Iraq has become a Rorschach test for Americans. The interventionists see Iraq as proof American power was the crucial ingredient in keeping Iraq's neighborhood stable. The disengagers point to Iraq as a reminder America should never go “in search of monsters to destroy,” as then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said in 1821. The realists use Iraq's sectarian war to explain why ousted President Saddam Hussein was so ruthless - and why the U.S. should avoid upsetting the status quo. And the idealists see the tragedy of Iraq as a consequence not of post-9/11 regime change but of pre-9/11 realpolitik.
This Iraq inkblot underscores a lack of consensus among the American people about their place and purpose in the world. That's a dramatic departure from the period between the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks, when there was broad agreement that America's role was to lead the free world, guard the frontiers of liberty, and construct and sustain a liberal global order (one that benefits America more than any other nation). But a quarter-century after the Cold War ended - and after more than a decade of hot wars - the consensus has frayed. An old debate has been reignited by a public that is not only war-weary but also quite literally world-weary.
When the U.S. was young and weak, President George Washington wisely plotted a path of nonintervention. His farewell address famously warned against “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.”
Yet President Thomas Jefferson proposed an antipiracy alliance with Europe. When that failed, he launched a war on piracy. Jefferson followed that foreign entanglement by making a deal with France for the Louisiana Territory, opening the door to numerous new foreign entanglements: Of the 300-plus instances of U.S. military intervention tallied by the Congressional Research Service, 103 occurred before 1900.
As President James Polk pushed toward the Pacific, threatening and waging war along the way, some argued America could be a great power or a good neighbor - but not both.
By the end of the 19th century, Americans felt obligated to play the good-neighbor role by assisting the Cuban people in their struggle against Spain's occupation. As Robert Kagan observes in Dangerous Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), “The fact that many believed they could do something … helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.” This is a drastic divergence from Washington's counsel.
Nor did the U.S. limit its operations to Cuba. The U.S. also seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam; occupied Wake Island; and annexed Hawaii. By the time the smoke had cleared, some Americans were hailing President William McKinley as “chief of our nation and our empire.” Yet a sizable segment of the country condemned American-style imperialism, as evidenced by the controversial annexation and occupation of the Philippines, which divided even McKinley's cabinet.
President Theodore Roosevelt relished America's enhanced role on the global stage - using it to broker an end to the Russo-Japanese War; intimidate Germany, Morocco, and the Ottoman Empire; and expand the Monroe Doctrine to justify U.S. intervention. Foreshadowing today's humanitarian military operations, Roosevelt even argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”
Yet President Woodrow Wilson avoided the global stage, pledging during the Great War to be “neutral in fact as well as in name.” Roosevelt excoriated him for “tame submission to wrongdoing by foreign powers.”
But once transformed from isolationist to interventionist, Wilson committed America to Europe's war, waded into Europe's intrigues, and designed an organization “to secure the peace of the world.”
Unwilling to go that far in 1918, the American people retreated from global leadership for almost a quarter of a century.
The attack on Pearl Harbor disrupted their blissful isolation. “Once it became apparent that isolationism could leave the nation open to military attack, it suffered a blow from which it never recovered,” historian John Lewis Gaddis explains.
What followed was unprecedented but not unexpected. Concluding that the U.S. is more secure when it is more engaged, Cold War-era presidents remade the international system and, in a sense, reshaped the world in America's image: The Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe into a community of free trade and free government. Gen. Douglas MacArthur refashioned militarist Japan into a liberal democracy. The U.N. revived Wilson's “concert of peace” idea. Jettisoning Washington's advice “to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world,” postwar presidents committed the U.S. to a vast network of alliances - NATO; the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization; the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty; bilateral guarantees for South Korea and Japan; and the Rio Pact for the Americas - all backed by a million troops deployed overseas.
This puts in perspective plans to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2015.
If Pearl Harbor shattered the pre-World War II tradition of U.S. isolationism, did Iraq shatter the post-World War II tradition of U.S. engagement? Perhaps. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations, 52 percent of Americans said the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally” - up from 30 percent in 2002.
Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama declares, “It is time to focus on nation building here at home,” while Sen. Rand Paul advocates “a foreign policy that is reluctant,” with “less soldiers stationed overseas.”
To be sure, engagement carries costs - sometimes great costs. But it can yield great returns: U.S. engagement turned the tide during World War I, prevented another Dark Age during World War II, extinguished Japanese and German militarism during the postwar peace, preserved Western civilization during the Cold War, and elevated America to unparalleled geopolitical and geo-economic power during the post-Cold War period.
Moreover, Americans sometimes overlook the costs of disengagement.
Consider the case of Korea. The U.S. military took up positions in Korea in 1945 but withdrew in 1949. Then, in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced Japan, Alaska, and the Philippines fell within America's “defensive perimeter.” Korea didn't. Josef Stalin noticed.
“So far as the military security in other areas of the Pacific is concerned,” Acheson explained, “no person can guarantee these areas against military attack.”
In fact, America would guarantee Korea against military attack - at a cost of 37,000 American lives and 2 million civilian casualties. Disengagement proved catastrophic, which is why American troops maintain a presence in Korea today.
Or consider the case of Iraq. By every metric, post-surge Iraq was better than Iraq before the U.S. surge or after the U.S. withdrawal. Yet the disengagers saw U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained.
Importantly, U.S. military commanders recommended 20,000 U.S. troops for post-surge Iraq. The troops would stay in Iraq - as in Korea - to bolster a fragile government, stabilize the country, and secure U.S. interests.
Without America's help, many feared the worst. Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army warned in 2011 that his troops weren't ready “to face external and internal challenges alone.”
Three years down the road, the Iraq-Syria border has been erased by a marauding army of jihadists, cities liberated by American blood are under enemy occupation, U.S. troops and warplanes are returning to blunt the ISIS advance, 850 Iraqis are being killed each month, and the country is fracturing - opening the door to grave challenges to American interests.
Again, disengagement has been catastrophic.
In April 1975, as South Vietnam collapsed, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “accept the responsibilities of leadership” and reject the notion that “if we do not succeed in everything everywhere, then we have succeeded in nothing anywhere.”
That's good advice as a world-weary America drifts into another period of disengagement and doubt.