Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Americans Want Isolation, According to a New Pew Research Center Poll

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on December 7, 2009

Americans to Washington: "Let's Mind Our Own Business"

Is the United States gradually embracing a policy of isolationism?  Well, if you took President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech into account, this question seems like a rather foolish one to ask.  In case you missed the address, one thing basically summed up his new approach to Afghanistan; an additional 30,000 American soldiers will be deployed in Taliban-infested areas.  With the U.S. Military still engaged in Iraq as we speak, the total combat force level in the Middle East and South Asia will be approximately 225,000.

With a quarter of a million soldiers on Muslim soil, why are we even discussing isolationism?  Well, according to a recent Pew Research Center Poll, it is because a plurality of American citizens want the United States to “mind its own business” in world affairs.  Almost half of the respondents- 49 percent- wish that the White House would cease to be the world’s policeman, the highest level of isolationist sentiment in the last forty years.

So why is this figure significant, and what (if any) impact does it have on President Obama’s foreign-policy?

First, the 49 percent figure suggests that tens of millions of American civilians are sick and tired over war.  With the United States approaching its ninth year of combat in Afghanistan, and with U.S. troops still holding the fort in Iraq, the average American citizen is starting to question whether American military involvement is necessary to protect vital national interests.  Democrats in Congress and academics in America’s top universities- Stephen M. Walt in particular- seem to think not.  In fact, a number of people are beginning to wonder if Afghanistan is all that important to U.S. national-security.  After all, Al’Qaeda- the group that started the War on Terrorism in the first place- is no longer in Afghanistan.

On another note, the isolationist stance of the poll implies that the American economy is still their number one concern.  And one can hardly blame them.  Unemployment is at its worst since the early 1980’s, with over 10 percent lining the streets for jobs.  The United States continues to spend irresponsibly in areas that are questionable at best, such as splurging close to a trillion dollars on war-related activities; money that could easily be spent on improving a pathetic excuse of a public education system.  The U.S. trade deficit with China is at an all-time high, and the budget of the U.S. Government is not workable unless more debt is added on top of the pile.  With all of these domestic troubles, Americans are no longer willing to look after Afghans and Iraqis.  They are screaming for their government to “practice nation-building in America first.”

Or perhaps Americans want other countries to start pulling its weight around the world.  From Afghanistan and Iraq, to Iran and nuclear proliferation, it is becoming ever clearer to the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Japanese that Americans are no longer interested in taking charge of each and every issue.

This bears the question of the whether the President’s foreign-policy agenda is affected in any substantial way.  Will he respond to the wishes of his own constituency, or is he intent on transforming Afghanistan into a semi-stable state conductive to the international system?

The answer appears to be both.  The troop surge in Afghanistan shows his eagerness to salvage the mission, whereas his July 2011 withdrawal timeline plays to the sentiment of the war-weary American.  This duality exposes the true nature of Obama’s surge strategy; it is an inherently political decision aimed at appeasing two opposing camps.  In a time of war- especially when that same war is going badly- basing a policy’s rationale on political considerations may not be the best choice.

Here is a conclusion for everyone to ponder; with two costly wars on Muslim soil, with the American economy continuing to struggle, with the U.S. education system lacking in substance and resources, and with domestic infrastructure crumbling, Americans want change.  The problem is that this change compromises what the President wants to achieve in the Middle East and in South Asia.

But who knows.  Maybe I am wrong.  Maybe the 49 percent who supported isolation just had a bad day.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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2 Responses

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  1. David Acai said, on December 7, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    I think you would find a similar opinion on the government minding its own business locally too. The government has no business running auto companies and banks.

  2. arvay said, on December 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    – – – are more well-founded than they realize.

    While I’m sure most Americans believe that we’re giving massive help to nations everywhere and receiving a lot of hostility in return — our media somehow assures that few people realize that the bulk of our aid is military and goes primarily to Israel, Egypt and now to Pakistan — their viewpoint is well-founded.

    A conspiracy? Far sadder than that. The news business knows it will get better ratings feeding folks the latest Tiger Woods scandal or balloon boy nonsense. People don’t want to hear bad or disturbing news.

    One major problem with our elites is that, unlike the Chinese elite (the Party) ours are hopelessly delusional — enraptured with their ego-driven view that America shall remain the “dominant superpower.”

    Of course, the military/industrial folks are generating a lot of money, so some of our elites are benefitting directly.

    But it’s hard to imagine the Chinese elite allowing something like AIPAC to direct an important part of their foreign policy. The fact that we do only buttresses their conviction of our decline, I’m sure.

    Our citizenry is only dimly aware of what the real drivers of our policies are — the “infotainment” news media take care of that quite well.

    But they know something is deeply awry, and would like it to go away.

    Sadly, we’ll need to suffer much greater damage before the sentiment ever gets translated into action.


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