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American commitments in the Third World: theory vs. practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2009

Bruce W. Jentleson
Affiliation:
Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis.
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Abstract

Amidst their other differences, the defeats suffered by the United States in Vietnam, Iran, and Lebanon have a common explanation. In all three cases American strategy was based on “global commitments theory.” Interests were to be defended and global credibility strengthened by the making, maintaining, reinforcing, and sustaining of American commitments to Third World allies. However, the core assumptions on which the logic of global commitments theory rests are plagued with inherent fallacies. These fallacies can be identified analytically as patterns of dysfunction along four dimensions of foreign policy: decision-making, diplomacy, military strategy, and domestic politics. They also can be shown empirically to have recurred across the Vietnam, Iran, and Lebanon cases. The central theoretical conclusion questions the fundamental validity of global commitments theory as it applies to the exercise of power and influence in the Third World. Important prescriptive implications for future American foreign policy are also discussed.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The IO Foundation 1987

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104. On 26 September 1983, 40% of respondents agreed that the American troops should be removed from Lebanon. A poll taken 27 October, only four days after the bombing, found only 37% favoring a troop withdrawal. But by January 1984, the total had jumped to the even higher level of 49%; National Journal, 3 December 1983, p. 2548 and 7 April 1984, p. 682.

105. In this vein, George lays out five rules for rational foreign policy decision-making: begin with sufficient information about the specific situation at hand; assess the full range of values and interests at all likely to be affected; consider a wide range of possible policy options and evaluate the probable consequences of each; try to anticipate likely problems of policy implementation and other possible problems; and “maintain receptivity to indications that current policies are not working out well, and cultivate an ability to learn from experience.” Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice (Boulder: Westview Press, 1980), p. 10Google Scholar.

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109. With respect to the Philippines, the question remains open as to whether the government of President Corazon Aquino will be able to create the political, economic, social, and military conditions for enduring political stability. To the extent that it cannot do so, the ten to twenty years for which the logic of global commitments contributed to a pro-Marcos policy may, once again, help explain policy failure. Clearly, the case of the Philippines merits further research.

110. Keddie, , Roots of Revolution, p. 254Google Scholar.

111. Rosen, , “Vietnam and Limited Wars,” p. 83Google Scholar, emphasis in original. Cohen, , “America's Conduct of Small Wars,” p. 177Google Scholar.

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