In the immediate future, I do not think the United States will be intervening abroad on the ground — not in the Middle East or, for that matter, many places in other parts of the world. The reason is not just a new Republican isolationism, or the strange but growing alliance between left-wing pacifists and right-wing libertarians.
Some of the new reluctance to intervene abroad is due to disillusionment with Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the sense that the means — a terrible cost of American blood and treasure — do not seem yet to be justified by the ends of the current Maliki and Karzai governments. Few Americans are patient enough to hear arguments that a residual force in Iraq would have preserved our victory there, or that Afghanistan need not revert to the Taliban next year. Their attitude to the Obama administration’s unfortunate abdication of both theaters is mostly, “I am unhappy that we look weak getting out, but nonetheless happier that we are getting out.”
There is not much optimism left that either of those two nations will, over the coming decades, evolve along the lines of South Korea, from a stable free-market authoritarianism to true consensual government. Endemic ingratitude also seems to matter to the public. Most Americans don’t feel that either Iraqis or Afghans appreciated us very much for ridding them of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. For that matter, do Egyptians, Jordanians, or Palestinians seem thankful for U.S. aid?
We are broke and owe $17 trillion in long-term debt, which makes it harder, psychologically, to borrow the money to intervene in Syria. The lack of money, like mental exhaustion and ingratitude, is an additional catalyst for inaction. Obama certainly is not just an isolationist who welcomes a U.S. recessional; he is also an isolationist who understands that his do-nothing policy is not all that unpopular with a broke and underemployed public.
The American people do not worry so much now over the traditional Western interests in the Middle East as they did in the past. China is now the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil. It pays almost nothing for the safe commercial environment of the Persian Gulf ensured by the U.S. military. If North America proves to be energy-independent by 2020, the U.S. will be largely immune from embargoes and boycotts. OPEC in general, and its Arab franchises in particular, are no longer so critical to the security of the United States. It is becoming an untenable situation when a democratic United States continues to keep safe the sea-lanes of the autocratic and sometimes anti-American Persian Gulf to ensure oil for an autocratic and sometimes anti-American China. That does not mean that the oil-rich Persian Gulf will not be vitally important to the world at large, or of strategic interest to our rivals and enemies — only that it will be more difficult to invest U.S resources in the Middle East with the traditional urgency.
Mediterranean Europe is a mess, largely because of the fiscal imbalances brought on by the euro. Amid financial collapse, Greece and Cyprus increasingly look to Israel and Russia to counter Turkey in lieu of the old, engaged United States. In any case, Athens, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Tripoli don’t seem to be centers of innovation or wealth creation. For that matter, almost the entire rim of the Mediterranean, with the exception of Israel, is stagnating.
Other than Israel, and NATO members Greece and Turkey, we have almost no allies in the region. Note in that regard that Greece is bankrupt and still conspiracist and anti-American, and Turkey is increasingly Islamist.
But more important, the removal of tyrants so far has not led to much social, economic, or political improvement, much less an upswing in pro-American sentiment. Egypt and Libya are as bad off after the demise of their tyrants as they were before. Assad’s opponents don’t seem all that much better than the monster in Damascus. Maliki, once freed of U.S. overseers, increasingly reverts to tribal politics. Afghanistan may go the way of Vietnam once we leave. Successful nation-building requires a sizable and long-term U.S. ground presence, something apparently politically toxic for the foreseeable future.
The threat of a rival global hegemon in the Middle East like the Soviet Union is gone. China seems unable so far to craft regional power over its oil suppliers. Al-Qaeda is ascendant, but it is hard to know whether it thrives better under dictators who stealthily pay it subsidies to direct its violence westward, or under the tribal postwar chaos that follows the Western-inspired downfall of tyrants.
The U.S. has kept out of Syria, not because we suddenly became isolationist, but rather because Obama had not a clue about what he was doing, and by 2013 there are fewer U.S. strategic interests in the region, at least in comparison with other areas of the world. Those that remain — maintaining Israel’s safety and the sanctity of the Suez Canal, forestalling Iranian nuclear proliferation, protecting Europe’s southern strategic flank — don’t seem to require ground intervention as much as traditional sea and air patrolling. If the borders of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union changed without a major American intervention other than in the Balkans, then few Americans believe that the current upheaval over colonial-era demarcation lines in the Middle East demands our stewardship. Intervening in Libya and considering it in Syria more likely hindered rather than enhanced U.S. readiness to preempt a nuclear Iran.
A similar diffidence seems to be occurring with respect to Latin America — an area, we are always lectured, that is on the verge of becoming the new regional powerhouse. Argentina is a basket case. The “new era” of democratization and free-market economics seems undermined by statist authoritarians in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Brazil and Argentina often sound as anti-American as our worst enemies — and in the Age of Obama, no less. If Mexico were in the Middle East, its level of violence would earn calls for U.S. humanitarian intervention in the manner of Libya and Syria.
Of course, much of Latin America’s hostility to the United States is just loud talk, given its growing cultural and commercial ties with the U.S. and its bizarre need to export millions of its people to a country it so publicly rebukes — as if to say, “I hate you so much that I’ve sent you my children to care for.” In general, the American people do not see any crisis in Latin America that warrants intervention. We mostly declaim that we want good will and prosperity, while privately we hope that Mexico refrains from sending another 15 million of its unwanted citizens illegally across our border.
In truth, our vital interests seem confined to two areas: Europe and East Asia. The EU can survive without the euro’s being used in all its participant countries. And to the degree it cannot, NATO, the fact of a nuclear France and Britain, and German commercial self-interest all ensure a continued peace within the continent, and not much worry about invasion from the south or east.
What America should be concerned about is the ascendance of China in the neighborhood of our close allies Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent the countries of Southeast Asia. Yet the U.S. already has a sizable presence in the Pacific, and Obama has promised to augment it. We should be concerned that our key allies — should they doubt this administration’s adherence to past commitments (a legitimate concern) — could easily become nuclear, and in a frighteningly rapid and effective manner. In any case, in times of regional crisis, other than at the 38th parallel, our allies and interests can largely be defended by air and sea. There seems little likelihood in the immediate future of a Pacific war fought along the lines of Vietnam.
Terror is still with us. Tomorrow terrorists could topple a U.S. skyscraper or bring down American airliners. This kind of aggression would trigger a U.S. response, but even such an act would probably not result in another Afghanistan-like invasion. A sustained bombing campaign would probably suffice, not because it would necessarily be more effective than boots on the ground, but because there is less evidence these days that a ground insertion would be all that much more useful in the long term.
There will be more Rwandas, Srebrenicas, and Syrias in the immediate future, along with more calls to do something — and fewer American interventions in response. That reluctance is not necessarily because we are broke, tired, isolationist, or indifferent to moral concerns, although we are becoming all of that. Rather, Americans are not sure that we have the security interests we once had in the Middle East and elsewhere, and our elites do not have the wisdom to explain how our projected aims, methodologies, and desired results will improve life for the supposed beneficiaries of limited U.S. intercessions. In short, the more humanitarian crises develop, the less we are convinced that we could make things better by intervening — or, even if we could, that those whom we thought we were helping would actually believe that we did.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.