America's new isolationism (+video)
Weary of war, Americans increasingly balk at military intervention. Does this reflect a new strain of isolationism or just doubts about the effectiveness of using force in the Middle East?
(Page 4 of 5)
Nor was the global financial meltdown just an abstraction to young adults. It became real in the form of a weak job market and, for many, falling living standards. These factors, along with a strong belief in the futility of using military muscle, help explain a turning inward after a burst of interventionism after 9/11.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"We might be able to make a small impact, but it won't last," says Daniela Oliveras, a college student in Boston who's from Southbridge, Mass. "Look at the past: We've seen what happened other times when we have gone into countries and tried to tell them to do things like we do. It doesn't work."
Such pragmatic perceptions as to the ineffectiveness of American intervention – in particular in the Middle East – are a long way from the sentiments of American exceptionalism and moral obligation found in Obama's reasoning with the American people for airstrikes in Syria. Obama evoked presidents before him – Ronald Reagan's vision of America as "the shining city upon a hill," for instance – when he reminded viewers that America's willingness to "act," indeed, that "we should act," to confront the world's evils is "what makes us exceptional."
Obama's words drew a rebuke from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who took to the editorial pages of The New York Times to respond to his US counterpart: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Others say such ringing references to America's special role in the world increasingly alienate Americans who reject anything that sounds remotely like unilateralism. "If exceptionalism is the rationale for intervention, it runs aground on the shoals of multilateralism," says Oregon State's Nichols. "Calls to action based on America's uniqueness sound inconsistent with working with the international community, and that's confusing to Americans."
But the president's words – and calls to action – still stir some Americans. "We're America. That's what we do," says Tre'Maine Rather, an employee at Boston's Hynes Convention Center, explaining his support for Obama's call for airstrikes on Syria. "We have to take some action to help them."
A sense of moral obligation and a conviction that America should intervene because, as the world's sole global military power, it can, lie at the foundation of Anthony Chima's support for US action in Syria. Mr. Chima, who moved to the US as a young adult in 1981 with memories of the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960s still vivid, points to humanitarian disasters in which the US failed to intervene, like the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
"We cannot stand still and watch," says the Nigerian native, who now lives in Mobile, Ala.
Yet such sentiments are in the minority – as Obama discovered as he and his proposal for even a "modest effort" in Syria ran into a wall of skepticism from the American people.
For a historian like Boston University's Andrew Bacevich, that wall was built over the course of more than three decades of US intervention in the Middle East – from Reagan's dispatching of the Marines to Beirut to Obama's mini-surge of troops into Afghanistan – that he says accomplished none of America's envisioned objectives.
Professor Bacevich, author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," echoes average Americans' conclusion that Middle East interventions "haven't worked" when he says America's "military enterprises" in the Middle East have neither made the region more stable or more democratic, nor enhanced America's standing in the eyes of the Muslim world.
Thirty years after Reagan withdrew the Marines from Beirut after their barracks were bombed, and with memories of Iraq and Afghanistan (where 60,000 US troops remain) still fresh, Americans want a break – especially from military interventions in confounding civil wars.