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.
Republicans criticize Democrats for not proposing new solutions to the Iraq war, but the GOP misses the point that their opponents don’t have to do so. The wind of isolationism is at the Democrats’ back, propelling them onward to the likelihood of massive victories in 2006 and 2008.
The metaphor with Jacques Chirac’s France is interesting. Opponents of the Chirac-Villepin regime, like Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, all surely realize that freeing the labor market of ridiculous constraints on firing workers is a vital necessity for France to compete in the world economy, but there is no reason for Sarkozy to say so. He can just ride the disillusionment Chirac and Dominique de Villepin have left in their wake with their failed efforts at reform.
The Democrats don’t have to recommend any alternative to Bush’s policy. All they need to do is attack it. The wind of isolationism will do the rest for them.
Isolationism is so discredited with insider opinion that nobody dares articulate its rationale in public. Like racism, it has been dismissed as a legitimate opinion by the elites, but not yet by the voters themselves. Defeated in the Democratic Party by Pearl Harbor and in the GOP by the Eisenhower 1952 defeat of Sen. Bob Taft, it retains its grip on about half of our country’s voters.
After Korea, isolationism helped the Republicans. After LBJ, it helped the GOP. After Nixon, it helped drive the Carter victory. In the 1990s, it permitted an exclusively domestic politics that allowed foreign-affairs novice Bill Clinton to get elected. Now it is undoing the Republican majority.
Woe to the politician, like Bush, who arouses the genie, and woe to his party that tries to win in its wake.