A New Isolationism?
A few months ago, Afghanistan was a "war of necessity." What changed?


Conrad Black

The Obama administration’s shilly-shallying in Afghanistan is a textbook case of how not to conduct a war, and how not to lead an alliance.

In the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, the Democrats demanded the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and accused the Bush administration of conducting an unnecessary war in that country while ignoring the original campaign in Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorist attacks were planned.

As recently as two months ago, President Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” while Iraq had been a “war of choice.” This was a plausible argument, but Iraq died as an election issue when it became clear that victory might be at hand. And so now, the focus of debate has moved to the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, which American voters had supposed to be a settled issue.

One of the many problems that have arisen with the breakdown, since Vietnam, of bipartisan agreement in setting U.S. foreign policy is the tendency to lurch, every four or eight years, between the Republican view that the pre-emptive use of force is justified to forestall aggression and advance democratic values, and the Democratic view that foreign military action requires multilateral approval and must respond to a prior casus belli. Yet these latter conditions have been met in Afghanistan, which raises the question of whether today’s Democrats are at heart full-blown pacifists, or at least isolationists.

If either of these is the case, it would represent a radical and dangerous development in American foreign policy. In 1940–41, Franklin D. Roosevelt turned America from a neutral country to one that approved “all aid short of war” to Britain and Canada, and that attacked German ships on detection for 1,800 miles out from the U.S. Atlantic coast. He conceived of and secured bipartisan approval of the creation of the United Nations. His successor, Harry Truman, organized a bipartisan anti-isolationist coalition, launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, founded NATO, and led the defense of West Berlin, Greece, Turkey, and South Korea. Dwight Eisenhower gained bipartisan approval for his “Open Skies” aerial-surveillance proposal and for the defense of Taiwan, and resumed summit meetings with the Soviet leaders after a lapse of ten years. John F. Kennedy was supported by both parties in negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. From 1940 to 1965, a very fruitful time in U.S. foreign policy under five presidents of both parties, it was true that “partisanship ends at the water’s edge.”

The long nightmare in Indochina changed that. Having plunged the United States into Vietnam under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the Democrats doomed South Vietnam and Cambodia by cutting off all aid to them after Richard Nixon had extracted the 545,000 draftees the Democrats had deployed there on a flimsy legal pretext, and had avoided a Communist takeover in Saigon. Democrats ended all aid to the pro-Western faction in the Angolan war, and made a halfhearted effort to impeach Ronald Reagan for assisting the anti-Communist Contras in Central America. This foreign-policy schism has not healed, though it had become academic for a time after the Cold War ended in complete Western success and the USSR peacefully disintegrated.