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 U.S. 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.
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