washingtonpost.com
The Isolation Pendulum
Expect a Cyclical U.S. Retreat From World Affairs After the Iraq War

By Peter Beinart
Sunday, January 22, 2006

When Americans think about foreign policy, they often think in cycles. In 1952 an academic named Frank Klingberg divided America's relations with the world into periods of "extroversion" and "introversion," each lasting about a generation. After World War I, he noted, America turned inward, only to turn outward again after World War II. In 1974 another scholar, Michael Roskin, picked up the thread, arguing that Vietnam was pushing the pendulum back to isolationism. Sometime in the 1990s, he predicted, the pendulum might swing again.

Such theories, of course, lack social scientific rigor; American foreign policy cannot be set to a clock. But cyclical thinking still subtly frames much public discussion. For President Bush, the pendulum swung on Sept. 11, 2001, when a decade of introversion ended and the war on terrorism began. "After the shipwreck of communism," Bush declared in his second inaugural address, "came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical -- and then there came a day of fire."

It's not hard to see why this framework appeals to Bush. It equates Bill Clinton with the head-in-the-sand isolationists of the 1930s and demoralized post-Vietnam leaders such as Jimmy Carter. And it makes Bush the heir of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. But over four years after Sept. 11 and almost three years after the invasion of Iraq, Bush's framework looks increasingly flawed. Historians glancing back at this period of American history will most likely see Sept. 11 not as the beginning of a new foreign policy cycle but as the apex of an old one. And it will be Iraq that marks the turning point -- ushering in exactly the isolationist mood that Bush thinks disappeared on that "day of fire."

To understand why, start where Roskin left off, in the mid-1970s. There's no question that Vietnam sparked a dramatic shift in America's mood. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who said America should "mind its own business internationally" more than doubled between 1964 and 1976. And among foreign policy elites, both Republican and Democratic, the change was just as stark -- with Richard Nixon insisting that America's regional allies, rather than the United States itself, carry the burden of containing the Soviet Union, and with Congress slashing both weapons systems and foreign aid. As David Broder wrote in 1975, "Vietnam has left a rancid aftertaste that clings to almost every mention of direct military intervention."

The isolationism of the 1970s powerfully shaped men such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who cut their teeth in the Nixon and Ford administrations. And in contemporary conservative myth, the post-Vietnam introversion ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, who put America back on the offensive in the Cold War.

But that's a misreading of history. In many ways the 1980s are better understood as a continuation of the introverted post-Vietnam spirit. It's true that Reagan sharply boosted defense spending. But when it came to military intervention, the Vietnam hangover severely curtailed his actions. During the Central America fights of the 1980s, Reagan repeatedly promised not to send American troops to Nicaragua or El Salvador, because the public remained viscerally hostile to any significant Third World intervention. He briefly sent Marines to Lebanon in 1982, but withdrew them soon after terrorists attacked their barracks. In fact, by the end of Reagan's first term, prominent conservatives were despairing over his timidity. He may have talked a good game, noted Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz in 1984, but "in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained . . . in the face of serious opposition, he would usually back down."

The real pendulum swing came not in 1981 but in 1991, with the Persian Gulf War. America's war for Kuwait had little in common with its war for South Vietnam: In the Gulf, the world was mostly on America's side, the objective was clear and the terrain was favorable. Still, Vietnam dominated public debate in the months leading up to the war, far more than it would in 2003, when America again clashed with Saddam Hussein. And in Congress, the vote to authorize the war was far closer. In many ways the Gulf War perfectly illustrated the cyclical foreign policy theory: Only when the case for intervention grew overwhelmingly strong -- as it had in the early 1940s and as it did again in the Gulf -- did Americans close the door on an isolationist age.

From this perspective, the 1990s hardly look like years of sabbatical and repose. While it's true that military and foreign aid spending declined after the Cold War, Bill Clinton was actually far more willing to send American troops overseas than was Ronald Reagan. From Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo to East Timor, America's military interventions were relatively minor but frequent. When Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, critics called him reckless. But when Clinton bombed Iraq far more intensively in 1998, he was mostly criticized for not going far enough.

