by Bruce S. Thornton
The greatest danger in foreign policy is a reliance on worn out paradigms and unexamined assumptions. This received wisdom acts as a mental filter that ignores new developments and lets through only that information which fits the preordained narrative. For nearly forty years American foreign policy has been compromised by a mistaken paradigm conditioning our analyses and policies.
That paradigm is a construction of the leftist interpretation of American foreign policy. In this narrative, the United States is the heir of the European imperialist regimes that used state power to further the interests of capitalist overlords by establishing colonies in the undeveloped world, where they exploited labor and natural resources, and established new markets to increase profits. In the process, the colonial powers destroyed indigenous peoples and cultures, politically oppressed the people, and violently repressed native efforts to realize their nationalist ambitions and enjoy freedom and human rights. Anti-colonialist revolution and violence are thus legitimate acts of “resistance” to these imperialist depredations.
The staleness of this simplistic analysis — one form of it appears as early as 1902 in J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study — and the bloody excesses and tyranny of anti-colonialist movements in the Third World didn’t prevent it from providing the template for the leftist-liberal attack on the war in Vietnam. The US attempt to stop the violent expansion of communist tyranny in Indochina was cast as neo-imperialist adventurism furthering the interests of the “military-industrial complex.” Ho Chi Minh was described as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the Viet Cong were the Minutemen fighting for nationalist aspirations and freedom from imperialist oppression, and the Army of North Vietnam was like the French troops that came to the aid of the fledgling United States. This narrative dominated the Democratic Party, the media, and popular culture, resulting in the calamitous abandonment of South Vietnam by Congress, and the subsequent horrors that followed the collapse of the South in 1975.
Even after the true nature of the North Vietnamese intentions were made obvious in the tyrannical regime they imposed on the South, with its grim apparatus of political murder, torture, concentration camps, and genocide, this narrative continued to condition the foreign policy establishment’s interpretations of events. A mere four years after the fall of Saigon, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamist jihad against the Shah in Iran was misinterpreted as an anti-imperialist revolution against an American puppet oppressing his people’s democratic aspirations in order to ensure access to the oil on which global capitalism runs, and to provide a market for American arms manufacturers. Analysts ignored the religious foundations of the movement, which were based on disgust with the Shah’s programs of liberalization, secularization, and modernization. As Khomeini put it in 1963, the Shah’s regime was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.”
When the Shah was deposed in 1979, however, events were filtered through the paradigm of anti-imperialism and democratic aspirations. The Islamist foundations and goals of the revolution, repeatedly articulated in Khomeini’s sermons and writings, were brushed aside by Carter’s foreign policy advisors, the power of the ayatollahs and mullahs was downplayed, and the true engines of the revolution were assumed to be the secular intellectuals, political liberals, and technical elites. As Barry Rubin writes, “Islamic rhetoric was seen as a mask, as a convenient vehicle for expressing accumulated economic, political, and social grievances.” But as Khomeini would say later, “We didn’t create a revolution to lower the price of melons.” The result of this blindness was the creation of an oil-rich Islamist regime that for four decades has financed and supported jihadist terrorist groups, and that now is drawing ever closer to possessing nuclear weapons.
Despite yet another repudiation of the paradigm, the violent assaults of jihadist terrorists on the West and its interests, and the support of many Middle Eastern regimes for these groups — all of which have less to do with Western anti-colonialist orthodoxy than with Islamic theology — many in the media and the foreign policy establishment have not awakened from their dogmatic slumber. The attempts of George Bush to destroy regimes harboring terrorists or facilitating their activities were interpreted through the old Vietnam paradigm: “Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam?” fretted New York Times columnist R.W. Apple at the beginning of the war. Soon “quagmire” and “escalation” returned as question-begging smears. The ubiquitous “Bush lied” mantra reprised the charge that Lyndon Johnson based his escalation of the war in Vietnam on fabricated attacks that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. “No blood for oil” recalled the charge that profits for the “military-industrial complex” lay behind the Vietnam War. Resistance to the Patriot Act exploited the same rhetoric used against the intelligence establishment in the Vietnam era, for in the words of the ACLU, the legislation “puts [the] CIA back in the business of spying on Americans.” False analogies with the American Revolution were resurrected, as when Michael Moore called the jihadists in Iraq “Minutemen.” And the leftwing-driven anti-war movement — with its rallies, “teach-ins,” “sit-ins,” protests, Marxist clichés about “imperialism” and “colonialism,” and reflexive anti-Americanism that idealized a murderous enemy — channeled the anti-war protests of the Sixties.
