When it comes to foreign policy, calling a country an "isolationist" is like painting a wide, yellow streak on its back. How can a country be seen as strong when it excuses itself from the fight? As Michael Hirsh sees it, that's the situation President Barack Obama's administration finds itself in as it prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
As he wrote in his recent article for The Atlantic and the National Journal, "there is an inward lean to American foreign policy, a listing homeward that appears to be a kind of neo-isolationism. Compared with the neoconservative strain of a decade ago — a belief in the aggressive projection of American power voiced most recently by Mitt Romney early in the 2012 presidential campaign — it is virtually a reversal of direction."
Complicating the picture is the president's promise that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would "change the calculus" that governs U.S. policy there. Now that the use of such weapons is accepted as fact, the administration is under pressure to take decisive action.
"No president will admit to being isolationist, of course, including Obama," Hirsh writes. "That policy approach ended with Pearl Harbor, when the small but powerful America First movement abruptly dried up amid the outrage over the Japanese attack. America went from fighting and winning the war to rebuilding the postwar global system, for which it has since been the primary caretaker. Since that time, no American politician has been able to publicly embrace anything resembling isolationism and be elected to national office."
When it comes to saving face, pleasing both sides of the aisle and representing the people who actually elected him, these ideas become more nuanced. Hirsh goes on to say, "Today, however, it's easier to be a stealth isolationist. The turn inward has been enabled by new technology, particularly drones, that allow America to project power without putting boots on the ground overseas or, in many cases, placing pilots in jeopardy. Cyberwarfare is also relatively cheap, especially in lives."
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• Pentagon Shoots Down Kerry's Syria Airstrike Plan
At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. ... Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria's integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn't welcome. (Bloomberg.com)