A Return to Isolationism

Leading Republicans and Democrats generally agree that America should have an interventionist foreign policy, although they differ on the details. The post-Iraq mood of the American people, however, hints at a future return to isolationism.

For all their differences over Iraq, the leading Republican and Democratic presidential candidates generally agree that America must have an interventionist foreign policy. They may disagree on the importance of the U.N., the role of allies, or the use of war as a first or last resort. But, broadly speaking, they agree that America is the world’s sole superpower, that we have a duty to promote freedom abroad (although they disagree on where), and that the presence of U.S. military bases around the world is a good thing.

The leading Democratic contenders—Clinton, Obama, and Edwards—tend to agree that military action is sometimes necessary, particularly on humanitarian grounds. Despite their general opposition to Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, the leading Democrats are not averse to military action. Senator John Edwards, for example, calls for the “creation of a 10,000-member reserve corps to help stabilize troubled nations.” Senator Barack Obama goes one step further, saying in an April 2007 speech that “America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom — that is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The leading Republican candidates—Giuliani, McCain, and Romney—also express a similar desire to “make the world safe for democracy.” During the May 2007 GOP debate, candidate Rudy Giuliani dismissed out of hand Congressman Ron Paul’s idea that U.S. interventionism abroad could be a source of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Currently, all three leading Republicans continue to support the Iraq war. Senator John McCain, for example, stated in late 2006 that he remains “fully supportive of his [President Bush’s] determination not to leave Iraq until the freely elected government of that country and its armed forces are able to defend their country from foreign and domestic enemies.” Similarly, Governor Mitt Romney calls for the U.S. to expand its armed forces by 100,000 and argues: “Our objective is a strong America and a safe world.”

The top Republican and Democrat presidential contenders believe in an interventionist foreign policy, albeit with different ideas on when and where to intervene. However, I believe that regardless of which politician is elected in 2008, America will not choose to fight any major wars in the near future. The American public, disillusioned by recent memories of the Iraq war, will be generally averse to supporting any new wars that are non-defensive. In other words, our willingness to go to war is directly influenced by our memories of the previous war.

Consider the current Iraq war. Although many Americans blame President Bush and his “neoconservative” advisors for orchestrating the war, I personally find it difficult to lay all the blame on individual leaders. Politicians in a democratic society merely follow what the people want, and back in 2002, the American people overwhelmingly wanted war. A 2002 Pew survey revealed that 62% of Americans supported military action to oust Saddam Hussein. In a CNN poll conducted in March 2003, on the eve of the invasion, more than two-thirds of Americans supported the Iraq war. Instead of pointing fingers at President Bush and the Republican leadership, we ought to ask ourselves: “Why did so many Americans support the Iraq war?”

The answer can be summed up in one word: Afghanistan. The public was optimistic because our war in Afghanistan—contrary to our initial expectations—was going well. In November 2001, U.S. forces had captured Kabul and ousted the Taliban leadership. In December 2001, under General Tommy Franks, U.S. forces won a brilliant victory at Tora Bora, killing more than 200 al-Qaeda terrorists without losing a single soldier. By 2002, the name of future Afghan president “Hamid Karzai” was on everybody’s lips, and with the formation of an interim government in Kabul, the American effort to liberate and democratize Afghanistan seemed highly successful.

It was during this optimistic period, with America on a winning streak and our military seemingly invincible, that we began to believe that our successes in Afghanistan could be replicated in other places. President Bush, enjoying 65-percent approval ratings in mid-2002, was still very popular. During this period, the American public was highly optimistic, and it was under these confident circumstances that the idea of invading Iraq became so popular.

Today, that optimism no longer exists. With over 3,400 dead and 25,000 wounded, most Americans believe that the Iraq war is going badly. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that the eventual cost of the war could reach $2 trillion, saddling future generations of Americans with huge war debts. Journalists make millions selling pessimistic tomes with titles like State of Denial: Bush at War, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, and Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. According to a Newsweek poll conducted on May 5, Bush’s approval rating is about 28%, making him lliability to the future Republican presidential nominee.

Post-2008, with bitter memories of Iraq still fresh in their minds, few Americans will be calling for any major military commitments, no matter what the politicians say. Short of an attack on American soil that warrants immediate retaliation in self-defense, there will be little public support for another Iraq-esque war. Even if America does decide to intervene militarily in other nations, say, to stop genocide, chances are that these wars will be fought in the same risk-averse manner as Clinton’s 1998 Iraq bombing campaign or the 1999 Kosovo campaign: U.S. planes bombing targets far above the range of antiaircraft fire, with few or no ground troops committed because we have no desire to incur casualties. Instead of fighting real large-scale wars, we will fight small, high-tech battles that can be won without losing a single soldier.

Ultimately, this means that regardless of whether our next president is Republican or Democrat, he (or she) will inherit a war-weary American public. Our next president’s ability to wage war will be very much limited, regardless of his or her foreign policy views. After 2008, Americans may be willing to fight wars in self-defense or small, casualty-free wars that stop genocide. But they will not support another major discretionary war, at least not until they forget the Iraq experience in the fullness of time. Our future leaders may believe in foreign interventionism, but in the aftermath of Iraq, the American people are likely to be isolationists at heart.

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