Defining Ideas

The New American Isolationism

Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The New American Isolationism
Image credit: 
Gwenael Piaser

Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East (Hoover), a series of essays by several distinguished Middle Eastern experts.

Not long ago, it seemed that the Middle East would be reborn in the spirit of the Arab Spring. The liberal aspirations that suddenly erupted across the region promised to overthrow despots, end repression, and remake the future, while partaking of the culture of innovation through social media that has come to mark a new global generation. Hopes for bright opportunities pointed to profound trans­formations.

But in response to those glowing aspirations, a new repression has set in, a reactionary turn against the prospects for freedom and free societies. Much of this has indigenous roots; there were always many powerful opponents to change, and the revolution gave way to counterrevolution and bloodshed.

The New American Isolationism
Image credit: 
Gwenael Piaser

Yet there is also an international context, defined especially by the policies of the one state that had survived the Cold War as the single superpower: the United States. Of course US policies have never fully dictated the vicissitudes of the region, but they have had great influence for decades. So when, in the wake of the 2008 US presidential elections, new messages began to emerge from Washington, the consequences were significant. Instead of the Bush administration’s robust effort to remake the Middle East, the Obama administration has pursued a generalized reduction of the American footprint. A grand retreat has begun, and the reduction of the US commitment has, in turn, set off a wave of repercussions. What the ultimate outcome of this retreat will be we cannot predict, nor can we know whether the next administration will continue to withdraw from a region that the US has regarded as central to its international security strategy for decades.

We can, however, know what the US has been doing, just as we can examine what American leaders have been saying with regard to the Middle East and its future. Such an examination can help us understand what motivates the retreat, how much it is a choice of the Obama administration, and how much it is rooted in deeper American cultural leanings that could outlast the administration. The departure from the Middle East involves some powerful shifts in the worldview of Americans in general and parts of the policy-making elite in particular with regard to America’s role in the world. It is not only about changing evaluations about this specific corner of the globe; it also reflects predispositions to retreat from politics altogether, to retreat from the burden of leadership, and to retreat from the advocacy for democracy. Each of these retreats deserves scrutiny.

To understand America’s retreat from the Middle East, one has to recognize how it is, at least in part, a reflection of the degradation of politics in general, which characterizes our culture in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The American departure from a part of the world in which it has provided security and stability for more than a half-century is not only a limited strategic decision—although it certainly does include specific geopolitical miscalculations in Washington. It is also a much broader phenomenon: a secular diminishment of politics, a disdain for politicians and the possibilities of domestic civic life. This renunciation of political vision has translated into a reduction of foreign-policy ambitions, of which the exit from the Middle East is a prime example. The generalized flight from politics, which has supported an isolationist reorientation of the American mind, has multiple causes, some profound, rooted deeply in the shifts of post-Cold War culture, while some are the direct effect of the character of the Obama administration. The extensive significance of this withdrawal from the world, isolationism as a particular form of depoliticization, becomes clear by first stepping back briefly to consider the potentials of politics, in general, as well as the sources of antipolitical sentiment.

Politics involves collaboration, working together to formulate strategies through conflict and compromise and then to participate in their execution. Politics entails partnerships—alliances, allies, coalitions, caucuses—where deliberation and argument play out in order to reach decisions. It’s no wonder that politics, on one level, is tied closely to rhetoric: politicians have to persuade, and once the persuasion and negotiation conclude by achieving a program, action can be taken to carry it out. The crux of politics is the deliberation, whether among free citizens within a state or among representatives of sovereign states in international affairs.

Yet that ideal of a deliberative politics, central to the thinking of the founders of the American republic who built on the classical traditions of antiquity, has always faced challenges from alternative accounts of the political for which the concerted action of citizens did not count for much. For Marxists and other proponents of the social state, the political life of the citizenry pales in significance, since they view it as merely a secondary reflection of the allegedly more profound reality of the economy. In this version, politicians are only agents, shadow boxers, or figureheads, standing in for the genuine reality of hidden economic forces; political speech is, so the adherents of this viewpoint argue, a mere camouflage of avaricious ulterior motives. Such fascination with hidden agenda explains why this line of thinking often devolves into conspiracy theories with simplistic narratives of innocent victims and hidden powers of evil. Through fairy tales like this and, more generally though, due to the pull toward the primacy of the economy, such approaches threaten to undermine the public sphere and contribute to forms of depoliticization, and they therefore reduce the capacity of the community of citizens to pursue its goals through political action.

Meanwhile, however, the republican tradition of civic virtue faces more sophisticated criticism from another camp that emphasizes politics as the instrumental capacity to exercise power and impose control. Niccolò Machiavelli was the first prominent proponent of the primacy of power, followed by Friedrich Nietzsche and then Max Weber, who defined the state in terms of its claim to hold a monopoly on the exercise of legitimate violence. In this tradition, politics is not about an independent sphere of deliberation in which autonomous citizens pursue freedom; rather, it is only a matter of assuring that the state can wield violence most effectively. The fact of state power is what matters, not the character of political life (i.e., whether it is democratic or dictatorial).

