Military Officer | 10.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

Iraq has become a Rorschach test for Americans. The interventionists see Iraq as proof that American power was the crucial ingredient to keeping Iraq’s neighborhood stable. The disengagers point to Iraq as a reminder that America should never go “in search of monsters to destroy.” The realists use Iraq’s sectarian war to explain why Saddam Hussein was so ruthless—and why America should avoid upsetting the status quo. And the idealists see the tragedy of Iraq as a consequence not of post-9/11 regime change, but pre-9/11 realpolitik.

This Iraq inkblot underscores that there’s no consensus among the American people about their place and purpose in the world. That’s a dramatic departure from the period between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, when there was broad agreement that America’s role was to lead the Free World, guard the frontiers of liberty, and construct and sustain a liberal global order (an order that benefits America more than any other nation). But a quarter-century after the Cold War—and after more than a decade of hot wars—the consensus has frayed. And an old debate has been reignited by a public that is not only war-weary but quite literally world-weary.


When the United States was young and weak, President George Washington wisely plotted a path of nonintervention. His farewell address famously warned against “foreign alliances, attachments and intrigues.”[i]

Yet President Thomas Jefferson proposed an anti-piracy alliance with Europe.[ii]When that failed, he launched a war on piracy.[iii]Jefferson followed that foreign entanglement by making a deal with France for the Louisiana Territory, opening the door to numerous new foreign entanglements: Of the 300-plus instances of U.S. military intervention tallied by the Congressional Research Service, 103 occurred before 1900.[iv]

As President James Polk pushed toward the Pacific, threatening and waging war along the way, some argued that America could be a great power or a good neighbor—but not both.[v]

By the end of the 19th century, Americans felt obligated to play the good-neighbor role by assisting the Cuban people in their struggle against Spain’s occupation. As Robert Kagan observes in Dangerous Nation, “The fact that many believed they could do something…helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.”[vi]This is a drastic divergence from Washington’s counsel.

Nor did the U.S. limit its operations to Cuba. The U.S. also seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, occupied Wake Island, and annexed Hawaii.[vii]By the time the smoke had cleared, President William McKinley was being hailed by some Americans as “chief of our nation and our empire.”[viii]Yet a sizable segment of the country condemned American-style imperialism, as evidenced by the controversial annexation and occupation of the Philippines, which divided even McKinley’s cabinet.[ix]

President Theodore Roosevelt relished America’s enhanced role on the global stage—using it to broker an end to the Russo-Japan War, intimidate Germany, Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, and expand the Monroe Doctrine to justify U.S. intervention. Foreshadowing today’s humanitarian military operations, TR even argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”[x]

Yet President Woodrow Wilson avoided the global stage, pledging during the Great War to be “neutral in fact as well as in name.”[xi]TR excoriated him for “tame submission to wrongdoing by foreign powers.”[xii]

But once transformed from isolationist to interventionist, Wilson committed America to Europe’s war, waded into Europe’s intrigues and designed an organization “to secure the peace of the world.”[xiii]

Unwilling to go that far in 1918, the American people retreated from global leadership for almost a quarter-century.

Pearl Harbor shattered their blissful isolation. “Once it became apparent that isolationism could leave the nation open to military attack, it suffered a blow from which it never recovered,” historian John Lewis Gaddis explains.[xiv]

What followed was unprecedented but not unexpected. Concluding that America is more secure when America is more engaged, Cold War-era presidents remade the international system and, in a sense, reshaped the world in America’s image: The Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe into a community of free trade and free government. MacArthur refashioned militarist Japan into a liberal democracy. The United Nations revived Wilson’s “concert of peace” idea. Jettisoning Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world,”[xv] postwar presidents committed the U.S. to a vast network of alliances—NATO, SEATO, ANZUS, bilateral guarantees for South Korea and Japan, the Rio Pact for the Americas, all backed by a million troops deployed overseas.[xvi]

This puts in perspective plans to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.


