Isolationism, 'retreat,' and reason

And the ongoing refusal to recognize that pretending the US doesn't have limits to its power doesn't make it so.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the annual State Department Human Rights report, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at the State Department in Washington.

Following US foreign-policy news on cable TV can be a very isolating experience. We hear repeatedly of isolationism, neo-Isolationism, quasi-isolationism, and various pejorative synonyms – decline, retreat, withdrawal – delivered in various tones of outrage and worried disappointment.

Obama was reluctant to go to war with Syria? Isolationism! The US left Iraq after that country's government said they didn't want us anymore? Retreat! The US is willing to compromise with Iran over its nuclear program? Decline!

If you take any of this seriously, it's a wonder that the Canadians haven't annexed Maine yet. Don't think they're not watching. 

The reality is that the US is not in retreat. Yes, one long war has ended and another is winding down, and the US Congress is demanding spending cuts that will hit the military. The US is also now engaging in diplomacy more often than in throwing its military weight around. But this is not a sign of a some kind of new national weakness.

Consider this recent column from leading neocon William Kristol. Mr. Kristol intoned on the eve of the Iraq invasion that "very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president" and predicted that US troops in the country would be reduced to "several thousand" within a year or two after the invasion. Whoops.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kristol still has followers in Washington. And he is of the school that believes that an American president can move mountains if he just shows enough will.

Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.

Why is this happening? Because the United States is in retreat. What is the Obama administration’s response to these events? Further retreat.

Having withdrawn from Iraq, and seeing it now fall apart, the administration is nonetheless determined to get out of Afghanistan...

The presumption seems to be that Ukraine's internal problems, fed in part by the machinations of Russia, would not exist had America not "retreated" from Afghanistan. Ditto for Syria. 

It never seems to cross Kristol's mind that it's really hard to control foreign events. Consider Iraq. A decade of war left over 100,000 Iraqis and 4,400 Americans dead, and cost American taxpayers north of $1.7 trillion. The result? The war strengthened Iran, spread Al Qaeda to Iraq (which has helped fuel the war in Syria), and put a Shiite Islamist government in charge. 

He isn't the only one worried in this vein. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday complained of a "new isolationism" in the US and "cited the limited support in the US Congress to back Obama's plan to launch an air strike against Syria last year" as evidence.

But a reluctance to go to war in distant lands is not "isolationism" if the term is to retain any meaning. It's prudence. 

Kerry is right that the US won't be able to do as much militarily and diplomatically if Congress insists on a leaner budget. But our military spending remains robust, to put it mildly.

The Obama administration is expected to send a defense budget to Congress with $496 billion in routine defense spending with another $26 billion tacked on as part of something the administration is calling the "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative." That's $522 billion - $1,660 in defense spending for every American. China spends $112 billion on defense - about $80 per citizen. 

While most other military powers spend more per capita than China, no one comes close in raw terms to the US. Russian military spending is surging - and yet its spending last year was $68 billion, third behind the US and China. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies points out in its latest annual review of global military spending, the US currently spends more than the next ten biggest budgets combined - seven of which are stalwart American allies.

Even away from US partisanship you find this isolationism theme.

Stephen Saideman pointed out on his blog a recent paper by Canada's Conference of Defense Associations Institute on what it variously calls America's new "quasi-isolationism" or "creeping isolationism." How is this thing defined (emphasis mine)?

When we speak of America’s disengagement, it does not mean America’s non-involvement in world affairs. From our perspective, disengagement means that America, for many reasons, is definitely not involved politically and militarily to the degree it was in the last decade, and possibly the past 60years. When we hint at a creeping isolationism, it is in comparison to America’s engagement and involvement in the years previous. 

It is more of a desire to not intervene in every situation in the world from a political or moral basis as it felt compelled to in the past and that trend of not intervening is directly a result of the last decade and the will to not become entangled in a specific region’s problems for years as it was in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 In that case there is both a public and political reluctance which has translated into military restraint as we saw this year over Syria, where both reluctance and restraint were at play in equal measure.

That doesn't sound like any type of isolationism at all. That sounds like common sense informed by the strategic disaster of the Iraq war and the bloody and expensive muddle in Afghanistan, the longest foreign war in US history.  

"Reluctance and restraint" in waging war were once seen as unalloyed virtues. For instance:

Believing that the happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace, that on these alone a stable prosperity can be founded, that the evils of war are great in their endurance, and have a long reckoning for ages to come, I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side. - Thomas Jefferson, 1808.

Yet we now see retreat in military retrenchment, an end to long, unsuccessful wars, and a refusal to apply the panacea of military force to every situation. Bring it on, I say.

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