A New Isolationism?


It is not the classic type of before the wars. But the palpable energy behind the Paul and Obama candidacies and the vacuity of those defending the status quo in US foreign policy contans hints of a new shift toward a humbler view of national security. My column in the Sunday Times airs the issue:

Since the 1930s, isolationism has rarely had a real chance at achieving the kind of ideological dominance it once had in America. The second world war and the cold war – with the fascist and communist threats always in the front of American minds – kept America enmeshed with the wider world. The first Gulf war seemed to presage a new form of engagement – multilateral, order-oriented, pax Americana.

The Bill Clinton years can be seen in retrospect as a kind of neutral zone – with much-reduced military spending, a policy of globalisation and free trade, but with sporadic intervention in various trouble spots: Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. Then Bush II – and the launching of the New American Century, galvanised by 9/11.

At first blush, 9/11 seemed to mean the end of even the dream of leaving the rest of the world behind. After all, terror had now reached American soil. War had been declared. What choice did Americans have but to fight back?

But the gruelling, soul-sapping war in Iraq has unsettled that idea considerably.

Many Americans look at trying to coax democracy or even stability in the Arab world and conclude that it’s a mug’s game. If this is interventionism, could isolationism be much worse? The lead-up to the war disabused Americans of any notion that they could easily corral global support for their policing the planet. The follow-through has convinced them they cannot do it by themselves either. You can see why opting out has begun to appeal.

The Bush-Cheney argument that we have to fight the terrorists in Iraq or we will have to fight them in Kansas has not persuaded many. And rightly so. The core truth of Islamist terror, as 9/11 proved, is that it’s not that hard for very few people to do a lot of damage. The years-long occupation of a Muslim country, moreover, seems to have made the terror threat worse, not better.

Under those circumstances, why not make a tactical retreat?