Capstones | 1.9.15
By Alan W. Dowd
When asked about his limited response to ISIS, President Obama recently said he is not interested in “devoting another trillion dollars, after
having been involved in big occupations of countries that didn’t turn
out all that well.” Instead, he would rather “spend a trillion dollars
rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here
in the United States; that is going to be a recipe for our long-term
security and success.” This is essentially version 2.0 of the
president’s “it’s time to focus on nation-building here at home”mantra of 2011-12.
Neither the premise nor the trajectory of this surprisingly
isolationist approach to foreign policy is sound, as history
illustrates. One caveat about word choice before digging into some of
that history: The president’s isolationist foreign policy is surprising
not in the sense that we are surprised—after six years of “leading from behind” and “time-limited, scope-limited military action”—by his stand-off approach to the world, but in the sense that his eloquent words about the “global community” and “our shared humanity” and the like
don’t fit with his growing record of what appears to be calculated
disengagement and inaction. The inward turn, the bent toward isolation,
the realpolitik would be less surprising if the president didn’t talk like Vaclav Havel and act like Henry Kissinger, if he didn’t say things like “awareness without action changes nothing,” and then
proceed to avert his gaze from—and do nothing about—Syria. That
incongruence is what’s surprising.
Back to the soundness of this new strain of isolationism: American
presidents and the American people have rejected the siren song of
isolation since World War II because of, well, World War II. A consensus
emerged after the war that the world could do more harm to America if
America remained uninvolved and uninterested, that America could do more
good in the world as a leader than as a passive observer, and that
engagement in the world benefitted America.
To be sure, there
have been mistakes and missteps, costs and consequences, to American
engagement in the world. But by and large, engagement has served
American interests. And disengagement has carried heavy costs.
The “bring the boys home” refrain of 1918 and 1945—“Come home,
America” in the 1970s, “nation-building here at home” in today’s
parlance—always sounds appealing. But we’ve put it into practice before,
and the results have been disastrous: We brought the troops home in
1919, took care of America and assiduously stayed out of the world’s
way. Then Chamberlain gave us Munich; Hitler gave us another European
war; and Japan gave us Pearl Harbor. We not only began to bring the
troops home in 1945; we began what Gen. Marshall decried as the
“disintegration not only of the Armed Forces, but apparently of all
conception of world responsibility.” Then Stalin gobbled up half of
Europe, destabilized Turkey and Greece, blockaded Berlin, and armed Kim
Il-Sung in preparation for his invasion of South Korea. We pulled back,
cut back, came home and pursued a one-sided détente with the Soviets
after Vietnam. Moscow returned the favor by building up its military;
growing more aggressive, not more accommodating; and expanding its
In short, while intervention is fraught with risks and can have
unintended consequences, there are risks and unintended consequences to
isolation as well.
Obama himself has said, “The danger for the world is not an America
that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or
to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the
world is that the United States…may disengage, creating a vacuum of
leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”
Yet his policies—his failure to offer even rhetorical support to Iran’s Twitter revolution, pulling back from commitments to NATO, the withdrawal from Iraq, “leading from
behind” in Libya, the drawdown from Afghanistan, erasing his own red
line in Syria, offering MREs and platitudes to Kiev amidst Russia’s
salami-slice conquest of Ukraine, the half-measure response to ISIS, slashing defense spending—all point toward the very disengagement he says is such a danger.
Indeed, as the pendulum predictably swung back from the hyperactivity
of the post-9/11 Bush era, the threats of disengagement predictably
reappeared: China declaring authority over international airspace and
waterways; Russia dismembering a sovereign neighbor; bin Laden’s heirs
capitalizing on the symbiotic chaos in Iraq and Syria; Iran lunging at
If the fatal flaw of the Bush foreign policy was its belief that
American power can achieve virtually any outcome overseas—up to and including “ending tyranny in our world”—the fatal flaw of the Obama foreign
policy is its belief that American power can achieve virtually no
desired outcome overseas.
As Secretary of State John Kerry worries, “We cannot allow a hangover
from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an
excess of isolationism.”
Gambles and Burdens
In his book The World America Made, Robert Kagan explains
how “America’s most important role has been to dampen and deter the
normal tendencies of other great powers…to compete and jostle with one
another in ways that historically have led to war.” This role has
depended on America’s military might. “There is no better recipe for
great-power peace,” Kagan concludes, “than certainty about who holds the
Regrettably, America is dealing away that upper hand, thanks in part
to inaction overseas and in part to actions inside the Beltway,
especially the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration,
which is shrinking the resources, reach and role of the U.S. military.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are the price we pay
for a civilized society.” He was only partially right, because
civilization has to be defended to survive. We dare not think about it,
but the line separating us from another dark age is terrifyingly
thin—and growing thinner by the month, as sequestration hacks away at
America’s capacity to deter threats, defend freedom and project
stability. Too many Americans forget that the natural order of this
world is not orderly—and is certainly not conducive to freedom.
Indeed, if the post-World War II decades taught us anything, it’s
that the community of liberal democracies counts on America. The retreat
of American power leads to the fraying of the liberal economic and
political order, the rise of systems hostile to Western values, and the
spread of chaos and conflict, as we are seeing today.
The president seems to think that deployments in places like
Afghanistan and Iraq are not only worse than the alternative, but also
are anomalies of the post-9/11 era. However, World War II ended in 1945
with U.S. troops keeping the peace in Germany and Japan, where they
remain today. The Korean War ended in 1953 with U.S. troops keeping the
peace on the 38th Parallel, where they remain today. Desert Storm ended
in 1991 with U.S. troops keeping the peace in Kuwait, where they remain
August 2015 will mark 25 years America has been wrestling with Iraq.
What President Obama failed to grasp when he withdrew U.S. forces in
2011 is that Iraq isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather a problem to
be managed. That may sound disheartening, but such is the burden of
being a superpower with a conscience. In reversing course and returning
to Iraq in 2014, the president tacitly admitted that America’s
“long-term security” is not served solely by “focusing on
nation-building here at home.” Instead, it is tied to the stability of the world around us, which requires constant U.S. attention, engagement and action.
As someone once said, awareness without action changes nothing.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.