Retreating into isolationism

Polls are indicating that many Americans are yearning for another retreat into isolationism.

The relentlessly grim news from Iraq, the antagonism abroad toward U.S. foreign policy, the stirrings of antipathy against free trade and the pull of delayed solutions to domestic problems are combining to make Americans feel fed up with being “over there.”

Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary on World War II is bringing home to younger citizens a new appreciation of how much suffering and how many American lives have been given over to war. After World War I, Americans said they never would go to war again and wanted nothing to do with Europe or the rest of the world. Then came Adolf Hitler and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After World War II, Americans had a brief respite from others’ conflicts before the Korean War. Then came the Cold War and Vietnam.

When not at war, America looked inward, built up its industry and economy, became the pre-eminent world power, established a middle class and began trying to solve social problems such as racism.

Americans again are weary of war. Polls show a majority want their soldiers home. They are angry with President Bush for continuing the war. They are angry with Democrats for not mustering enough votes to counter Bush. They are angry with Republicans for siding with Bush. They are angry with themselves for not knowing how to stop the killing, get out of Iraq and prevent genocide.

A new poll for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that an astonishing 59 percent of Republicans surveyed now say they think free trade “has been bad” for the U.S. economy. It used to be a given that you scratched a Republican and got a “more free trade” reaction. More than half of Democrats, seeing the loss of jobs to workers abroad who work for pennies, oppose free-trade deals. Tainted products from overseas have bolstered that sentiment.

We’re being told that Iran is a threat and might have to be dealt with militarily. (Where would we muster enough soldiers for that?) We fret about North Korea’s on-again, off-again promises to dismantle its nuclear reactors. We watch TV footage of Myanmar troops shooting at monks and dragging people from their homes. We see Congress arguing over a law that let private U.S. security contractors get off scot-free for shooting Iraqi civilians.

We are worried about the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, the dilemma over how to handle illegal immigration, the unpredictable housing market, the specter of recession and the ever-present problem of 47 million uninsured Americans. Voters want presidential candidates to have detailed plans to deal with such issues.

It staggers the mind to recall that, in 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore almost never talked about foreign policy. Then came 9/11, and we temporarily forgot about our domestic problems.

In 2004, we were fixated on whether John Kerry was maligned by those who questioned his Vietnam War credentials and whether Bush’s actions made us safer from terrorists.

We know, deep down, that we cannot retreat from the world. We know that having torn Iraq apart, we have to try to put it together again. We know that Iran and North Korea should not be permitted to get a nuclear bomb, that the United Nations, weak as it is, is our best hope for trying to manage this ungainly Earth. We realize global warming is a threat that can only be lessened by countries working together and that threats from al Qaeda, attacks on computer networks and biological weaponry are not going to disappear.

But who can blame voters for being tired of other people’s conflicts and others’ brutal wars over religion? Who can blame voters for their resentment over being squeezed ever harder by bills for tuition, taxes, mortgages, energy, etc., while the Pentagon’s budget soars to $459 billion? (And that doesn’t count another $190 billion Bush says we must spend in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

This angst is why we see the candidates trying to change the subject from “over there” to talk more about restoring the middle class, providing universal health-care coverage, rebuilding roads and bridges, narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Although President Bill Clinton pushed free trade, Hillary Rodham Clinton is more skeptical.

But every mainstream presidential candidate knows we are deluding ourselves if we think we can ever again try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. As long as we are a superpower, the problems of people thousands of miles away are ours.

(Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)


  1. pondering_it_all

    “As long as we are a superpower, the problems of people thousands of miles away are ours.”

    That’s a fine sentiment, but it is not what the American people oppose. This administration has destroyed all the good will America had all over the world, that peaked on 9/11/01. Because what they believe is:

    “As long as we are a superpower, the RESOURCES of people thousands of miles away are ours.”

    America can be the shining beacon of freedom to the world’s enslaved and empoverished people. We can bring them clean water, sewage treatment, modern medicine, non-polluting energy sources, ideas and methods that can bring about political and social reforms, and so on. Or we can bomb their infrastructure, kill their leaders, and sell them into slavery to multi-national corporations and the World Bank.

    We get to pick which path we will follow. That’s the real choice.

  2. lindaj

    Well said, thoughtful and meaninful. I am so glad to read that we don’t have the troops to attack Iran, that we have to work together to fix global warming as much as we can…. Thanks for writing this column full of good ideas and thoughts.

  3. bryan mcclellan

    We are not angry or piqued or upset.We are screaming f#*king fed up from our toes to the tops of our patience with the dismantling of our beloved nation and it’s core values.Fair play and a level playing field under this administration have become,we’ve got ours,now we are coming to get yours,even if it takes innocent blood to get it. Once we led the world in DIPLOMACY,MANUFACTURING,HUMANITARIAN AND DISASTER RELIEF to mention a few..Now we are viewed as the bully and the great evil by 7/10’s(maybe more) of the earths inhabitants.We are being screwed by over taxation,needless spending,voodoo regulation,and loophole tactics where privacy and the right of self protection has become extinct in our own homes.We don’t want isolation,we want a fair chance to compete and having no other choice but to purchase inferior slave labor goods is a goddamn insult to the generations of skilled laborers who established the mantra,BUY AMERICAN,QUALITY COMES FIRST.How in the Sam Hell can we lead the world when we can’t produce a f#*king toy that is not going to poison our kids when they happen to chew on it?How can we lead when we have no majority voice in our electoral process and rigged voting machines to prove it.How can we lead when our asshole in charge orders torture and then is caught openly lying about it and is not taken to task?These are just a few of my questions.Angry?Hell,the people I talk to are far past simple angst.We are fed up and something has got to change before this nation literally tears itself apart. It appears to me that this was the plan all along,to steal our national pride and dignity,to break and divide us,to pit one American against the other,and what worsens that prospect is that it is originating from our very midst by politicians talking out of their asses,saying one thing to get elected then doing the opposite.Those elected to ensure our survival have turned a blind eye to the matters of our own solvency,then put the blame on us if we ask for a fair wage and the ability to bargain.Angry doesn’t even come close to describing the feelings on a national level at this time.Sick to our guts of it all is more like it!!!!