In 1946, a junior U. S. State Department diplomat named George Kennan wrote a 5,500-word essay about the evolution of communist thought in Russia from the mid-19th Century to the (then) present. The essay, “The Sources of Soviet Strategic Conduct,” was remarkable for two reasons. First, it was correct about almost all aspects of Soviet politics, including the often misunderstood connection between the Soviet system and the Tsarist feudalism it replaced. The second was that after it was published, a year later under a pseudonym in Foreign Affairs magazine, it became the cornerstone of the next 60 years of American foreign policy.

Kennan’s insight — that the Soviet system was inherently unsustainable because it required leaders to invent an endless series of threats in order to justify a totalitarian police state — was the basis of “containment,” or the idea that the Western powers should seal communism behind its current borders and let the march of time do the rest. In the long term, this worked; the USSR collapsed, and did so for largely the set of reasons that Kennan had identified. Containment of communism, however, required a separate and darker “containment” of its own: the elimination of any and all domestic political opposition within America’s anti-communist allies. And just like Soviet leadership had to invent horror stories about capitalist encirclement to legitimize their rule, American clients invented similar claims about the chaos and barbarism that would ensue if they were ever forced from power.

Containment meant at best the tolerance and at worst the outright endorsement of some of the world’s worst crimes. America’s man in Santiago, Augusto Pinochet, “disappeared” political dissidents by packing them into cargo planes and dumping them over the Pacific Ocean. America’s men in Johannesburg, the National Party, did their best to suppress “instability” — better-known as Nelson Mandela, who was finally imprisoned at Robben Island for 26 years thanks to a tip passed along by the CIA — in their own country. America’s men (and one woman) in Islamabad have been a grim succession of military juntas or kleptocrats, each increasingly indistinguishable from the last. The current president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, is so corrupt that he’s widely known as “Mr. Ten Percent”, referencing the kickbacks he allegedly received. And when he’s out of the way, he’ll do his best to pass power to his son. Containment didn’t just delay democratization in many parts of the world, but actually encouraged monarchy instead.

This brings us to Egypt. Containment — having contorted itself to address transnational terrorism rather than international communism — required that Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and every other American official in the public eye, line up immediately in support of our man in Cairo, Former Egypt president Hosni Mubarak. When that didn’t work, the administration pivoted to the next best option, Omar Suleiman. Suleiman, 74, was the head of Egypt’s spy agency, and in that capacity he was an important supporter of America’s “extraordinary rendition” program. He has overseen countless tortures, including that of an al-Qaeda operative who gave a false confession about links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. As you might expect of someone who has been in government nearly as long as Mubarak himself, Suleiman is universally reviled by the public he is meant to lead.

But containment — particularly in the Middle East — has never been challenged by a grass-roots, non-violent uprising of the sheer scale that we’ve now seen in Egypt and Tunisia. Spurred on by cheap technology, which helped protesters not only organize themselves but also to see how their own story was being told by international media, the writing may be on the wall for the future of containment.

Repressive governments need to be able to lie to their own people about the wider world in order to keep them pliant and cooperative. The democracies that work hand-in-glove with such regimes need to be able to believe their own lies about the danger of seeing the world in any other way. Neither of these are tenable when everyone with an Internet connection can get an intimate, unblinking picture of the revolution as it plays out: Organized, non-violent, serious about democratic change and unwilling to take no for an answer.

Suleiman conceded on Friday when he told Egyptians to turn off their satellite televisions because they were enemies of the state. Too little, too late: Egyptians don’t seem to have any use for our new man in Cairo. Neither should we.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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