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Iraq War Encouraging Isolationism
Authors Warn Domestic Partisan Divide Could Encourage US Retreat Globally
06/20/2007 4:41 PM ET
An overextension of US resources--beginning after the end of the Cold War but increasing most dramatically with the invasion of Iraq--has created deep partisan divisions in American public perception regarding the nature and necessity of US involvement abroad, according to Charles A. Kupchan and Peter L. Trubowitz in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

The authors warn that the stark partisan divide threatens to undermine US leadership abroad, and engender an isolationist tendency--something not unfamiliar in the American historical experience.

In the early twentieth century, deep partisan divisions produced unpredictable and dangerous swings in U.S. foreign policy and ultimately led to isolation from the world. A similar dynamic is unfolding at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The assertive unilateralism of the Bush administration is proving politically unsustainable.... Especially amid the domestic acrimony spawned by the war in Iraq, partisanship and stalemate at home could once again obstruct U.S. statecraft, perhaps even provoking an unsteady retreat from abroad.

The U.S. electorate already appears to be heading in that direction. According to the December 2006 CBS News poll, 52 percent of all Americans thought the United States "should mind its own business internationally." Even in the midst of impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War, only 36 percent of Americans held such a view.... If Washington continues to pursue a grand strategy that exceeds its political means, isolationist sentiment among Americans is sure to grow.

The United States needs to pursue a new grand strategy that is politically solvent. In today's polarized landscape, with Democrats wanting less power projection and Republicans fewer international partnerships, restoring solvency means bringing U.S. commitments back in line with political means. Finding a new domestic equilibrium that guarantees responsible U.S. leadership in the world requires a strategy that is as judicious and selective as it is purposeful.

First, a solvent strategy would entail sharing more burdens with other states. Great powers have regularly closed the gap between resources and commitments by devolving strategic ties to local actors. The United States should use its power and good offices to catalyze greater self-reliance in various regions, as it has done in Europe....

Second, where the war on terrorism is concerned, U.S. strategy should be to target terrorists rather than to call for regime change. This would mean focusing military efforts on destroying terrorist cells and networks while using political and economic tools to address the long-term sources of instability in the Middle East....

Third, the United States must rebuild its hard power. To do so, Congress must allocate the funds necessary to redress the devastating effect of the Iraq war on the readiness, equipment, and morale of the U.S. armed forces....

Fourth, the United States should restrain adversaries through engagement, as many great powers in the past have frequently done.... Washington should pursue similar strategies today, using shrewd diplomacy to dampen strategic competition with China, Iran, and other potential rivals. Should U.S. efforts be reciprocated, they promise to yield the substantial benefits that accompany rapprochement. If Washington is rebuffed, it can be sure to remain on guard and thereby avoid the risk of strategic exposure.

The fifth component of this grand strategy should be greater energy independence. The United States' oil addiction is dramatically constricting its geopolitical flexibility; playing guardian of the Persian Gulf entails onerous strategic commitments and awkward political alignments. Furthermore, high oil prices are encouraging producers such as Iran, Russia, and Venezuela to challenge U.S. interests....

Finally, the United States should favor pragmatic partnerships over the formalized international institutions of the Cold War era. To be sure, international collaboration continues to be in the United States' national interest.... It is already clear, however, that congressional support for the fixed alliances and robust institutions that were created after World War II is quickly waning. Grand visions of a global alliance of democracies need to be tempered by political reality.... In a polarized climate, less is more: pragmatic teamwork, flexible concerts, and task-specific coalitions must become the staples of a new brand of U.S. statecraft.

Far from being isolationist, this strategy of judicious retrenchment would guard against isolationist tendencies. In contrast, pursuing a foreign policy of excessive and unsustainable ambition would risk a political backlash that could produce precisely the turn inward that neither the United States nor the world can afford. The United States must find a stable middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.


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