Politics & Policy

Why Bother: The New Isolationism

As Americans’ support for Middle East engagement wanes, so does our influence there.

The United States is backing off from the Middle East — and the Middle East from the United States.

America is in the midst of the greatest domestic-gas-and-oil revolution since the early 20th century. If even guarded predictions about new North American reserves are accurate, over the next decade the entire continent may become energy-independent, without much need of petroleum imports from the Middle East.

America’s diminishing reliance on the Persian Gulf coincides with mounting Chinese dependency on Middle Eastern oil and gas. So as the Persian Gulf becomes less important to us, it grows even more critical to the oil-hungry, cash-laden — and opportunistic — Chinese.

After two wars in the Middle East, Americans are as tired of our forces’ being sent over there as Middle Easterners are of having us there.

#ad#The usual Arab complaint against the United States during the Cold War was that it supported anti-communist authoritarians in the oil-rich Gulf and ignored democratic reform. After the 1991 Gulf War, the next charge was that America fought Saddam Hussein only to free an oil-rich, pro-American monarchy in Kuwait, without any interest in helping reformists in either Kuwait or Iraq.

After the Gulf War of 2003, there was widespread new anger about the use of American arms to force-feed democracy down the throat of Iraq. Finally, during the 2011 Arab Spring, the Arab world charged that the United States was too tardy in offering political support for insurgents in Egypt and Tunisia, and again late in “leading from behind” in helping European nations remove Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Now the Arab world is hectoring America to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Let’s get this all straight. America has been damned for its Machiavellian shenanigans in supporting authoritarian governments; for its naïve idealism in using force to implant democracies; for its ambivalence in not using force to protect democratic protesters; and for its recent isolationism in ignoring ongoing Arab violence. Why, then, bother?

There are other growing fault lines. The old conventional wisdom was that Sunni Muslims shared Israeli fears of a Persian bomb on the horizon. The new conventional wisdom is that the Arab masses that are propelling the Muslim Brotherhood into power in Egypt prefer the idea of a nuked Israel to the danger of a nuclear Iran.

The subtext of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is that the region, if given a chance, will embrace its own brand of freedom. But that does not appear to be happening in Egypt or Libya. And for now, desire for democracy does not seem to be the common glue that holds together various Syrians fighting to overthrow the odious Assad dictatorship.

Newly elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood attended college and later taught classes in California. Apparently Morsi once came here to enjoy American freedom, and for his family to be protected by our tolerance and security. Is that why he is crushing liberal opponents and the Egyptian media — to ensure that they never enjoy the protections and opportunities that were offered to him while a guest in the United States?

Note that anti-Americanism was often attributed to the unique unpopularity of Texan George W. Bush, who invaded two Middle Eastern countries, tried to foster democracies, and institutionalized a number of tough antiterrorism security policies. In turn, Barack Obama was supposed to be the antidote — with a Muslim family on his father’s side, his middle name (Hussein), early schooling in Muslim Indonesia, a number of pro-Islamic speeches and interviews, apologies abroad, and a post-racial personal story.

Yet recent polls show that Obama is even less popular in the Middle East than was Bush.

Staggering U.S. debt also explains the impending divorce. With $5 trillion in new American borrowing in just the last four years, and talk of slashing $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next ten years, America’s options abroad may be narrowing. President Obama also envisions a more multilateral world in which former American responsibilities in the Middle East are outsourced to collective interests like the United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League.

Perhaps soon the problem will be that we simply will not have enough power to use for much of anything — and we would have to ask the U.N. for permission if we did.

Usually nothing good comes from American isolationism, especially given our key support for a vulnerable, democratic Israel. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, our Humpty Dumpty policy of Middle East engagement is now shattered.

And no one knows how to — or whether we even should — put it together again.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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