A lot of people are warning against America turning “isolationist.” We can dismiss the warnings—special pleadings, really—emanating from other countries, where people have free-ridden on American taxpayers for decades. If Europeans are worried about defending themselves, why are they cutting their military budgets? Not that we should mind if they do, but they should not look to us to pick up any slack.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are the latest to express concern that the American appetite for managing foreign conflicts is waning. In his West Point speech, Obama said the military is the “backbone” of American leadership, even as he claimed that force is not the first answer to every problem. And Hagel recently told some foreign-policy wonks in Chicago that it would be “a mistake to view our global responsibilities as a burden or charity.” How would he propose that we taxpayers view them? As a privilege?
Hagel said that withdrawing from the world would have a high cost. Has he checked lately on what military and political engagement is costing the taxpayers? The full cost of the military alone is over a trillion dollars a year. The U.S. government spends more on this than most of the rest of the world combined.
Hagel also said, “Turning inward, history teaches us, does not insulate us from the world’s troubles. It only forces us to be more engaged later—at a higher cost, at a higher cost in blood and treasure, and often on the terms of others.”
Hagel is wrong about history. When have American politicians ever disengaged from the world? The entire Western hemisphere was seen as America’s concern by its rulers. The refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I was more an assertion of unilateralism over encumbering multilateralism than a rejection of engagement.
And surely Hagel can’t be referring to the period before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, because he must know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did everything in his power to maneuver Germany or Japan, as Secretary of War Henry Stimson famously put it, into “firing the first shot.”
Many people think the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, resulted from disengagement, but that conflicts with the facts. Osama bin Laden said al-Qaeda was striking out against decades of brutal U.S. intervention, direct and indirect, in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Arab Muslim world.
Those high costs in blood and treasure were the consequences of intervention, not “isolationism.” That’s why the case for political and military disengagement is so strong. The butcher’s bill and the money price cannot be tolerated. America’s record of death, injury, and destruction has on net created enemies. The gross cultural and economic distortions from worshipful militarism have yet to be calculated.
And let’s not forget another cost: the toll on Americans ordered to kill and repress fellow human beings in other countries. (I don’t mean to relieve individual members of the military of their responsibility; they volunteered and chose to obey orders unquestioningly.)
President Obama says he will draw down forces in Afghanistan, and this upsets the militarists, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain and the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Yet under the plan, after 2015, a U.S. force will remain to support a regime that many Afghans don’t support. That is not disengagement.
Even people who are tired of Afghanistan after 13 years want Obama to intervene more directly in Syria. Have they learned nothing? There is no such thing as a clean and simple intervention with just the result sought. The war in Afghanistan, ostensibly intended to eradicate al-Qaeda, served to spread an intensified jihadist movement to Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. NATO’s air strikes in Libya spread arms and battle-trained jihadis into west Africa. The law of unintended consequences makes fools of so-called leaders.
Danger, then, lies not in “isolationism”—a misnomer if global trade and travel are freed. Rather, it lies in a rogue and delusional U.S. government that tries to police the world.
[Correction: I’ve removed a sentence which stated incorrectly that President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams intervened in a Greek civil war in 1821. In fact, while Monroe expressed sympathy for the Greeks, who were revolting against Turkey, in his annual message in 1822, Adams and key members of Congress opposed intervention.]