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Americans grow tired, once again, of the long, exasperating haul of global intervention. But history has a way of perking up the weary.

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Recurring U.S. Isolationism and Its Implications

Americans grow tired, once again, of the long, exasperating haul of global intervention. But history has a way of perking up the weary.

Like a recurrent tide that ebbs and flows, isolationism—what some have called Fortress America—arrives at water’s edge each generation.  War fatigue, monstrous expenditures, casualties and the cri de coeur that we cannot be the world’s policeman contribute to the belief from the Left and the Right that we should turn inward and concentrate on building America instead of nation-building abroad.  Robert Taft lives in 2011.
                                         
This clarion call does not make political distinctions. It can be heard from the Ron Paul wing of the Republican party and from the acolytes of Barack Obama, if not President Obama himself.  Prompted by the belief that our goal in Afghanistan is vague and an appropriate exit strategy nonexistent, and that the Libyan operation violates the War Powers Resolution and remains an ill-advised venture, an antiwar cry across the country is gaining currency.
 
As I see it, the two cases in point provide plenty of ammunition for the antiwar critics.  Whatever modest success U.S. forces have had in stabilizing areas of Afghanistan, stabilization is fragile, and many of the Afghani forces fight with us during that day and join the enemy at night.  The drawdown of troops (10,000) the President is requesting may further jeopardize the modest success we’ve had, at least that is what Gen. David Petraeus and other military officials have hinted.
 
The Libyan invasion is a classic example of the disharmony between goals and tactics and the absurdity of delegating any military task to NATO without direct U.S. control.  For a two-week period, we bombed Gaddafi’s forces in an effort to assist the so-called rebels.  After this fortnight, we simply passed the baton to the NATO generals who now claim they are running out of ammunition.  President Obama said our goal is not to kill Col Muammar Gaddafi, but to encourage him to step down.  Obviously he hasn’t gotten the message.  He is fighting for his life and we are fighting for … precisely what are we fighting for?
 
Yet despite my criticism, which runs deep, my fear is that so many have converted these two misadventures into a generalized policy stance.  Even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated, “We will not be fighting major land wars anytime soon.”  Surely we can choose not to fight any war, but history has a way of intruding on this decision.  We may choose to appease or avert our gaze, or even accept defeat, but there will be enemies intent on destroying the United States, and they may not have any compunctions about fighting a land war.
 
The danger of isolationism is that it encourages complacency.  Presumably if there aren’t any interests abroad, there isn’t a need to maintain an active military force.  History doesn’t repeat itself exactly, but its broad outlines are often duplicated.  It now appears as if the scenario unfolding at this time resembles the 1930s, a period when the U.S. opted out of worldwide commitments.  One can only hope that an attack like the one at Pearl Harbor isn’t necessary to awaken the sleeping giant.
 
As our history has shown, building military readiness after dramatic retrenchment is painful.  Far better to add on to existing resources than starting anew.  But President Obama seemingly has convinced himself that American interests can be channeled through multilateral organizations, as the Libyan venture suggests.  The upshot of this position is to spend less on military matters than we do at the moment and hope that others will fill the vacuum left by our withdrawal. This is a hope-and-prayer strategy that serves as a gateway for our enemies.
 
The signal we send through emergent isolationism is that we do not possess the will to stand by commitments to our allies or defend our interests abroad.
 
Whether this mood is transitory remains to be seen.  Americans invariably surprise with their resilience.  But have we been worn down by fatigue?  Is America different from its past?  Will the sentiment of decline dominate the culture?  Will this century witness an American withdrawal from global affairs?  Will the isolationists ascend to foreign policy leadership?
 
Despite all the mistakes made by the policy experts, my hope is that the tide of isolationism cascades far into distant seas.

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Written By

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).

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