This instrumentalism leads directly to the deeply non-Marxist implication of the viewpoint expounded by a leading Communist politician of the twentieth century, Mao Tse-tung, the claim that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. This fetishism of violence has had its own bloody history in parts of the anticolonial movements, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the tyrants of the developing world, and in the multiple ideologies of terrorism that have besieged the planet in recent decades. What links these various examples is not only the ease with which radical movements have been prepared to shed blood in pursuit of their goals, but, even more fundamentally, the primary focus on the tools of power, the guns out of which power allegedly grows. The instruments and technologies through which the state exercises power displace consideration of the genuine values and goals that politics might pursue. The greater the focus on the tools and the weapons, the smaller the importance of political debate. Nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck would have en-dorsed this viewpoint with his insistence that “blood and iron” were the means with which to pursue national goals, not political speeches or parliamentary debates.

The art of politics, the capacity to search for compromise and build cooperation, has always faced threats from these twin antipolitical tendencies: economic reductionism and instrumentalist violence. These forms of depoliticization undermine democracy. Yet in contemporary American culture, one cannot help but note a similar antipolitical mood, a degradation of public deliberation, whether it is gridlocked in Congress or polarized on the radio. A retreat from politics mars contemporary American culture, magnified by the specific character of the Obama administration, and this provides part of the explanation of the great American retreat from a political role in the Middle East. Giving up on politics, we, as a culture, are giving up on political ambitions, including the capacity to act strategically in the world and, especially, the Middle East. One wonders whether today’s Washington can envision any grand strategy, let alone carry it out.

It was not always so. Leaving aside the long history of American achievements since the end of the Second World War, one can cite examples of recent success, including the extraordinary accomplishments of US policy in bringing the Cold War to an end. American diplomacy played an indispensable role in redesigning a Europe in a way that has led to the European Union and a peaceful continent. Whatever the fiscal problems within the euro zone, the EU itself has proven an enormous success when measured against what preceded it, a divided Europe, with Russian troops and weapons in the middle of Germany. Bringing the Cold War to an end was a victory of American foreign policy during the Republican administration of George H. W. Bush, and ending the bloodshed in the Balkans represented a comparable achievement of US diplomacy during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. Not that long ago, then, America engaged robustly in the world in ways that contributed indisputably to the good. Without that American commitment to political engagement, the map of Europe might look quite different today, and the lands of the former Yugoslavia might still be seething with violence.

An inclination to retreat from an engaged foreign policy already began to emerge during the first months of the George W. Bush presidency, with its initial resistance to the nation-building policies associated with its predecessor. Yet in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the prosecution of the war on terror pulled the US into the Middle East and Central Asia, redefining foreign-policy goals toward the ambitious project to spread democracy. While this policy turn resulted primarily from the terrorist attacks and the pursuit of Al Qaeda, it is important to note how the democracy agenda also displayed a striking continuity with the emphasis on human rights from the Clinton years as well as from the Republican legacy of Ronald Reagan, all of which based ­foreign-policy goals on understanding American values as having universal validity.

At first, those ambitions seemed bold but certainly credible in the light of recent historical experience. The dictatorships of Communist Eastern Europe had collapsed with little violence (except in the sorry case of Romania), and it could seem plausible that a similar democratic wave would sweep triumphantly, and peacefully, through the Arab world in the wake of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. (Nor was that aspiration fully wrong, since, with some delay, the Arab Spring would follow and unsettle the old order of Middle East dictators. But it would quickly involve significant violence, and the response from Obama’s Washington would be quite different, much more hesitant and confused, than the Bush administration’s unambiguous support for the transformation of Eastern Europe.) The optimistic illusion that the changes in the Arab world would take place as smoothly as those in the post-Communist world after 1989 may have contributed to the catastrophic insufficiency of political postwar planning by the US as to how to rebuild Iraq after the fall of Saddam. At the very apex of the American victory, the moment of military victory in Baghdad, the limits of American political thinking became apparent. We could topple the dictator, but we had no plans to help the nation rebuild, especially when the extent of devastation caused by the years of Baathist rule became apparent.

The aspiration to define victory in Iraq exclusively in terms of the use of military force, the program of “shock and awe,” was itself symptomatic of a reluctance to give the political sphere its due. To imagine that American influence could rely exclusively on the technologies of war or, for that matter, on economic largesse in terms of foreign aid is to miss the importance of political institutions—building the partnerships, alliances, and coalitions of sovereign states with commitments to shared goals. The history of the past years in both Iraq and Afghanistan has shown the Obama administration’s repeated unwillingness to build those alliances through the compromises that define the very nature of politics. It let the negotiations with Iraq collapse over a status of forces agreement by refraining from making any serious political effort to reach a compromise. It has similarly failed to manage the relationship with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. In each case, the political failure set the stage for American withdrawal. Moreover, the administration’s consistent aversion to political accomplishment in the foreign-policy arena helps explain the curious character of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, marked by much frenetic travel that led to no achievements of note. No chief American diplomat has ever flown so far to do so little.

