The most recent poll by USA Today clearly marks the end of the era of international focus and energy triggered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Now, forgetting the lessons of that day, Americans are again turning inward and rejecting involvement with the rest of the world.
To most politicians, pundits and journalists inside the Beltway, American voters can move to the left or the right on foreign-policy questions. But the voters themselves perceive a third option: to step backward.
Isolationism, a largely ignored theme in our politics, is growing rapidly in the wake of the sacrifices we are making in Iraq. It is this feeling of wanting the rest of the world to go away, not any leftward drift, that is animating the drop in President Bush’s approval ratings as the war drags on.
On April 7-9, USA Today asked a national sample of voters if the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own.” Almost half of all Americans, 46 percent, agreed with the statement, while 51 percent differed. These results are almost the same as the pre-Sept. 11 polling of January 2000, when Americans broke 46-50 on the same question.
In the interim, of course, came Sept. 11, when the nation found out why foreign affairs were vital to domestic peace. In the aftermath of the attack, only one-third of Americans thought we should “mind our own business.”
Interest in foreign affairs fluctuates in the American psyche. After the Korean War, we turned inward but were awakened by JFK’s challenge to assume the responsibilities of freedom. Vietnam drained us, and we entered a period of isolationism that did not end until Ronald Reagan shook us out of it in the 1980s. With the collapse of communism, we stopped paying much attention to events beyond our shores until Sept. 11 brought home the reality that there was no longer a real division between domestic and foreign issues.
But now the bloodshed in Iraq and the peace from terrorism at home have brought us back to something more like our self-involved introversion — what President Warren G. Harding called “normalcy.”
This withdrawal from globalism is a predictable consequence of the quagmire of Iraq. Bush has spent the constructive energies unleashed by Sept. 11 on his bid to make Iraq a stable democracy. Whether he has squandered our national vigor or simply invested it wisely will only become apparent in the next few years, but what is glaringly obvious is that our patience is over.