The United States is once again an isolated nation. While the U.S. government was a hapless bystander, revolutions swept from one end of the Muslim world to the other—Shiites defied beleaguered Sunni monarchs, Israel helped itself to more of Palestine, and America’s supposed friends in Iraq and Afghanistan were regularly blown up. America’s closest surviving Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, has sent paramilitary troops to conduct an armed intervention in Bahrain, which turned into Shiite-Sunni violence despite desperate U.S. efforts to dissuade the Saudis.
For the first century of its existence, the United States pursued a policy of isolationism. The colonies’ revolt against Britain was an episode in a Franco-British rivalry that in some respects never really ended. As early as 1823, President James Monroe told European governments that the American continent was now closed to empire building. The British Navy enforced that assertion, since Britain already had its overseas possessions in North America.
For the rest of that century, the United States refrained from meddling in European affairs. Then it put an abrupt end to the Spanish Empire by stealing the its possessions. Washington’s relations with Britain were consistently hostile until Woodrow Wilson decided God had commissioned him to intervene in World War I—and British-American relations soured again shortly after the Versailles Treaty and American's refusal to join the League of Nations.
The U.S. Navy had contingency plans for war with Britain until shortly before it found itself at war with Japan. Franklin Roosevelt then decided that it was time for the United States to dismantle the British Empire, and found in Winston Churchill someone willing to trade winning the war against Hitler in exchange for surrendering that empire to the Americans—an empire that was coming apart anyway.
Harold Macmillan’s observation that Britain could play Greeks to the uncouth (American) Romans implied that the British were smart enough to go on running it anyway—but of course it didn’t really work out that way, ending in Tony Blair’s fetching George Bush’s car for him at international conferences (“Yo, Blair!”).
Washington has become a marginal player in much of the Middle East, largely as a consequence of its own incompetence, inconsistency, bias and weakness in allowing its Middle East policy to be shaped by neo-conservative fanatics, pro-Israeli zealots, anti-Islamic demagogues, Christian fundamentalist extremists, and assorted other strange folks who trample American principles and generate foreign policies that harm and marginalize the United States abroad.
That all of this should be so is a demonstration that U.S. foreign policy is no longer developed and conducted by people who are well acquainted with foreign matters and foreign countries. Such people are by no means always right—Vietnam and Cambodia are the supreme examples of that—but when they are wrong it can usually be put down to bad judgment, ideological bias, and bad political choices.
Today Congress and the most vocal part of the U.S. political class is mostly composed of people who have spent their lives in all but total isolation from what goes on outside the United States, other than as caricatured by talk radio, Fox News, and a certain portion of the blogosphere.
Their mistaken ideas are partly the result of simple ignorance. But deliberate political manipulation by special interests, active in Democratic administrations as well as in Republican circles, is also to blame. The Americans of whom I speak, have spent their lives inside the United States, preoccupied with domestic affairs and popular culture, possessing little or no interest in what goes on elsewhere, and rarely exposed to serious reflection on foreign political society by U.S. schools or the media.
They are not isolationists, as the vast majority of Americans were between the two world wars. They are isolated. Since the end of military conscription, they lack even the rudimentary acquaintance with the world that most young Americans in the postwar years acquired by being stationed for a few months abroad.
The vast majority of young Americans today know nothing of war other than what they see in the movies and computer games. Foreigners, candidates for American passports, and mercenaries do much of America’s fighting, which may be a dishonoring aspect of our role as the global superpower. It is, anyway, a career now nearing its end, to the benefit of all.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).