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Iraq War a Major Departure in American Foreign Affairs

by Colin Baxter on May 16, 2006

The Bush Administrations decision to intervene in Iraq resulted in a short, blitzkrieg victory over Saddam Husseins conventional military forces, but a slow and agonizing struggle to return peace to a tyrannized and traumatized people. This experiment, with little or no precedent in American history, has provoked a steadily rising public outcry. Many critics, including Michael Barone in US News and World Report magazine, have argued that Americas proactive intervention in Iraq was a return to the dominant diplomatic and military tradition of our history, a tradition which they claim is one of interventionism: the United States has never been an isolationist nation, but in fact a country whose military has been roaming the globe since the Revolutionary War.

Even a brief survey of American history reveals a nation that has been most often isolationist unless provoked to respond militarily. If any generalization can be made about Americas military precedents, it is that we have been responsive and reactive, not proactive and preemptive. The war in Iraq marks a decidedly different and unprecedented path: one of preemptive action based on what proved to be inaccurate and faulty intelligence.

Our dominant tradition in foreign affairs could better be described as idealism tempered by realism. We neither entered World War to save Belgium from German attack, nor did we enter World War II to rescue our one-time Revolutionary War ally, France. However noble and idealistic such action might have been, defense of our national interest guided our actions in both World Wars of the 20th century.

As in the World Wars, in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States was not a preemptive combatant. It was Joseph Stalins Soviet Union that blockaded Berlin in 1948 and later built the iron curtain across Europe. Once again, there was no preemptive American attack against North Korea in 1950; North Korea attacked South Korea, and America reacted to overt aggression, as did the United Nations. Throughout most of our history, America has been responsive and reactive on the international scene rather than roaming the globe in search of dragons to kill.

The invasion of Afghanistan was universally accepted as a reaction to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The Iraq War, however, represented a new and dangerous role for America. While the goal of establishing a democratic Islamic Middle East is an idealistic experiment, it is at the very least fraught with incredible costs and risks. What cannot be ignored or denied is that the Bush Administration chose a path not taken before, justified by neither past precedents nor Presidents. In the first flush of victory in Afghanistan, the Administration over-reacted to cherry-picked intelligence and invaded Iraq, and this at a time when Osama bin Laden remained at large.

The people of Iraq benefited from the overthrow of Saddam Husseins murderous regime, but the question we face is whether by taking this unprecedented action and violating our traditional reluctance to go to war with real provocation, we have followed a wise course. In the past, America earned the respect and admiration of the world not so much because of our power, but our restraint. None of this is to say that we have always reacted promptly enough or fought with pure motives, but the historical record shows that we have forgotten a valuable precedent which might have prevented the Administrations adventurous and perilous involvement in Iraq.

Over the course of our history, we have accumulated a fund of international good will be reacting to obvious global threats, all the way through 9/11 and the fully justified intervention in Afghanistan. The proactive and preemptive invasion of Iraq has squandered much of that goodwill. Our international reputation, which is central to our prestige and power, has plummeted. So too have our personal, financial, and social resources suffered and continue to be drained by the unwise break with precedent. We have stretched our military capacity to the limit if not beyond, by overusing the National Guard in a foreign intervention during a time of escalating domestic and world crises. It will require statesmanship of the highest order to undo the damage caused by the casual ignoring of our historical traditions.


Colin F. Baxter, who teaches at East Tennessee State University, is co-author of the American Military Tradition: from Colonial Times to the Present and a writer for the History News Service, email:BAXTERC@mail.etsu.edu.