Capstones: Awareness without Action

By Alan W. Dowd

January 9, 2015

When asked about his limited response to ISIS, President Obama recently said he is not interested in “devoting another trillion dollars, after having been involved in big occupations of countries that didn’t turn out all that well.” Instead, he would rather “spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here in the United States; that is going to be a recipe for our long-term security and success.” This is essentially version 2.0 of the president’s “it’s time to focus on nation-building here at home” mantra of 2011-12.

Neither the premise nor the trajectory of this surprisingly isolationist approach to foreign policy is sound, as history illustrates. One caveat about word choice before digging into some of that history: The president’s isolationist foreign policy is surprising not in the sense that we are surprised—after six years of “leading from behind” and “time-limited, scope-limited military action”—by his stand-off approach to the world, but in the sense that his eloquent words about the “global community” and “our shared humanity” and the like don’t fit with his growing record of what appears to be calculated disengagement and inaction. The inward turn, the bent toward isolation, the realpolitik would be less surprising if the president didn’t talk like Vaclav Havel and act like Henry Kissinger, if he didn’t say things like “awareness without action changes nothing,” and then proceed to avert his gaze from—and do nothing about—Syria. That incongruence is what’s surprising.

Back to the soundness of this new strain of isolationism: American presidents and the American people have rejected the siren song of isolation since World War II because of, well, World War II. A consensus emerged after the war that the world could do more harm to America if America remained uninvolved and uninterested, that America could do more good in the world as a leader than as a passive observer, and that engagement in the world benefitted America.

To be sure, there have been mistakes and missteps, costs and consequences, to American engagement in the world. But by and large, engagement has served American interests. And disengagement has carried heavy costs.

The “bring the boys home” refrain of 1918 and 1945—“Come home, America” in the 1970s, “nation-building here at home” in today’s parlance—always sounds appealing. But we’ve put it into practice before, and the results have been disastrous: We brought the troops home in 1919, took care of America and assiduously stayed out of the world’s way. Then Chamberlain gave us Munich; Hitler gave us another European war; and Japan gave us Pearl Harbor. We not only began to bring the troops home in 1945; we began what Gen. Marshall decried as the “disintegration not only of the Armed Forces, but apparently of all conception of world responsibility.” Then Stalin gobbled up half of Europe, destabilized Turkey and Greece, blockaded Berlin, and armed Kim Il-Sung in preparation for his invasion of South Korea. We pulled back, cut back, came home and pursued a one-sided détente with the Soviets after Vietnam. Moscow returned the favor by building up its military; growing more aggressive, not more accommodating; and expanding its global footprint.

In short, while intervention is fraught with risks and can have unintended consequences, there are risks and unintended consequences to isolation as well.

Obama himself has said, “The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States…may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

Yet his policies—his failure to offer even rhetorical support to Iran’s Twitter revolution, pulling back from commitments to NATO, the withdrawal from Iraq, “leading from behind” in Libya, the drawdown from Afghanistan, erasing his own red line in Syria, offering MREs and platitudes to Kiev amidst Russia’s salami-slice conquest of Ukraine, the half-measure response to ISIS, slashing defense spending—all point toward the very disengagement he says is such a danger.

Indeed, as the pendulum predictably swung back from the hyperactivity of the post-9/11 Bush era, the threats of disengagement predictably reappeared: China declaring authority over international airspace and waterways; Russia dismembering a sovereign neighbor; bin Laden’s heirs capitalizing on the symbiotic chaos in Iraq and Syria; Iran lunging at regional primacy.

If the fatal flaw of the Bush foreign policy was its belief that American power can achieve virtually any outcome overseas—up to and including “ending tyranny in our world”—the fatal flaw of the Obama foreign policy is its belief that American power can achieve virtually no desired outcome overseas.

As Secretary of State John Kerry worries, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism.”

Gambles and Burdens

In his book The World America Made, Robert Kagan explains how “America’s most important role has been to dampen and deter the normal tendencies of other great powers…to compete and jostle with one another in ways that historically have led to war.” This role has depended on America’s military might. “There is no better recipe for great-power peace,” Kagan concludes, “than certainty about who holds the upper hand.”

Regrettably, America is dealing away that upper hand, thanks in part to inaction overseas and in part to actions inside the Beltway, especially the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, which is shrinking the resources, reach and role of the U.S. military. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” He was only partially right, because civilization has to be defended to survive. We dare not think about it, but the line separating us from another dark age is terrifyingly thin—and growing thinner by the month, as sequestration hacks away at America’s capacity to deter threats, defend freedom and project stability. Too many Americans forget that the natural order of this world is not orderly—and is certainly not conducive to freedom.

Indeed, if the post-World War II decades taught us anything, it’s that the community of liberal democracies counts on America. The retreat of American power leads to the fraying of the liberal economic and political order, the rise of systems hostile to Western values, and the spread of chaos and conflict, as we are seeing today.

The president seems to think that deployments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are not only worse than the alternative, but also are anomalies of the post-9/11 era. However, World War II ended in 1945 with U.S. troops keeping the peace in Germany and Japan, where they remain today. The Korean War ended in 1953 with U.S. troops keeping the peace on the 38th Parallel, where they remain today. Desert Storm ended in 1991 with U.S. troops keeping the peace in Kuwait, where they remain today.

August 2015 will mark 25 years America has been wrestling with Iraq. What President Obama failed to grasp when he withdrew U.S. forces in 2011 is that Iraq isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather a problem to be managed. That may sound disheartening, but such is the burden of being a superpower with a conscience. In reversing course and returning to Iraq in 2014, the president tacitly admitted that America’s “long-term security” is not served solely by “focusing on nation-building here at home.” Instead, it is tied to the stability of the world around us, which requires constant U.S. attention, engagement and action.

As someone once said, awareness without action changes nothing.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose