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America's New Isolationism

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Americans are becoming more isolationist. Two years ago, for the first time since the Vietnam War, almost half of all Americans polled by the Pew Research Center stated they would rather "mind [their] own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Those reporting similar sentiments remain relatively constant today with marked increases in "isolationist sentiment among Republicans," according to a Pew poll released on June 10th.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll underscores how deep this isolationist sentiment runs, particularly regarding U.S. involvement in Libya. 54 percent of those polled said the U.S. "should not be involved" there. A mere 33 percent agreed that the U.S. was "doing the right thing" in Libya. While many Americans report that they support "the mission" in Afghanistan they also endorse a troop pull back there and from global military engagement more broadly.

With the U.S. poised for major force withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq, Speaker of the House John Boehner continues to argue that President Obama's unilateral action to use force in Libya without authorization by Congress might be extralegal. He has introduced a fact-finding bill that the House just passed, which seeks to force the Administration to justify the costs and clarify the objectives of the engagement. A just defeated proposal by Representative Dennis Kucinich found astonishing support among isolationist "Kucinich Republicans." That bill called for immediate cessation of U.S. involvement in Libya. Yet another bill, recently passed in the House, excoriates profligate spending practices. It includes an amendment that would preclude any deployment of American forces on the ground in Libya and highlights "isolationist" components of both the Boehner and Kucinich proposals.

Some decry this trend. Others exult it. And while it is significant, we must note that it is has precedents. Whenever the U.S. has confronted complex geopolitical issues, particularly in times of war and crisis -- 1898, WWI, the Depression, WWII, Vietnam -- Americans have disagreed about how the nation should act abroad. Some called for fewer rather than more global military and diplomatic obligations. Such moments reveal enduring tensions in the national psyche: Should we exert force abroad for the national interest? (And how do we define national interest?) When and where should we use force for a humanitarian cause? Or should the U.S. withdraw from the international theater to focus on challenges at home?

For 200 years, many Americans who favored national isolationism in some form have based their views on George Washington's Farewell Address of 1796. They argued in favor of maintaining a Washingtonian-Jeffersonian outlook by prizing national autonomy above all, while aspiring to "steer clear of permanent alliances" and "foreign entanglements" while limiting interventions abroad.

Traditionally, Americans who opposed greater foreign involvement advocated political isolationism. But even in the 1920s and 1930s -- the heyday of such arguments -- isolationist advocates such as "irreconcilable" Sen. William Borah (R, ID) did not call for complete economic or cultural separation from the world. He argued against the "fetish of force." In fact, like Borah, they rarely suggested walled-and-bounded isolation. Instead American isolationist politicians historically have argued, as many Americans today are increasingly doing so, from a nationalist, non-interventionist position. They want to establish strong defenses but not to interfere in other nations' politics; to deploy force only if clearly in line with U.S. "core" interests or if attacked; to focus on domestic concerns, such as the economy; and not to participate in binding collective security organizations or operations except with a very narrowly defined mission.

Today, pessimistic about achieving success in the "war on terror," large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to reduce global diplomatic and military entanglements. They also worry, as many citizens did more than a century ago, that U.S. intervention might mask colonial impulses, or represent costly and unnecessary overreach, according to the Pew Research Center. Still, even though many Americans think the U.S. needs to pull back from engagement in Libya, recent polling indicates that a majority continues to believe in the vague notion that "international ties" are crucial, even while rejecting humanitarian intervention and foreign aid. What are we to make of this?

First, one wonders how much pure politics and economics play a role here. Would people be so exercised about American internationalism and interventionism if the jobless rates were significantly lower and the economy booming? Would conservative politicians and citizens support or even amplify robust foreign policies under a Republican president?

Second, in explaining the forthcoming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and in deciding how steep that pull back should be, President Obama must respond to rising popular isolationist sentiment. He ought to seize on the broader public agreement that the nation has been and must be inherently international while recognizing what Andrew Bacevich aptly termed "the limits of U.S. power." Lower troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq need not constitute full-fledged withdrawal from the world. Still, a more isolationist America poses new leadership challenges to a president dedicated to a case-by-case approach to multilateral (and sometimes unilateral) engagement abroad.

It would be unfortunate if the current isolationist sentiment pushed America to disengage more fully from humanitarian commitments. In that case, the nation and the world could pay a high price. After all, American leadership has demonstrated its ability to do much good. There is always significant promise as well as substantial peril when the U.S. engages abroad. Whatever course the nation takes it will require a frank conversation about national interests and values at home and abroad. This clarity of purpose and an abiding wariness of overreach, above all else, is what American isolationists have pushed for historically. This is why Americans are expressing more isolationist positions. They have a point.