The US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq and the US responses to Iran and Syria all have their own character and deserve detailed study. Yet we should not forget the forest for the trees: a long-term process has been unfolding in recent years, marked by a devaluation of politics and an amplified reliance on technology. Consider this trajectory of American foreign policy: after the unification of a democratic Europe, the opposition to genocide in the Balkans, and vocal advocacy for human rights, followed by the democracy agenda of the Bush years, Obama’s Washington has turned to an ever-shrinking engagement, symbolically represented by the deployment of the weapons system that most symbolizes the absence of a human element, drone warfare. No drone ever won hearts and minds. Yet it is drone technology that has come to define US presence in the region, in a way 
the president explicitly endorsed in his notorious remark that “I’m really good at killing people,” as reported by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their account of the 2012 election, Double Down.

The aversion to politics is especially clear in the grand trade-off the Obama administration has pursued, rejecting regime change in order to pursue arms control: political form matters less than the instruments of war. Recall how the administration twice faced moments when popular democratic movements have burgeoned into significant threats to dictatorial regimes hostile to the United States: the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011. Yet with regard to Iran and Syria, the Obama administration provided nothing more than meager verbal support for the democratic opposition; and it failed to subject the regimes to any noticeable pressure to refrain from crushing their critics. For the Obama administration, a political outcome that would have entailed regime change has always been too frightening to pursue. In the end, it has staked its own reputation on the durability of the mullahs in Tehran and the House of Assad in Damascus. The call for democracy, a leitmotif in US foreign policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush, has been silenced by the Obama administration.

Instead of democracy, Washington has focused exclusively on managing weapons technology. Arms control, especially halting the proliferation of nuclear arms, is a vital and legitimate component of efforts to prevent catastrophic warfare. Yet in the wake of the revelation of the clandestine talks with Iran that led to the interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, it became clear the Obama administration had willingly sacrificed democratic politics in Syria in order to try to limit Iranian weaponry. It has also viewed drawing the Iranian regime into arms control negotiations as preferable to supporting the protest movement against the Iranian regime. As of this writing, the outcome of those negotiations remains quite uncertain, and doubts are rising as to whether Iran will credibly curtail its drive for a nuclear bomb. Similarly the agreement to eliminate Syria’s capacity to produce chemical weapons may turn out to be unverifiable, and it is evident that Damascus is dragging its feet in turning over its arsenal.

It is painfully clear that Washington has paid a price for these negotiations—not in Iran, but in Syria. While the Iran negotiations were under way in secret, the civil war in Syria was raging, and the Bashar al-Assad regime was carrying out gas warfare, prohibited by international law and shunned by the civilized world. As long as the casualties from these attacks remained relatively limited—in the tens and twenties—the US chose to say as little as possible and do nothing: it even denied requests from regime opponents to equip them with gas masks and anti-sarin injection kits. Washington took every opportunity to minimize its involvement in Syria and refrain from significant opposition to Assad precisely in order to shelter the negotiations with Iran, Assad’s protector. Had the US instead protested vigorously against the use of gas, it apparently believed that the negotiations with Iran might be jeopardized. Instead, in remarks made in Stockholm, the president spoke in a way that signaled that gas warfare below a certain threshold could be tolerated. In his words, “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons would have to be used before he would reconsider reacting to Assad’s gas warfare. The initial victims of Assad’s repeated attacks were, evidently, sacrificed to the American realpolitik of pursuing the arms control negotiations with Iran, and the success of that realism remains unclear.

Not until the attack of August 21, 2013, which claimed more than 1,400 victims, did Obama speak out decisively against the use of gas. Finally the “red line” he had drawn earlier had been crossed in a way that demanded a response. Yet he abruptly backed down, and the damage to his credibility was enormous because of the con­fusion and mixed messages that characterized Washington’s response. That profound diminishment of the prestige of the US president is also part of the retreat from politics.

The failure of politics: in Iraq the administration let the negotiations to come to a status of forces agreement collapse, and in Afghanistan the prospect of an American role in the future is in doubt. Without any regional political ambitions, the US is clearing out, and the regional actors know it. That inability to carry out politics, however, reflects the priority of the administration’s disregard to questions of rights, democracy, or political substance. We are witnessing the transformation of foreign policy from the pursuit of core democratic values into an instrumentalist reasoning which, in terms of weapons reduction, has yet to show any success. Meanwhile the US, once the undisputed leader of the West, is ceding the region to competitors and enemies. At this point, the antipolitical inclinations of the administration and our culture, veering toward isolationism, turn into an explicit abdication of leadership.

You may access the rest of the essay here

Russell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Berman specializes in German culture and is a member of both the Department of German Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture (1998) and The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma (1986), both of which won the Outstanding Book Award of the German Studies Association. Other books include Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem (2004), Fiction Sets You Free: Literature, Liberty and Western Culture (2007), and, most recently, Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (2010).


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