I share the concerns of all who agree that the Iraq War, and most of the other wars we've entered into since World War II, have been ill-thought-out wars of aggression. Yet must it imply complete military isolationism?
Your answer may well be "please--how many times are we going to put roller skates on the elephant and send him careening through the china shop, before we just admit that roller-skate dancing in china shops just isn't our forte?" Put another way: "if we make war, even if we conceive it as defensive, or as living up to our duty to defend the defenseless, we'll screw it up."
This seems so obviously true as to be beyond question. However, I've wondered recently: why on earth do we on the left move instantly to throwing up our hands and saying "forget it! Forget it all! Shut it all down and get us out (except a nominal defensive force, just for our own borders)" when faced with the idea of military force? Do we throw up our hands like that on any other issue, say, on energy policy? No--we address it far more carefully than that, aiming always to cajole, to tweak, to fine-tune, and only dreaming of the day when we might be granted our wishes more generously. Yet when it comes to military force, or our engagement in foreign policy full stop, America is becoming more and more isolationist.
This Pew poll from last year shows that those agreeing that the US "should mind its own business internationally," and let other countries fend for themselves as best they can, went from a low of 30% in 2002 (following the 9/11 tragedy) to an all-time high of 52%. More below the fold.
I've always felt we were divided into a left wing who tremble in the corner if they're in the same room as a gun, and a right wing too eager to grab it and shoot at anything that moves. Poll results show some partisan differences, but I can't say it conclusively points to America's left being more isolationist than our right. However, this is a left-wing blog, and I am a leftie, so that's who I address here.
Andrew Bacevich wrote last year in mockery of many such claims of an emerging isolationism. He warns, correctly in my opinion, against allowing such talk to be a propaganda ploy by self-interested parties, to defuse calls for pacifism.
Again, I do NOT, I want to make clear, agree with most of our uses of military force so far, in the past 70 years. Nor do I think we should have spent 2/3 of a trillion dollars (base price, before adding on a per-war surcharge) each year on the military. Nor do I think we should have tried to put our military in EVERY single country on earth. Nor did I (I think it's safe to put this ridiculous idea in the past tense now) favor a war against Iran, out of nowhere, to double down on the Iraq debacle.
However, Mr. Bacevich is wrong to mock a 2004 article that mentions that isolationism was on the rise. His pretext for doing so (and for the rest of the mockery in the article) was that America's GOVERNMENT had not become more isolationist, but was carrying on making war after war. Just so. However, the Pew poll above shows that in 2004, isolationism HAD indeed come back on the rise, among the PEOPLE of America, for the last many moons since 2002.
So... you may be thinking, "what is this jerk (your diarist) hinting at then? Surely the diary intends to condone some use of military force. Otherwise, what is it getting at?" What I'm getting at is: FOCUS; concentrate our military preparedness on the places which make sense, which are mostly at keeping east and southeast Asian commerce moving; and I do NOT think we should completely disengage militarily from the world. However, if we ARE to do so, then I think we need to look seriously at what that means.
If you do favor complete military detachment, except just to protect our borders, then what does that imply? I did have that very attitude myself, for quite some time, and the reason is that I was bulls---ed so much from the right wing that our military policy was "defensive." Uh... Saddam Hussein is another Hitler, and we'll fight him here any day now, if we don't attack him out of nowhere now? Uh... RIGHT. (Eyeroll.) SURE he was. No one was EVER going to invade America, and a 250,000-soldier Army would suffice, if it was only for defense.
However, my rationale for defending east Asia and southeast Asia (mostly with our Navy and Air Force) rests on two things: firstly, and most importantly, the smaller nations there WANT us to have such a military presence there. The single biggest military spender on earth after our Pantagruel of a military is China. If we leave, guess what happens to all the many territorial disputes between China and everyone else in their region? Those countries in dispute with China include Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. All of those disputes would be settled quickly in China's favor, if we left. We're also still treaty-bound to assist South Korea in case of attack, I believe. Secondly, much of our entire economy rests on keeping those shipping lanes open.
The US Dollar is used in a majority of all the world's financial transactions; this allows us HUGE leeway in deficit spending, which other countries don't dare indulge in, lest their bond markets fall, which would make their interest rates rise, which would make their bond payments balloon until untenable. If we lose that primacy (though we certainly will one day), there will be a frightening straitening of our circumstances. Withdrawal from the world stage, I believe, would speed the day when we lose that, by emboldening moves from regional powers away from the Dollar. (Yes, I am aware of further mockery of such moves; however, before reminding me of them, remember to toss out the ones based on continuing American military presence in the world. We will continue to be a great industrial power, I think, failing some complete catastrophe; but we cannot survive as an autarky.)
None of that would mean anything if those southeast and east Asian countries wanted us out. But they don't. They'll have a hard time not becoming Chinese vassal states, if we do, and they know it.
This question is complicated by our dogged insistence to keep wading into the site of an earlier power vacuum: the Middle East. This area roils with contention between Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Zionist, pan-Arab, Turks, Iranians, a dozen contenders for power. The Mideast was left in a power vacuum when the Ottoman Empire began to collapse; its retreat from its former possessions left the area a maelstrom, where it had been relatively (I emphasize relatively) stable under Ottoman rule until especially the time of Napoleon and the early 1800s, when Greece, Egypt, and other areas began to break away. This is what happens when there is a power vacuum.
This year, we commemorated the century mark for World War One, which came about (largely, though that was not the only reason) precisely because of uncertainty in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean as to how to fill the power vacuum left by the Ottomans.
Understand this: if we decide as a nation to withdraw from EVERYWHERE in the world militarily, this will have repercussions. And I feel that such withdrawal is implied in our (again, well-justified, in the case of most of the wars we've fought lately) leftist default, pacifism. When push comes to shove in east Asia, though, this withdrawal will be read as a craven abandonment by actual, sometime or would-be allies such as Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, especially if it comes to conflict between our treaty allies and China and we say "dude--sorry, I couldn't make it." Leaving a power vacuum means someone--perhaps someone meaner--comes into the power vacuum. I know, I know: "aha!! You're beating the drums of war!" No--I'm not. I think it's our disengagement that will bring war. And believe me, China is continuing to test the waters, and will continue to do so, until they're sure America is gone, and they can move in militarily to settle scores.
Or, I know, I know: "aha! You're falling into the old trap: you think such a stance is 'defensive,' but that's the thinking that led everyone into World War One! That's what Christopher Clark wrote in 'The Sleepwalkers!' Everyone thought they were acting defensively, but they started World War One!"
Well... actually, YOU'RE probably not thinking that; I'm thinking that. And if you were thinking that, I'd say: you have a good point. I worry about it.
But are you worried about leaving Russia's neighbors to settle their hash with tender Russia? Or China's neighbors to do so with respectful China?
I think you should be.
We need to ponder this, folks. We're great at screaming "OH MY GOD! NO, NO! We shouldn't have done that!" We need a better articulation of what we SHOULD be doing. We need to articulate it; then we need to communicate our positive vision to our leaders. Otherwise, it'll be drift.
To quote the Dead: "Think this through with me. Let me know your mind." I look forward to your comments and suggestions.