October 8, 2013
When President Obama recently said to the United Nations General Assembly that the world faces the danger the U.S. "may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership," he was speaking as much to the American people as to international diplomats. A disturbing revelation has emerged from our recent foreign policy debates: Most Americans are deeply opposed to engagement beyond our shores. Our country, the bastion of democracy that has inspired the world, is less interested than it used to be in influencing that world.
That disengagement is dangerous. It was only strong diplomatic effort backed with military force that led to the past two weeks' promising developments in the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.
Events in Syria could have gone far differently. Before Russia provided Obama a way out of confrontation by proposing international inspection of Syria's chemical weapons, the president was confronting a Congress reluctant to authorize military action against the regime for killing 1,400 of its own people with sarin. Even though such U.S. action was to be limited, many members of Congress from both parties reported their constituents were dead set against it.
Public opinion surveys bear them out. A New York Times/CBS poll showed that 68% of Americans did not think the U.S. has the responsibility to "do something about the fighting in Syria," and that 57% opposed airstrikes under any circumstances. Such sentiments go beyond this specific case.
An earlier Times/CBS poll asked whether the United States should take the leading role in trying to solve international conflicts. Sixty-two percent responded it should not.
A scan of the online conversation fleshes out the mood: Desire to spend resources at home, doubt about the Syrian rebels and concern about experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though these concerns cannot be dismissed, turning away from the world endangers our nation and its core values.
The idea that America is better off staying out of conflicts elsewhere unless they directly threaten our well-being — isolationism — has deep historical roots. In the words of John Quincy Adams, who served as secretary of State and president two centuries ago, America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."
But a policy of disengagement appropriate to the 19th century, when we were relatively self-sufficient and wide oceans protected us, cannot work when there is instant worldwide communication, a globalized economy and weapons of mass destruction deliverable anywhere.
Adams himself declared our country "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," but today wishing is not enough. While we must prudently gauge situations and refrain from unnecessary initiatives, we have the duty to intervene when our long-range interests and deepest values are at stake, not only out of a moral obligation but also because no nation is immune from the effects of foreign events. The fate of democracy and human freedom anywhere affects us here at home.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt made this point when he challenged isolationists in 1937, saying, "Innocent peoples, innocent nations, are being cruelly sacrificed to a greed for power ... devoid of all sense of justice and humane considerations. ... If those things come to pass in other parts of the world, let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy."
President Reagan sounded the same theme at the 40th anniversary commemoration of D-Day on the coast of Northern France: "We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than ... rushing to respond only after freedom is lost."
Not only the Syrians and the Russians, but also those developing nuclear weapons in North Korean and Iran read our opinion polls. So do jihadists. Our leaders must rise to the occasion and, like Roosevelt, Reagan and Obama, explain why it is in our national interest to be the leader of the democratic world. Our fate as a nation could rest on it.
Lawrence Grossman taught history at Yeshiva University and is the American Jewish Committee's director of publications. Date: 10/8/2013 12:00:00 AM