Isolationism creeps back over America, as the president looks out for himself

Isolationism creeps back over America, as the president looks out for himself
© Getty Images

For 72 years, the United States has acknowledged international as well as national interests. President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPrince Andrew says he regrets staying with Jeffrey Epstein Now for your moment of Zen from the Trump impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE said in 1997, “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.” No more. It ended this month when President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. forces from Syria, saying, “Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand.”

Since World War II, whenever there has been a serious threat to world order or to humanitarian values, one rule has applied: If the United States doesn’t do anything, nothing will happen.

What would have happened if the United States had failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, nothing. Kuwait would have become part of Iraq. Having acted in Kuwait, the first President Bush left the crisis in the Balkans to the Europeans. It was Europe's backyard. The U.S. had no vital interests there. What happened? Nothing. The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world's vocabulary: ethnic cleansing. Eventually, the U.S. felt morally compelled to step in and lead a NATO mission to end the brutality.

ADVERTISEMENT

When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world — including the United States — looked away. So nothing happened.

The result was genocide.

It is hard to imagine a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that is not guaranteed by the United States.

The political establishments of both parties have acknowledged U.S. international interests since 1947. That’s when President Harry Truman, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, called for the United States to abandon its historic isolationism and assume leadership of the free world in its struggle against communism.

Given the country’s long history of isolationism, many doubted Americans’ willingness to support an open-ended conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future. But we did, for 70 years. Communism represented a threat not only to U.S. national security but also to American values (“atheistic communism”).

ADVERTISEMENT

Donald Trump is the first president since World War II who has openly repudiated America’s international interests. In his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to end America’s “endless wars.” The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria is a signal to his supporters that he is keeping that promise. “Let them fight their own wars,” Trump said. “They’ve been fighting for a thousand years.”

His message to our Kurdish allies in Syria who bore the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State? And who provided crucial intelligence leading to the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist? Trump wished anyone who decided to help protect the Kurds well, noting on Twitter that he hopes “they all do great. We are 7,000 miles away!”

At his Oct. 17 rally in Dallas, Trump declared, “American combat troops should not be at the center of ancient sectarian conflicts all over the world!” To which his supporters responded, “Bring them back! Bring them back!”

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDeval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field Jon Huntsman expected to run for governor in Utah MORE (R-Utah) spoke for the Republican Party establishment when he criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, asking, “Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States? Turkey?”

Few congressional Republicans echoed Romney’s dissent. They are terrified of facing a backlash from Trump’s isolationist base.

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGraham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for the Democratic Party establishment when he said, “President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE seems determined to keep handing political and military victories to Russia and Syria, kowtowing to Turkey and opening the door for further Iranian expansion in the region.”

Few Democrats joined him. They are mindful of the fact that U.S. military intervention is not popular with liberal Democrats.

A former U.S. ambassador to NATO offered this observation to the Washington Post about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria: “That may play well to the president’s base but it doesn’t play well to anybody who understands America’s role more broadly in the world, which has been founded for 70 years on American credibility.”

It’s difficult to defend President Trump’s actions in Syria and Ukraine as enhancing American credibility. Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer who worked on counterterrorism in the Middle East, saw the U.S. raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a clear reminder of why we need to remain in Syria as long as the Islamic State remains a threat: “If you’re not there physically, then it’s really hard to conduct the human intelligence gathering that … is the backbone for conducting these kinds of raids.”

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated U.S. army officer who serves on the National Security Council (and who listened to President Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine) told House impeachment investigators that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was not in America’s national interest. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” Vindman said, “and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

What interest was President Trump pursuing in Ukraine and Syria? The American people know the answer. The Quinnipiac poll asked them whether they believe that “in his dealings with Ukraine, President Trump was pursuing the national interest or his own personal interest?”  By nearly two to one (59 to 33 percent) they said “his own personal interest.”

In Trump’s foreign policy, Trump’s personal interest reigns supreme.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).