If Pearl Harbor shattered the pre-World War II tradition of U.S. isolationism, did Iraq shatter the post-World War II tradition of U.S. engagement?  Perhaps: 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally”—up from 30 percent in 2002.[xvii]

Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama declares, “It is time to focus on nation building here at home.”[xviii]Sen. Rand Paul advocates “a foreign policy that is reluctant,” with “less soldiers stationed overseas.”[xix]

To be sure, engagement carries costs—sometimes great costs. But it can yield great returns: U.S. engagement turned the tide during World War I; prevented another Dark Age during World War II; extinguished Japanese and German militarism during the postwar peace; preserved Western civilization during the Cold War; and elevated America to unparalleled geopolitical and geo-economic power during the post-Cold War period.

Moreover, Americans sometimes overlook the costs of disengagement.

Consider the case of Korea. The U.S. military took up positions in Korea in 1945, but withdrew in 1949. Then, in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that Japan, Alaska and the Philippines fell within America’s “defensive perimeter.”[xx]Korea didn’t. Stalin noticed.

“So far as the military security in other areas of the Pacific is concerned,” Acheson explained, “no person can guarantee these areas against military attack.”[xxi]

In fact, America would guarantee Korea against military attack—at a cost of 37,000 American lives and 2 million civilian casualties. Disengagement proved catastrophic, which is why American troops remain in Korea today.

Or consider the case of Iraq. By every metric, post-surge Iraq was better than Iraq before the U.S. surge or after the U.S. withdrawal. Yet the disengagers saw U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained.

Importantly, U.S. military commanders recommended 20,000 U.S. troops for post-surge Iraq.[xxii]The troops would stay in Iraq—as in Korea—to bolster a fragile government, stabilize the country and secure U.S. interests.

Without America’s help, many feared the worst. Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army warned in 2011that his troops weren’t ready “to face external and internal challenges alone.”[xxiii]Three years later, the Iraq-Syria border has been erased by a marauding army of jihadists; cities liberated by American blood are under enemy occupation; 850 Iraqis are being killed each month;[xxiv]and Iraq is fracturing—opening the door to grave challenges to U.S. interests.

Again, disengagement has been catastrophic.


In April 1975, as South Vietnam collapsed, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “accept the responsibilities of leadership” and reject the notion that “if we do not succeed in everything everywhere, then we have succeeded in nothing anywhere.”[xxv]

That’s good advice as a world-weary America drifts into another period of disengagement and doubt.

[i] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[ii] See http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjprece.html.

[iii] See https://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/barbary-wars.

[iv] Barbara Salazar Torreon, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013,” CRS Report for Congress, August 30, 2013; Richard Grimmett, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013,” CRS Report for Congress, February 2, 2009.

[v] Professor Sam W. Haynes of the University of Texas-Arlington has suggested, “The Mexican War presents a fundamental moral dilemma for the United States: Is the United States going to become a good nation or is it going to become a great nation? Is it going to become a nation which will protect the self-determination and the sovereignty of neighboring nation-states, or is it a nation which is going to aggressively pursue its own self-interests?” See The Mexican American War, History Channel, 2006.

[vi] Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 2006, p.409.

[vii] Donald Young, “William McKinley: Bridge to a New Century,” American Heritage Illustrated History of the Presidents, Michael Beschloss, Ed., 2000, pp.309-312.

[viii] Walter LaFeber, The American Age, Vol. 2, 1989, p.227.

[ix] Young; see also LaFeber, p.214.

[x] Quoted in Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.594.

[xi] Wilson Address, August 20, 1914, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3791.

[xii] Roosevelt, “The Navy as Peacemaker,” The New York Times, November 22, 1914.

[xiii] https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/ww38.htm.

[xiv] John Lewis Gaddis, “Two Cold War Empires,” Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Sixth Edition, Denis Merril and Thomas Paterson, Eds., 2005, p.233.

[xv] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[xvi] Derek Leebaert, The Fifty Year Wound, 2002, p.316.




[xx] “Dean Acheson on the Defense Perimeter, 1950,” Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, Third Edition, Thomas Paterson, Ed., 1989, pp.398-399.

[xxi] Ibid.




[xxv] Gerald Ford, Address at Tulane University, April 23, 1975, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4859.