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To what extent does the War on Terrorism represent a break with previous United States foreign and defense policy?

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In some ways it is a break, and in others it is a continuation.  It is a break from past foreign policy, at least in recent decades, in that we are nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq to try to combat future terrorism there.  It is also a break in that our military, trained to fight conventional wars against clearly identifiable enemies, must now fight a diplomatic and military counterinsurgency.  This required an adjustment.

It is a continuation in that domestic civil liberties were taken away, and it does closely resemble what we tried to do in the Vietnam War.  In the 1980s and 1990s we tried to avoid these kind of entanglements because of the lessons of Vietnam, the expense and the time involved in successfully winning an abstract war.

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One of the critical elements of this particular topic area is the "elusiveness" of the opponent.  The War on Terror is uniquely different from other campaigns waged because of its setting.  It does not involve traditional armies nor even traditional boundaries.  It is one that is waged in cyberspace and across cellular devices and satellites.  It is one that has been internalized as one that can exist within our own boundaries with terms like "sleeper cells" and "suspicious behavior" being openly posited and deployed in the general population.  In this sense, the war on terror is one that demands new paradigms and solution in terms of fighting it.  Yet, on some other levels, it is similar to other initiatives that strengthen the health of the state.  In its early phases, the war on terror was predicated upon centralized authority guiding the citizenry and the idea that the people are "always under siege."  In this light, voices of dissent are deferred and pushed aside because "the enemy is out there and wishes to do us harm."  Like all wars, this helps to bring to light that individuals must follow the lead of their government who is supposedly driving out the terrorists in a state of war.

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To some extent it is a break with previous policy, but not completely.

In general in the past, we have not fought wars to prevent things from happening.  We have not gone out and invaded places so that they wouldn't harm us later.  However, there are exceptions and the main one there is Vietnam.  There, we went and fought in a country because we feared that communism would be a danger in the future if we did not fight it there.

In general, in the past, we have not done things like tracking people that we do not like and trying to kill them with missiles (from the drones).  But I think this is as much because we have new technology as anything.  I think that in the past we would probably have used such technology if we had it.

So I do not really think that the War on Terror is really morally or philosophically different from the Cold War.  It's just a bit more complicated and has "better" technology.

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To what extent does the war on terrorism represent a break with previous United States foreign and defense policy?

I would say that the war on terrorism does not represent that much of a break with previous US foreign and defense policy.  The US has engaged in what were essentially preemptive wars before, but it has not previously fought a long conflict against as amorphous a foe as international terrorism.

One thing that seems different about the war on terrorism is that the US is fighting against something that may be a danger to the country, not something that has actually attacked the United States.  Of course, Al Qaeda did attack the United States, but the US is fighting all Muslim terrorists, not just those affiliated with Al Qaeda.  There are those who have characterized this as an optional war that was not forced on the US.  However, I do not think this is terribly unusual for the United States.  During the Cold War, the US fought communism everywhere that it was trying to expand.  The US did not wait for a given communist insurgency to attack it.  Instead, it fought communists even in places, like Vietnam, that did not seem to be much of a threat to the United States.

What is different this time is how amorphous and elusive the enemy is.  The United States has almost always fought wars against countries.  It is true that the US has fought, for example, Filipino guerrillas who were not a formal national army and Viet Cong fighters who were part of an insurgency.  But the US has never really fought a group (or set of groups) that is not really connected to a given piece of territory and which is not organized as an actual military.  The war on terrorism is different in the sense that it is not a fight against a defined group of people.  Instead, it is a fight against anyone (and these people can pop up anywhere in the world) who wants to commit terrorist acts.  In a sense, this is more like a very extended law enforcement action than like a war of the sort that the US more commonly fights.

Thus, the idea of a preemptive war is not much of a break with the past, but a war against such an undefined and unmilitary group is.

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