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)