Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now is No Time for Isolationism

A version of this article appeared on PolicyMic on June 24, 2011.

Many politicians are beginning to sound the call to ‘bring the troops home.’ The once-hawkish GOP’s Presidential candidates for 2012 have turned isolationist, as criticized by Sen. Jon McCain. It seems that this will be the year where many begin to argue that America can no longer afford to be a superpower with global reach.

But don’t you dare believe it. We’ve been in this position before. In the midst of the Great Depression in the ‘30’s many argued that what happened in Europe and Asia was their business and we have our own problems to worry about. It took Pearl Harbor to pull Americans out of isolationism after Axis invasions and refugee reports couldn’t do it. Just imagine what the world would look like today if the Greatest Generation hadn’t shrugged off isolationism. Imagine what it will look like if we don’t shake it off again now.

Though there have been comparisons, 9/11 is not this generation’s Pearl Harbor and the profligate action in Iraq and the early mishandling of Afghanistan have eroded any such feeling. Our world today is a very confusing place for an America used to having a clear enemy to shake a stick at. We have no clear enemy today. Islamic extremism is a movement, not a state. Whether or to what degree we should worry about China, Iran, Pakistan, or other places is uncertain.

This ambiguity requires us to be more vigilant, not less. In fact, it can be an opportunity. If we begin to approach problems in the world not just as military problems, but as security problems and take a holistic approach we can identify emerging threats and keep problems small. Besides our military, we need to use the tools of sanctions regimes, diplomacy, development, and economic assistance. If we’re not going to spend more money on these things, we certainly shouldn’t be spending any less.

If we retreat from the world now our problems are not going to go away. They’ll grow and maybe to proportions we can’t handle without large-scale war. The argument is made that our allies need to do more and they’ll step in. They won’t. Our British allies are already having trouble handling the military requirements of the Libyan bombing campaign, doveish Germans won’t send their under-equipped military anywhere, and Machiavellian France isn’t going to commit to anything that isn’t very much in French interests. Our European allies have turned to harsh austerity and there is no room in their budgets for stepping in where we don’t. Nobody will.

Except our potential foes, that is. In Africa China doesn’t care about human rights, just mineral rights. Iran fans the flames against us in the Middle East at every turn. When we didn’t step in to help those in need in Pakistan, Palestine, and Lebanon, Islamic extremists and terror groups did. If we go back to sleep now, a lot will go on without us. Wherever the light of America doesn’t shine our enemies move in the darkness.