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.