Staying Home or Getting Involved
President Obama's dithering actions and non-response to events in the Middle East show the US is slipping back into the deep foreign policy chasm -- between those who want the US to play a world role and those who want to stay home -- that crosses party lines
Soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with stark budget realities have united many on the Right and Left -- libertarians, conservatives and progressives -- to urge America to stay out of world trouble spots. They say America has gotten its fingers burned trying to help those who end up being ungrateful.
The bipartisan instinct that once brought Americans together to fight Communism and Nazism flared briefly after 9-11 in a fight against Islamism and the Arab-Islamic terror it spawned, but now that unity has abated. The isolationist impulse is rising.
The Left charged "Bush lied and soldiers died" -- that the war in Iraq was not really about stopping terror or weapons of mass destruction but some other hidden agenda. On the Right people like former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul hint America brought on 9-11 by getting involved in the Mid-East.
Ron Paul and his son Rand say cutting foreign aid will save money, and the Left says cutting the US military saves even more money. Besides, who needs to spend money on planes and ships and look for trouble? Throwing America's weight around is what makes people hate us. So they say.
This is not just a post-Vietnam or post-Iraq fear of military involvement, but something much broader. President Obama clearly sees a smaller role for the US in the world -- not just "leading from behind" in Libya, but staying behind almost any place where there is any kind of military danger or political risk.
"U.S. national defense spending as a percent of GDP has ranged from a high of 15 percent in 1952 (during the Korean War) to a low of 3.7 percent in 2000 (the period of relative tranquility preceding the terrorist attacks of the following year)," according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
In other words, Bill Clinton's years as president, that preceded 9-11, brought the strongest draw-down on operational spending and size of US naval fleets and planes since the Korean War. President Barack Obama is set to deepen that trend.
"President Barack Obama's budget proposes cutting security spending to 2.4% of GDP in 2023. This would represent the lowest allocation of GDP to defense spending in the post-World War II era," said CFR.
"Our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917," said GOP candidate Mitt Romney last year, adding, "Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947."
Romney was right to blame Obama, but some of the low numbers are due to the Clinton era trend that actually bottomed out in fewest ships under George W. Bush in 2005. Another factor is lower national income, which also dampens military spending. However, Obama wants to accelerate the trend and make still deeper cuts in defense.
Force or even the threat to force is passé. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry want to "be flexible" with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Obama and his advisors want desperately to "engage." To borrow a line from the 60's they seek "to make love, not war." But so far their attempts at love have been spurned. When you deal with terrorists and dictators, the Beatles' message "All You Need Is Love" is not the ticket to ride.
Historically, low defense spending by democratic states seems to embolden dictators and terrorists. The 2000 Clinton lull preceded 9-11, and the low spending by the US and Britain in the late 20's and 30's seemed to encourage Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. It may be happening again.
When Edward Snowden grabs highly sensitive material, escapes with it to China and Russia, with whom Obama-Clinton-Kerry flirted endlessly, and the president's response is ignoring China and not meeting with Russia's dictator, then it is a sign that America's role and her clout have diminished.
When the Russian foreign minister Sergei Levrov publicly shields the use of chemical weapons by Syria's dictator to murder thousands, it is another sign that pronouncements of "red lines" by President Obama do not carry much credibility.
Supporters of a robust US world role remember what inaction and isolationism brought in the 1930's and 1940's and on 9-11. Yet, a proper world role by the US need not just mean a world war or war on terror. Sometimes it means stopping railway cars going to Auschwitz or inhibiting genocide in Rwanda.
Sometimes the proper role, to cite the Bible, is not to stand by when one's brother's blood is spilled (See Leviticus, 20:16). This is part of the Judeo-Christian ethic that formed America, and it is what makes America different from most other countries.
America should act out of self-interest, but not only self-interest. More than other nations, Americans help people in trouble, whether it is an earthquake or genocide. Sometimes, however, US leaders fail, as when Hitler massacred Jews (Franklin Roosevelt) and the Tutsis massacred 200,000 Hutus in Rwanda (Bill Clinton).
Acting altruistically is often really self-interest. Stopping a dictator or a terrorist group at an early stage helps Americans. Hitler started by murdering Germans. Osama Bin-Laden and Ayman Zawahiri began by attacking Muslims. Yet, stopping a Hitler or a Bin-Laden earlier would have saved American lives.
Obviously, America cannot fight every wrong in the world. It has to pick the right time and place, lest it slip into a quagmire.
Yes, George Washington warned against "entangling alliances," but that was when it took several months for news from Europe to reach America. Today the world is a much smaller place, and events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria can have an impact, literally, in New York, Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Imagining that America can stay home, ignore the world, and be safe is not using one's imagination. It is simply pretending.
It is like facing nightmares by pulling the covers over our heads. However, the world has some real nightmares, and they have to be faced in the full light of day.
The 9-11 Commission said America was struck by terror because it stopped exercising imagination. We must use our wisdom and imagination -- Left and Right -- to see where American can resume its rightful and responsible role in facing dangers that start abroad but can eventually reach us at home.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, visiting professor at UC Irvine and an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds:Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. A former reporter, correspondent and editor respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and The Jerusalem Post, he served as Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel's Ministry of Public Security.