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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.1 (2003) 32-41

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In Search of Policy Lessons from the Past

Burton M. Sapin

President Bush's stance on Saddam Hussein and his regime, as well as on broader issues of American foreign policy and national security strategy, has generated an increasingly intense and wide-ranging debate. Another set of opinions on specific substantive, procedural, and political questions relating to Iraq hardly seems necessary.

But beyond fleeting references to the American experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Gulf War of 1990, Somalia, and, of course, Vietnam, little attention has focused on the quite pertinent question of applicable lessons for present decisions that might be drawn from the intense involvement in the international arena by the United States since the end of the Second World War. This is particularly surprising in view of the extensive backgrounds and long experience, widely heralded, brought to many senior foreign policy and national security positions by Bush administration appointees.

Let us begin with some assumptions, so fundamental as to seem hardly worth noting. The great complexities of the contemporary international environment do not allow for simple, self-evident truths or absolute certainties, or moral absolutes for that matter. Uncertainties and even unknowables abound. An unwillingness to accept these limitations in the making of national decisions is bound to have negative consequences for the illumination of the issues, costs, and risks involved.

Parenthetically, in this connection, it should be noted that the postwar foreign policy experiences of the United States have been characterized more often than one is inclined to remember by dramatically unanticipated consequences. [End Page 32] Sometimes the results have been a pleasant surprise, like the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe and then the internal collapse of the Soviet Union itself, both unforeseen by any major Soviet specialist.

Some of the surprises have been far less pleasant. Who would have anticipated that the two major wars generated by the Cold War would take place first in Korea and later in Vietnam, and that in neither case would there be a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union itself? Perhaps unanticipated consequences are simply a reflection of the complexities already mentioned, and they no doubt have a history that extends far beyond the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They are, in any event, cautionary tales.

To move from a broad perspective to relevant experiences from the recent past, let me now posit two related propositions about American foreign and national-security policies since the end of the Second World War. The first is that the United States has made its most costly, and deeply tragic, policy mistakes in dealing with that set of countries and regions commonly referred to as the Third World. The second is that American policies have often stumbled badly when guided by overly simple concepts resting on questionable, superficial analyses of external situations.

While by no means have all cases of the latter proposition been applied to Third World situations, they do provide some striking examples when such has been the case. It is difficult to characterize Third World countries in brief compass. In an earlier period, when there was much more optimism about their ability to develop and grow economically, they were often referred to as LDCs (less-developed countries) or UDCs (underdeveloped or even undeveloped countries).

While they range across all the continents and a wide range of ethnic, religious, and sociocultural characteristics, they have tended to be characterized by low levels of economic development, as already indicated, accompanied by widespread poverty, low rates of literacy, and serious health, hygienic, and other environmental problems. These are exacerbated in many places by major ethnic, tribal, and religious differences and rivalries.

Needless to say, with few exceptions (India would be one) these countries have little experience with democratic political processes. In many places, there is not even a well-organized national political structure in place. Some countries are creations, originally, of Western colonialism, with ethnic or [End Page 33] tribal differences more potent politically than whatever formal national political and administrative machinery may exist.

While experts may...


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