’t do against ISIS.

Instead, containment should be understood as a way to limit ISIS’s territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria, and not as an effort to destroy the organization. This is a tall order during a highly charged election season, where the policy alternatives range from carpet bombing to committing large numbers of troops. Thus, to move the counter-ISIS efforts into the win column, the United States should set three realistic expectations. First, it should make clear that the United States can contain ISIS as a state or an insurgent group, but it cannot contain its ideology. Second, the United States can prevent ISIS’s expansion in the peripheral areas by bolstering communal resilience to contain its transnational affiliates. Third, the United States should continue to bolster our defenses against attacks on U.S. soil.


What Is Containment?

Defined as restricting the activities of an actor to a demarcated territory, containment has been the cornerstone of the administration’s strategy to eventually defeat and eliminate ISIS. The logic that undergirds this effort is that it avoids a large scale and costly military intervention that could cause more harm than good.

Understanding the history of containment can provide insights for how to develop a more effective and realistic assessment of counterterrorism strategy. The containment doctrine was developed by George Kennan, a diplomat and director of the Policy Planning Staff for President Truman, to prevent Soviet expansion while limiting American military commitments in the aftermath of World War II. Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” a cable sent from Moscow to the State Department in 1946, suggested a strategy toward the Soviet Union that recognized the limits of containment. Kennan believed that containment policy should focus on limiting Soviet expansionism through non-provocative resistance while waiting for internal implosion. This approach predated the push for “rollback” that became a part of foreign policy thinking in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the continued airstrikes and financial strangulation, the hope is that ISIS, which has developed governing institutions, will ultimately implode from within, similar to the way the Soviet Union did. In fact, containment counsels patience and reminds us that the Cold War against the Soviets lasted decades. Others who believe it has the characteristics of a state argue that Islamic State will likely follow the path of many other revolutionary states and be socialized within the international system.

Kennan’s specific understanding of containment as a means by which to deal with the threat posed by territorial expansion of the Soviet Union reveals the limitations and possibilities of existing U.S. counterterrorism policies. While a policy of containing ISIS has reduced its territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria, containment is not a path to complete defeat. In order to develop more effective counterterrorism policies, it is necessary to understand what ISIS is. So while containment is an appropriate strategy against ISIS as a statelike entity with control over territory, it is not appropriate for addressing the threat posed by ISIS as a social movement or a transnational territory organization.


What Is ISIS?