August 14, 2014

America: Beware the Siren Song of Disengagement

By Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine

In authorizing airstrikes in Iraq, President Obama faces a challenge: making the case for U.S. action to an American population that is tired of energetic international engagement. While cautioning that airstrikes may go on for months and that any solution is “a long-term project,” he also took care to acknowledge Americans’ worries about an ever-deeper military commitment to Iraq. While a slight majority now appears to support airstrikes against ISIS targets, there remains a pervasive weariness—among both Democrats and Republicans—not only with Iraq, but with the world and its many challenges.

Why, Americans are increasingly asking, must it always fall to the United States to spend energy, treasure and sometimes blood to right the world’s wrongs and enforce international rules of the road? After more than a decade of grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial crisis coupled with high unemployment and deep deficits, the chaos and instability brought about by the Arab Spring and other global events and a sense that our allies have ridden free for too long, many Americans are saying that enough is enough.

Their leaders are as well. Responding to the demand signal—or lack thereof—for international activism, it is today much more common to hear American politicians criticize engagement—whether military, economic or diplomatic—than encourage it. More often, many senators and representatives do not express a view on international affairs at all, believing that they were sent to Washington to deal with pocketbook and social issues and not to take foreign-policy positions. Meanwhile, President Obama has emphasized “nation building at home,” and foreign observers in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere worry aloud that America is turning inward.

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