And now we have Barack Obama, who campaigned against George Bush’s foreign policy by evoking once again this irrelevant and delusional narrative. As a Senator, Obama called the successful 2007 “surge” of troops to Iraq a “reckless escalation,” and introduced legislation to remove all combat forces by March 2008. During the campaign, his 2007 Foreign Policy article sounded all the themes of the Vietnam narrative. The war in Iraq is a “civil war,” he wrote, resurrecting the argument critics of the Vietnam War used to rationalize US inaction. He called the Iraq war a “morass,” evoking the dreaded “quagmire,” and counseled withdrawal of our forces before any more disastrous “escalation.” George Bush’s cowboy “unilateral” use of force of the sort allegedly proven ineffective in Vietnam was discarded for “a restoration of multilateralism and participation in international institutions.” Bush’s illegal detaining, interrogating, torture of prisoners, redolent of Nixon’s “rogue elephant” CIA, had to be stopped. American exceptionalism, a euphemism for what Senate dove J. William Fulbright in 1966 called “the arrogance of power,” was discarded, replaced by a global “partner mindful of his own imperfections.”
As President, Obama acted on these assumptions. He issued Executive Order 13491, banning the use of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, the same techniques that contributed to the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden. He promised to close down Guantanamo, rejected military tribunals for trying captured terrorists, allowed his Attorney General to hound CIA agents who had been involved in enhanced interrogations, released the Justice Department memos that legally vetted, and described in detail, the interrogation techniques used by the CIA, thus giving our enemies invaluable intelligence about resisting those techniques. And fearful of the Vietnam “quagmire,” he has announced “deadlines” for American withdrawal from Afghanistan, convincing the Taliban and its Pakistani enablers that all they have to do to win is wait for us to leave. All of these actions reflect the tendentious leftwing narrative of the excesses that were indulged during the Vietnam War, and that the left is adamant about never repeating, no matter the cost to our national security.
Worse yet for the war against jihad, Obama has based his “outreach” to the Muslim world on the old paradigm of American guilt and the need to atone for its neo-colonial sins. His June 2009 speech in Cairo attributed the “tensions” between Islam and the West to “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” In other words, Western and American foreign policy crimes, not supremacist Islamic doctrine and jihadist ideology, must bear the responsibility for Muslim terrorism. Based on this paradigm of American guilt and atonement, Obama has reached out repeatedly to the mullahs in Iran, receiving in return contemptuous dismissals and continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons. He has sent an ambassador back to Syria despite that regime’s support of insurgents killing Americans. He has pressured our best ally in the region, Israel, to make concessions to the Palestinian Arabs despite the lack of any reciprocal concessions. On the contrary, the Palestinian Authority has broken off talks and reconciled with a genocidal Hamas. He has abandoned allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, opening space for the Muslim Brothers and their anti-American, anti-Israel jihadist ideology. In Libya he has been “leading from behind,” involving American power and prestige in a genuine civil war that so far has bogged down in a genuine “quagmire.” And Pakistan increasingly acts against our interests, as in the recent arrest of the Pakistani agents who had helped us locate bin Laden.
Of course, the political dialectic of ideology and self-interested opportunism has also been evident in Obama’s calculations. He did send more troops to Afghanistan, he has kept many Bush-era policies, such as rendition, that he demonized as a candidate, he has stepped up Predator drone attacks, he didn’t object to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will not be given a civilian trial in Manhattan, military tribunals are still operative, and Guantanamo remains open for business. Yet while these policies are correct, their main function is to give Obama some foreign policy credibility, and forestall the possibility of another terrorist attack that would destroy his chances of reelection. And combined with his Carter-like groveling and appeasement of our enemies, this inconsistency sows confusion among our allies even as it heartens our enemies, who view it as a sign of weakness and fear.
The paradigm of American neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist sins as the cause of our enemies’ aggression, one allegedly legitimized by the disaster of the Vietnam War, must be put to rest. We must take off the “kick me” sign the left has hung on America’s back for forty years, and develop a new paradigm: a foreign policy based on the unembarrassed assertion of American power in service to American goodness, backed up by a demonstrated willingness to stand by our allies and punish our enemies. If we do, we will find it much easier to pursue our global interests and defend our security.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton