Not-So-Isolationist America

Abe Greenwald, on America's conduct toward Georgia:

Victim status doesn't get you what it used to. There was a time when an American friend or a strategically critical state under attack got more than color commentary from the White House and a boat full of Ace bandages. When Russia rolled into Afghanistan in 1979 we didn't give Afghans our sympathy; we gave them guns-big ones. When Saddam tried to annex Kuwait, we went in and sent him back home. Today a real invasion will get a symbolic vote, a high profile condemnation, and a Facebook group.

But it's the old America that friends and states with democratic aspirations remember, and they continue in vain to appeal to us. I am currently in Azerbaijan and if I've been asked once I've been asked a hundred times: "What does America think about the Armenian occupation of our country?" Whether it's a reporter or a graduate student doing the asking, their desperation is a little heartbreaking and I answer honestly: "You're conflict isn't even a blip on our radar." Inevitably they respond: "Will you write about it when you get back home?" "Yes, I will," I tell them. This provides some visible hope. Luckily they don't go on to ask me if such attention will make any difference.

Armenians are not the only concern of Azeris these days. They, like Georgians, live in a post-Soviet territory. Their capital city, Baku, is the starting point for the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline-the only oil route out of the Caspian that bypasses Russia. It goes without saying that this is a conflict on Moscow's radar. The Deputy Foreign Minister told me that since last week's Russian aggression, he feels like it's 1920 again. 1920 is when Azerbaijan's two-year break from oppression gave way to seventy years of Soviet rule. 1920 also heralded a period of American isolationism. I agree with the Deputy Foreign Minister. It does feel like 1920 again.

Greenwald's right, of course, that there's something tragic about the hopes that small countries repose in the idea of an all-powerful United States swooping in to solve all their problems. But the tragedy is that a unipolar world breeds these kind of unrealistic expectations for what American power can plausibly do for the Azeris; it's not that the United States has grown too soft and weak to actually swoop in and solve the problems bedeviling every small state and put-upon people. And it takes a strange view of global politics, to put it mildly, to accuse America - a power that's presently conducting massive counter-insurgency operations in not one but two strife-torn Muslim-majority countries, while patrolling the world's sea lanes, maintaining garrisons from Western Europe to the Pacific Rim, engaging in delicate counterproliferation efforts in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, and running secret anti-terror missions in God knows how many countries - of lapsing into 1920s-style "isolationism" because it's unwilling to simultaneously police every border dispute in the Caucuses.