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George F Kennan: an American Life

George F Kennan: an American Life
John Lewis Gaddis
Allen Lane, 800pp, £30

“This whole tendency to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable." This statement was made in an interview published in the New York Review of Books in 1999 by George Kennan, architect of the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union in the early years of the cold war.

In his final interview, given in September 2002 (he died in March 2005 at the age of 101), Kennan spoke forcefully - and presciently - against the arguments the Bush administration was advancing as it prepared to invade Iraq. The attempts that were being made to link Saddam with al-Qaeda were "pathetically unsupportive and unreliable", while there was "no evidence" that Saddam had succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. The administration "shouldn't speak contemptuously" of the inspection teams that had worked in Iraq, "because they succeed­ed in destroying and removing from Iraq very, very sizeable quantities of dangerous arms".

These interviews with Kennan are worth noting for a number of reasons. In the first place, they puncture the self-serving myths that are peddled by those who took the US and Britain to war with Iraq in 2003. It is not true that everyone believed Saddam was working with al-Qaeda in promoting terrorism, nor that there was any consensus on his possessing weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion. In many ways the defining folly of recent times, the invasion was launched without any clear strategy or objectives. One thing is clear, however: the war had very little to do with fighting terrorism. One of the results of the invasion was to enable al-Qaeda to establish itself in Iraq, which it had previously hardly penetrated. In effect, the invasion created the threat to which it was supposed to be responding.

Curiously, these interviews with Kennan hardly feature at all in John Lewis Gaddis's monumental biography. Begun in 1982 when Kennan was a sprightly 78, this will surely be the definitive life of the US's most reflective 20th-century diplomat. The book does an excellent job of recreating Kennan's complex character, his years as US ambassador in Moscow and role in postwar American diplomacy and the decades of disillusionment with US foreign policies that followed. Yet Gaddis recounts Kennan's warning against the Iraq war in a single sentence, while his earlier assault on the idea of the US as the centre of political enlightenment is not discussed at all.

These omissions are doubly curious, since Kennan's late warnings against the dangers of messianism in US foreign policy are fully consistent with Kennan's thinking throughout his life. But these warnings are also sharply at odds with the biographer's views, which include endorsing George W Bush's declaration that he would use American power to "end tyranny in our world" - hubristic claptrap of the sort that Kennan heartily and rightly despised.

Intellectually gifted in the highest degree, highly strung and uncompromisingly honest, Kennan was never going to mince his words when asked what he thought of the Bush administration. Equally, while his warnings did not go unnoticed, there was never any pro­-spect of their being heeded. Describing himself as "clearly un-American", he knew that he could hope to influence US policy only in circumstances of exceptional uncertainty of the kind that existed at the start of the cold war.

Much of the debate that surrounds Kennan as a diplomat (and later as a public intellectual) concerns the exact meaning of the doctrine of containment, which he set out in a famous "long telegram" from Moscow to Washington in early 1946 and developed in an article published anonymously in the journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1947. Soviet policy was the product of a long history of despotism and the conspiratorial mentality bred by Lenin and Stalin. To believe that the Soviet Union could be pushed by western pressure in the direction of democracy - as some in Washington did at the time - was wishful thinking. The wisest strategy was to strengthen western institutions and wait for the Soviet state to reform itself or collapse of its own accord.

In Kennan's view, the policy he advocated, which involved curbing Soviet expansion by using diplomatic and economic sanctions, was hijacked by the Truman administration, and later by Ronald Reagan, to justify armed intervention in support of anti-communist forces throughout the world. If containment had been properly applied, Kennan suggested, the cold war need not have happened. In Gaddis's view, endorsed by Henry Kissinger in a recent review, this was inconsistent. Willing the end - the containment of Soviet power - Kennan recoiled from the means.

It is a debate that will never be fully resolved. What is clear is that Kennan's view makes sense only if one thinks the cold war resulted chiefly from western paranoia - a view that is hard to square with the vast resources that were committed to the Soviet military-industrial complex. In believing that the cold war could have been avoided, Kennan - the arch-realist - was being unrealistic.

Kennan was not always a balanced commentator on his time. Some of his criticisms of American society and culture - his hostile attitude to Hispanic immigration and his repeated assaults on American youth culture, for example - can be charitably described as uncomprehending but more accurately as simply prejudiced. Even his friends, Kennan wrote, "did not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repugnance of the things the American public lives by". This estrangement - as much from the 20th century as from the US - led Kennan to some serious misjudgements. Yet it was this alienation from his own time that made Kennan such an invaluable critic of prevailing delusions.

Today, as throughout much of Kennan's long life, polite opinion would like to believe that war and tyranny are the work of wicked elites: most human beings want nothing more than peace and freedom. Actually, tyrants have often been loved by many of those they tyrannised while some of the most pointless and destructive wars have been - at least at the beginning - widely popular.

Refusing to accept these facts is dangerous, because it leads to the idea that evil can be removed from the world, if only "we" - the good and the righteous - are prepared to apply sufficient force. This is what Tony Blair believed (very sincerely, I fear) when he took Britain to war in Iraq: remove the tyrant and all will be well. A deep reader of history, Kennan knew that this is nonsense. For all his misjudgements, the high-strung diplomat grasped an essential truth: war is sometimes necessary but it cannot rid the world of evil. An unforgiving critic of high-minded illusion, Kennan reminds us of realities that it is dangerous to forget. That is why he continues to be controversial and so much worth studying.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His book "The Immortalization Commission" is published in paperback on 26 January by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?