Foreign Policy in Focus
USA's Government Intervention Policy
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by Tom Barry
A Return to InterventionismRemember when the U.S. government suffered from the "Vietnam syndrome"? It hit hard back in the 1970s. That was when the U.S. Congress, led by liberal Democrats, began taking a closer look at the prevailing U.S. counterinsurgency and national security state policies -- the type of U.S. foreign policy mindset that drove the U.S. to support dictators, puppets, and repressive security apparatuses around the world.
For some, especially in the new and old [so-called] Left, this had been the "Age of Imperialism," an era when the U.S. was securing its hold on the resources and the states of the "developing" world. There were analytical weaknesses with this anti-imperialism critique, mainly because it didn't explain well why the U.S. was so deeply involved in places of seemingly so little economic consequence, such as South Vietnam. Nor was the imperial America critique helpful in explaining the idealist side of America's interventionism -- the Wilsonian compulsion to bring freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. If the aim was to reform U.S. foreign policy, criticizing the U.S. as a runaway imperial power just didn't fly, either with U.S. policymakers or the U.S. public.
What did seem to work as a way to filter out the tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that supported repression and military intervention in the third world was the human rights critique. For the first time, U.S. aid to the developing country governments, military, and police began to be held up to human rights standards. One of the first casualties of the human rights filter was the U.S.-supported International Police Academy and the related police-training programs overseas. When seen through the human rights filter, it became more difficult for the U.S. to directly associate itself, either through aid or intervention, with regimes that systematically clamped down on citizens and popular organizations. The application of human rights standards to U.S. foreign policy was one of leading symptoms of the Vietnam syndrome at work.
In U.S. military circles, the syndrome exhibited itself in a new skittishness about using U.S. troops to intervene directly in conflicts that had no "exit strategy" or were not easily won. For the right, the Carter presidency was the time when the Vietnam syndrome got the best of America. Stoked by rightwing revisionist history that said the U.S. could have won in Vietnam if it had really wanted to, the rewriting of history in the Rambo movies, and by the rising appeal of America First rhetoric, the intervention phobia started to subside in the 1980s. The political pendulum had swung back to the [so-called] right, and the Reagan presidency reshaped the American political landscape, making liberal the "L" word whose principles few would unapologetically defend. Interventionism came back into style in foreign policy, but dressed in new rhetoric. Instead of counterinsurgency, we had freedom fighters and democracies to defend in Central America, southern Africa, and Afghanistan.
America went on the offensive, but without U.S. troops so there would be no body bags coming home to remind us of Vietnam. Low intensity conflict (LIC) was the new military jargon for U.S. involvement in the messy third world, where the U.S. relied on surrogate guerrilla forces, mercenaries, and "professionalized" armies to do the fighting. When the mission was a sure win, as in Panama or Grenada, then U.S. troops flew in and out, dropping a bunch of bombs, and then declaring victory. This more cautious approach to deploying U.S. troops help allay the Vietnam syndrome. With respect to U.S. indirect military intervention in Central America, President Reagan was able to build a bipartisan consensus around a foreign policy that stressed our support for democracy building, professionalizing the Salvadoran army with human rights training, and supporting [supposedly] "free market" economies. The human rights filter still conditioned U.S. policy initiatives, but the U.S. government became adept at ignoring the human rights clauses in authorizing legislation.
By the early 1990s, it seemed that America had finally left the Vietnam syndrome behind. The Persian Gulf war proved a big boost to U.S. military morale and to public support for foreign military operations. It also affirmed an emerging U.S. military doctrine that stressed minimizing U.S. casualties, using overwhelming force, and controlling media access.
However, two years later, after 18 U.S. soldiers died in a firefight while trying to capture a warlord in Somalia, the old talk of "exit strategies" and third world quagmires gained new currency. It was the Vietnam syndrome all over again, but with a new twist. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conservative internationalists who rallied behind the aggressive and ideologically driven foreign policy of Ronald Reagan became more circumspect about U.S. military meddling in the developing world. What were the national interests that needed protecting in Rwanda, Haiti, or Yugoslavia, they asked.
In contrast, many of those who had been instrumental in adding the human rights filter to U.S. policy in the 1970s and organizing opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America were now calling for increased U.S. military intervention around the globe, ideally through regional or multilateral initiatives but unilaterally if necessary. In the name of protecting human rights, preventing genocide, or providing humanitarian assistance, many on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum became converts to the virtues of U.S. interventionism -- of using U.S. power to support what is right, good, and just. Now freed from the cold war framework -- and with a Democrat in the White House -- the traditional concerns about U.S. interventionism dissipated as support grew for what became known as humanitarian interventionism.
