Gunboat diplomacy--military intervention to secure a political goal--enabled the United States to impose its will abroad in the first half of this century. Unfortunately for our foreign-policy stakes in many developing countries today, it continues to be the knee-jerk reaction at the White House.
The "big stick" approach, which largely ignored indigenous cultures and authorities from Santo Domingo to Saigon, collapsed finally with America's defeat in Vietnam. To persist in strong-arm showdowns after Vietnam was to forget its vital lesson: that military intervention, like the hand that slaps the tar baby, mires us in a political, economic and even cultural morass beyond Washington's ability to contain.
The Bush Administration's audacious entry into the Middle East to thwart Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is only the latest indication that our country has not learned to respond to Third World challenges without military action.
The President, in rationalizing his decision to deploy U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, asserted that "a line has been drawn in the sand." Evidently he is unaware that he is dealing with quicksand: engaging U.S. forces for an unlimited time in a militarily and culturally inhospitable climate, to support a medieval system in a country where thousands of college-educated people have been demanding representative democracy, and thus risking the monarchy's overthrow by a small but significant group of Islamic fundamentalists and the possible accession of a new, strongly anti-American government. The President's decision may succeed in stopping Saddam Hussein from invading the Saudi kingdom--if indeed that ever was his objective. But the effect on Saudi domestic politics is likely to require a long-term U.S. presence to maintain, though precariously, the Saudi king on his throne.
President Bush has said he would welcome Hussein's removal. There is no evidence that Washington appreciates the long-term peril in attempting to remove a leader who, though reviled in the West, is widely admired in his world as the Bismarck of Arab-Muslim nationalism.
Our involvement will undoubtedly intensify the fierce anti-Americanism of the region's fundamentalists, who can be counted on to side with Hussein. Is the Bush Administration prepared to press its campaign against him at the risk of undermining America's other ally-monarchies in Jordan and the oil-rich United Arab Emirates?
Only days before the intervention in the Middle East, President Bush dispatched 200 Marines to Liberia, where Americans are said to be in danger in that country's intractable civil war. Notwithstanding multimillion-dollar U.S. assistance, the regime of President Samuel K. Doe is nearly comatose after seven months of guerrilla onslaughts mounted by two different factions that represent ethnic cleavages in Liberia as well as political antagonisms. Doe has been a cherished ally in the eyes of Washington policy-makers, and each of the warring factions poised to finish him off is in a position to draw U.S. forces into the line of fire.
Panama, proclaimed at the end of last year as the scene of triumphant U.S. interventionism, remains in a state of severe instability. The economy is at the brink of decay in large part because the aid Washington promised has not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the maintenance of law and order and the protection of U.S. interests are still dependent on many of the same Panamanian forces that once bolstered Gen. Manuel Noriega.
Three interventions, in less than a year, on three continents. Each poses a different example of the limitations a mighty power faces in trying to shape the outcome of events in a small, developing country. Our European allies know the lesson well, and despite their support of an economic blockade of Iraq, they have refused to join the United States in sending soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Can it be that erstwhile European colonialists--the French at Dienbienphu, the Belgians in the Congo, the Portuguese in Angola--know Third World realities yet to dawn on Washington?
There is a new generation of Third World leaders who, inspired by ideologies that sometimes demonize America, are willing to challenge American supremacy. These leaders, from Saddam Hussein to Fidel Castro, and their political cultures must become the content of new thinking that will shift U.S. policy from interventionism to negotiations and economic influence. These would be avenues to success in the Third World, rather than fiasco.