And despite an early stumble in Somalia, the interventionist consensus strengthened over time -- with Clinton acting more aggressively in Kosovo than he had in Bosnia four years earlier and apologizing for not intervening in Rwanda, a country with virtually no strategic significance. Key first-term Clinton advisers -- such as Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national security adviser Anthony Lake -- had been deeply influenced by Vietnam. But Christopher's successor, Madeleine Albright, explicitly rejected the Vietnam template, declaring that "my mind-set is Munich," and thus harking back to a previous interventionist age.

Obviously, Sept. 11 had a dramatic effect on U.S. foreign policy. But it didn't usher in an extrovert age so much as it intensified the one that already existed. Kosovo had bred optimism about the efficacy of American airpower when it was combined with local allies on the ground, and Afghanistan dramatically affirmed the same point. By late 2002, when Americans debated the invasion of Iraq, the United States had completed three successful military interventions (Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan) in the previous seven years. Confidence in America's military capacities was at a historical high, and Vietnam -- which saturated the Gulf War debate -- was invoked far less frequently. Of course, many Americans still opposed the invasion, but in Congress the vote for war was more lopsided, even though the merits of the case, which I supported, were weaker than they had been in 1991.

In the past year or so, however, it has grown increasingly clear that while Sept. 11 merely intensified an old mood, Iraq is producing a new one. Public isolationism has jumped sharply since 2002. Even more striking is the change in elite opinion. According to a recent Pew study, the percentage of security experts who say the United States should be highly assertive around the world has dropped from 75 percent in 1993 to 53 percent today. Among leading scientists and engineers, it has dropped from 55 percent

to 32 percent. Among top religious leaders, it has fallen from 57 percent to 36 percent.

It's not just that a growing number of politicians and commentators want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Even beyond Iraq, the two hottest foreign policy issues of the moment are energy independence and a crackdown on immigration -- both efforts to protect America from the world, not to transform it.

And there's another telltale sign that the pendulum has swung. From the Senate's defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the attack on the "imperial" presidency in the midst of Watergate and Vietnam, isolationist phases are marked by a reassertion of legislative prerogative. Dick Cheney picked up his mania for executive power in the mid-1970s, when Congress was feeling its oats -- passing the War Powers Act, investigating the intelligence community and passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When Bush and Cheney came to power, they aggressively reasserted executive authority. And after Sept. 11, Congress acted more like the Bush administration's junior partner than an equal branch of government. Cabinet agencies brazenly ignored congressional requests for information, and in 2002 the White House virtually anointed Bill Frist as Senate majority leader.

But in the past six months, as both the country and Washington have grown more isolationist, Congress has come back to life. Disgruntled Republicans forced the White House to withdraw Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court. Disgruntled Democrats suc-

cessfully filibustered renewal of the USA Patriot Act. And after giving the Bush administration huge legislative victories in its first four years in office, the House and Senate in 2005 spurned Social Security privatization, the centerpiece of Bush's second-term domestic agenda. In the words of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, "what you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet." For Cheney, who began his political career during the last assertion of congressional power, it must be an unhappy case of deja vu.

Is this swing of the pendulum something to celebrate? Yes and no. To be sure, the Bush administration had grown dangerously unaccountable. Presidents must recognize the limits of their power, and so must America itself. But if history is any guide, there will be costs as well. In the years to come, if the isolationist mood deepens, future presidents may find themselves unable to act early and aggressively against foreign threats. At the end of his 1974 article, Michael Roskin worried that by the 1980s and 1990s, Americans might have learned the lessons of Vietnam too well. Perhaps by the 2010 and 2020s, they will have overlearned the lessons of Iraq.

The writer is editor of the New Republic and a monthly columnist for The Post. His book, "The Good Fight," will be published in June.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company