Today, U.S. military interventionism enjoys broad support within the United States. At least, the [mainstream] media tell us so. Americans are getting daily lessons in world geography as newspaper and television journalists scramble to report on the latest initiative to deploy troops and training missions or to establish new U.S. bases in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Colombia, the Philippines, and Georgia. There are faint stirrings of concern in Congress, but as long as America is "at war" (and that may be throughout our lifetimes, according to Bush) arguments about budget limitations, third world quagmires, human rights impacts, and "blowback" are being effectively sidelined by the administration.
Finally, it seems that the Vietnam syndrome has ceased to constrain U.S. foreign policy. Vietnam has slipped down America's memory hole, and the Pentagon has learned that interventionism and wars in faraway places can be sold to the American public with the right media spin and control. Also, the new U.S. wars must be primarily technological campaigns -- killing from on high with giant laser-guided bombs. Americans have been briefed that there is inevitably collateral damage, but the media is prevented from filming its gut-wrenching reality. Also, as in the current Afghanistan campaign, the military concentrates on firepower and military objectives, staying removed from the political objectives and nation building strategies of the counterinsurgency era.
On the right, the neoisolationism that arose to counter liberal support for humanitarian interventionism in countries where the U.S. had no strong national interests has faded to the margins of the Republican Party. The ideological right, which has long argued for a unipolar world in which the U.S. asserts its undisputed military, economic, and political power, has seized the time. Under cover of the war on terrorism, the ideologues of U.S. supremacy and unilateralism have put their agenda squarely in front of the president and the American people. Internationalism is back in style with Republicans -- an internationalism that scorns multilateralism and upholds the U.S. right to use its economic, military, and diplomatic power as it sees fit to protect and project U.S. national interests. In the realist tradition of Bismarck and Kissinger, this right has been won by the reality of U.S. superior power. It is also an ordained right, which is predicated on the belief that God and America have a special relationship that graces the U.S. role in global affairs.
Prior to 9-11 the unilateralism of the new administration was already well established, as amply illustrated by its dismissal of international treaties. The conviction that the U.S. should assert its military supremacy was also evident in the drive to establish Star Wars national and regional missile defense systems. The hawks inside the administration and circling outside were pushing the administration to take a harder line on Iraq, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, and Colombia, but it was unclear if they would succeed in dominating more moderate factions within the administration.
As the war on terrorism started revving up, the influence of the rightwing ideologues and hardliners markedly increased. Although it is still too early to evaluate the success of the war in stemming international terrorism, the new war footing in America broke down most resistance in Congress and inside the administration to the large increases in the U.S. military budget that rightwing ideologues and military-industrial complex adherents had been promoting. And, as the State of the Union address made clear, the administration has now also adopted the hawks' confrontational posture with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea -- the so-called "axis of evil."
The war on terrorism has also pushed out all the stops on U.S. interventionism in the third world and transitional states. While the rightists have been critical of humanitarian interventionism and circumspect about U.S. intervention in countries where there is no strong U.S. national interest, they now back the new wave of U.S. military missions to counter terrorism. As the U.S. government embarks on the "broader war" and "lengthy campaign" that President Bush has promised, the fears of the 1970s that the U.S. would get bogged down in Vietnam-like quagmires have faded. So too, apparently, have strong congressional and public concerns that renewed U.S. military aid and training programs will prop up repressive regimes and contribute to human rights abuses.
Colombia may be the place where America's multifaceted war on terrorism may face its biggest test. Given the long history of civil war and the institutional roots of violence in Colombia, it might also be the place that will remind America why a new affliction of the Vietnam syndrome might be a healthy development. With the isolationists of the populist right and the Republican Party now marginalized by the conservative internationals and the global war on terror, the best hope for an anti-interventionist critique of Bush administration foreign policy in Colombia and elsewhere lies with the progressive community.
It's a lonely position, as when Rep. Barbara Lee was the lone voice dissenting from an open-ended resolution after 9-11 supporting the war on terrorism, or as Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) discovered this week when he was the only representative to speak out against a House resolution supporting a change of U.S. policy in Colombia. As McGovern stated, the Bush administration should not be given "a green light to involve the U.S. more deeply and more directly in Colombia's escalating civil war." The same could be said about the rash of new military initiatives in countries the U.S. little understands and whose internal conflicts are interpreted simplistically as wars of terrorism.
Tom Barry is an analyst with the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC) and cordirector of Foreign Policy In Focus.
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