Sometime, somehow, the Iraq war will end. The surge may stabilize the country sufficiently to allow the withdrawal of American troops (less likely). Or the American public may simply sicken of the war to such an extent that US forces are pulled out regardless of the consequences after the 2008 presidential election (more likely). Either way, the end of the war will be the starting bell for a much more sweeping battle over the future of American foreign policy.
The question? Quite simply, What role should the United States play in the world?
Both parties are in severe disarray over this issue. A shrinking group of Republican loyalists still holds fast to the Bush vision of remaking the world in America's image through the aggressive use of force. But many conservative thinkers and lawmakers have deserted the president. They accuse him of recklessly using American troops to pursue state-building abroad and advocate a return to isolationist policies aimed at protecting America's core interests.
On the Democratic side, disgust with the war has produced a hard core of antiwar activists whose overriding foreign-policy priority is to bring the troops home. Their distaste for the use of American military force abroad brings them into conflict with the party's more hawkish and internationalist wing. The latter also finds itself under siege from antiglobalization advocates on the left and their instinctive distrust of international free-trade agreements and multinational companies.
It is not clear what this volatile mix will produce, particularly with some 20 declared Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls currently struggling to position themselves on the issues. But history does provide a cautionary lesson.
Exactly 90 years ago, an idealistic President Woodrow Wilson cited evidence of a foreign plot to attack American interests as a rationale to rally Congress and the American public behind his plans to dispatch troops to a foreign war.
But the war was not sold to the American public merely as necessary to counter a specific threat to the United States. Rather, it was also presented as a moral crusade, a war to make the world "safe for democracy." Public support for the troops remained high. But as war ended, voters rapidly soured on the idealism that had led the nation into the conflict. A public perception grew that the US had been manipulated into war, not only by a president with an overly simplistic and moralistic view of the world, but also by a cabal of business interests that actually profited from the conflict.
Opponents of Mr. Wilson exploited this malaise. They mobilized public discontent into aggressive isolationist appeals, blocking efforts to commit the US to international institutions devoted to handling an altered world landscape. This produced a potent political cocktail with an immediate payoff. The president's party lost control of the White House for 12 consecutive years. But it also supported a lasting isolationist drift in American foreign policy that set the US up for greater foreign-policy disasters two decades down the road.
What lessons might we draw from this?
First, responsibility for the Iraq fiasco needs to be placed squarely where it is deserved – on the failed unilateralist, neoconservative policies of the Bush administration. It is these policies that have led the US to take a black-or-white, my-way-or-the-highway approach to the rest of the world, blackened America's image in countless regions, and isolated us from even the closest of our allies.
Second, America needs to reassert its positive role at the heart of multilateral institutions and alliances. It should not back out of them. Both the US and the world will face major challenges over the next several decades – global warming, nuclear proliferation, and a rapidly shifting balance of world power. These cannot be managed by the United States alone. They require a collective response from all nations.
Third, both Democrats and Republicans need to reassert bipartisanship in foreign policy. Particularly as the Iraq war grinds its way to a close, there will be temptations to use anti-internationalist sentiment and responsibility for the war as partisan tools for short-term political advantage. These need to be resisted. Both parties need to come together to forge a coherent vision of America's place in the world in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
It would be a pity if the failures of the Bush administration were but the precursor to even more serious foreign-policy errors in the decades to come.
• Carl Minzner is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.