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Iraq and the Shifting Paradigms in American Foreign Policy

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We may be on the verge of a major shift in American foreign policy.

Throughout history United States foreign policy has been characterized by paradigm shifts. Scholar Michael Roskin notes that American foreign policy: "can be seen as a succession of strategic conventional wisdoms or paradigms." These paradigms are clear examples of an archetype; in short paradigms are basic assumptions of a pattern. In this case, the pattern suggests that the United States historically shifts from interventionist to noninterventionist paradigms, also known as the Pearl Harbor (interventionist) and Vietnam (noninterventionist) paradigms.

Included in these two concepts are other paradigms, such as the Versailles paradigm, which extended from 1920-40. This paradigm was the isolationist concept which ended in condemnation after the Pearl Harbor attack. The Versailles paradigm's bearers were, in hindsight, criticized for being oblivious to the obvious emerging threat from Nazi Germany. Yet, Versailles, itself, could have been a reaction to a more interventionist, if not imperial, period in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the U.S. occupied various countries, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. In fact, paradigm shifts seem to be reactionary in nature. Their lives appear to follow a certain pattern based on reactionary events.

Foreign policy paradigms have a natural life. They begin with a birth, which is characterized by mounting criticism of the old paradigm, an epoch of growth and then a death. Typically, this paradigm will grow when an event comes along to prove the old one wrong, and then die when criticism against it mounts and another philosophy begins it's own birth. For example, isolationism (specifically the aforementioned Versailles paradigm), a noninterventionist philosophy, virtually ended when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. This event proved isolationism wrong in this instance, so the paradigm then shifted toward an interventionist vision. However, this interventionist paradigm itself came under attack during the Vietnam War. An argument came into view that intervention overseas would surely lead to war, and this war could be a significant conflict not worth the capital in the long run. The paradigm shifted, in this instance, as the foreign policy establishment began to assert the United States was not the world's policeman.

The Vietnam paradigm continued late into the 1980's until President George H.W. Bush led invasions of both Panama and Kuwait as well as a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. At this time American policy was ushered into a more interventionist paradigm, which Bill Clinton continued with American involvement in Somalia and later both Haiti and Bosnia. The aftermath of the Dayton Accords, which inserted American peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, is a perfect example of the United States becoming entrenched in an active interventionist role in the world. In a post-Cold War world, American foreign policy has stayed active in world affairs and largely has adhered to an interventionist paradigm for over fifteen years now. However as I asserted earlier, there is reason to believe that this may change, due to the current domestic unrest stemming from the second Iraq War. The United States may be on the verge of another paradigm shift, one in which the foreign policy and political establishment moves toward a more cautious, isolationist approach.

Pacifists or those who did not support the current war in Iraq may applaud this shift, as it would be a condemnation of the neoconservative Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes and military enforced neo-liberalism, however, just because a paradigm shift occurs does not mean there is a change in the military-industrial complex or a change in rhetoric. For instance, Ronald Reagan presided over the last eight years of the Vietnam paradigm, and he engaged in hard-line rhetoric, covert actions in the Middle East and Central America, as well as an expansion of the military-industrial complex. Moreover, during his presidency the United States became aligned with dubious leaders and groups, such as Saddam Hussein and the Nicaraguan Contras, for stability and anti-Communist purposes. A shift to a noninterventionist paradigm also has other moral ramifications for both Liberals and Conservatives to consider.

The United States is a largely indispensable nation in world affairs. In Bosnia, for example, there were several factors that allowed the situation to get out of hand, not the least of which is that the European community was not up to the task of taking on their first major post-Cold War challenge on their own. It was not until after Srebenica, which was the greatest act of genocide in Europe since World War Two, that the U.S. stepped in and helped resume some kind of order. The Dayton Accords were led by American negotiator Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. placed upon itself a major troop burden. Then and only then, did the situation get better and the war ended. Bosnia today is a largely peaceful area and the NATO presence has dwindled significantly. Currently the U.S. has only a few hundred troops deployed there, and in the past eleven years, not one American troop has been killed. At the time, casualties were widely predicted, however this never came to fruition. The same concept is valid for other conflicts around the world. No headway can be made in the Arabic-Israeli conflict, or the Darfur genocide without American leadership. The lesson in all of this is American foreign policy can be effective, actionable and altruistic. That asserting our power and leadership is essential to solving major problems.

My belief is disengagement from the world would be a catastrophic mistake. Reverting to an extreme reactionary Anti-Bush paradigm is not what the United States or the world needs right now, or in the near future. There are too many problems that need our involvement. This is a time in history when the U.S. needs to reach out to the world, and heal the wounds the Iraq War has created and festered. In the post-Cold War world, the United States is the world's only remaining superpower, because of this strength, the world cannot afford to have an America disengaged from the rest of the world. Without the U.S., major problems do not get solved. This is not to say we should continue on the same path we are on right now in international affairs. Arrogance, duplicity and loud, blaring, imperial assertions are not the same as diplomatic, humble, and statesmanlike actions. The United States should provide innovative leadership while respecting the sovereignty and domestic issues of other countries. Leadership is not hubris, and we should not allow the Iraq War, which was the most foolish foreign policy mistake in our history, allow us to forget who we are and what we stand for. A knee jerk reaction is not the answer.

We cannot let the Bush Administration ruin everything for us, especially our role and standing in the world.
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Bill Wetzel is Amskapi Pikuni aka Blackfeet from Montana. His writing has appeared in the American Indian Culture & Research Journal, Yellow Medicine Review, Studies In Indian Literatures (SAIL), Hinchas de Poesia, Red Ink Magazine, Literary (more...)

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