Although Washington remains transfixed with Bush's surge in Iraq, some foreigners are already asking whether failure will lead America to turn inward as it did after Vietnam. Will unilateralism be followed by isolationsim? I doubt it. The domestic politics regarding global climate change are becoming more favorable for cooperative action. The threat of pandemics means Americans may discover the importance of a stronger World Health Organization just as the problem of nuclear proliferation is increasing the realization of the importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency. And for all the complaints about the United Nations, the U.S. and others turned to UN peacekeepers to sort out the mess after the Lebanon War last summer. The nature of these problems means that the United States does not have the luxury of turning inward no matter what the outcome in Iraq. These are not problems you can leave overseas. They follow you home.
Similarly, it is unlikely that American foreign policy will return to an overly narrow realism and drop all emphasis on democracy and human rights. More likely we will see a liberal realism. While the Iraq War has thoroughly discredited the idea of coercive democratization advanced by the neo-conservatives and others in Bush's first term, both Republicans and Democrats have a strong strand of values in their orientations toward foreign policy. The problem for whoever is elected in 2008 will be to find appropriate realistic means to advance such values and adjust rhetoric accordingly. When rhetoric greatly outstrips reality, it is seen as hypocrisy in the eyes of others. Americans will need to find ways to assert their narrative of democracy, freedom and rights in a manner that respects diversity and the views of others. What Iraq has taught is the importance of developing civil society and rule of law before trying to have broad based elections. Democracy is more than electocracy. That means more investment in education, institutions, and promotion of non-governmental organizations. Democracy must be rooted in the indigenous society and bear its characteristics, not be imposed from abroad. In my view, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will react after Iraq as it did after Vietnam.