Syria: It Wasn't Isolationism

A look at the evolution of U.S. public opinion on engagement abroad.

One popular explanation for the American public’s palpable unwillingness to countenance military involvement in the Syrian civil war was that the country has slumped into a deep isolationist mood. But the reaction scarcely represents a “new isolationism” or a “growing isolationism” or a “new noninterventionist fad.” Rather, there has always been a deep reluctance to lose American lives or to put them at risk overseas for humanitarian purposes.

In Bosnia, for example, the United States held off intervention on the ground until hostilities had ceased, and, even then, the public was anything but enthusiastic when American peacekeeping soldiers were sent in. Bombs, not boots, were sent to Kosovo. In Somalia, the United States abruptly withdrew its troops when eighteen of them were killed in a chaotic firefight in 1993. The United States, like other developed nations, has mostly stood aloof in many other humanitarian disasters such as those in Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. The country did get involved in Libya, but the operation was strained and hesitant, and there was little subsequent enthusiasm to do much of anything about the conflict in neighboring Mali.

This perspective is seen most clearly, perhaps, when pollsters presented Americans in 1993 with the statement, “Nothing the U.S. could accomplish in Somalia is worth the death of even one more U.S. soldier.” Fully 60 percent expressed agreement. This is not such an unusual position for humanitarian ventures. If Red Cross or other workers are killed while carrying out humanitarian missions, their organizations frequently threaten to withdraw, no matter how much good they may be doing.

Some commentators, including such unlikely soulmates as Andrew Bacevich, Robert Kagan, John Mearsheimer, Rachel Maddow and Vladimir Putin, have variously maintained that we have seen the rise of a new American militarism in the last decades or that Americans hail from Mars.

But that perspective extrapolates far too much from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In these cases, opinion was impelled not by a propensity toward militarism, but, as with entry into World War II, by the reaction to a direct attack on the United States. These ventures—the 9/11 wars—have proved to be aberrations from usual patterns, not portents of the future. Although they demonstrate that Americans remain willing to strike back hard if attacked, they do not indicate a change in the public’s reticence about becoming militarily involved in other kinds of missions, particularly humanitarian ones.

An examination of the trends in a poll question designed to tap “isolationism” does not suggest a surge of militarism. Instead, it documents something of a rise in public wariness regarding military intervention beginning with the Vietnam War and, thereafter, a fair amount of steadiness punctured by spike-like ups and downs in response to current events, including 9/11 and its ensuing wars.

Since 1945, pollsters have periodically asked, “Do you think it will be best for the future of this country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stayed out of world affairs?” The question seems to have been framed to generate an “internationalist” response. In 1945, after all, the United States possessed something like half of the wealth of the world and therefore scarcely had an option about “taking an active part in world affairs,” as it was so blandly and unthreateningly presented. And, so queried, only 19 percent of poll respondents in 1945 picked the “stay out” or “isolationist” option. The authors of the poll question got the number they probably wanted.

(Actually, to generate high levels of this quality, the query can be reformulated to “We shouldn't think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” In that rendering, measured “isolationism” registers 30 to 40 percentage points higher.)

In the post-war years the “stay out” percentage rose a bit to around 25 percent, but it had descended to 16 percent in 1965 in the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and as the war in Vietnam was about to begin. The experience of that war pushed it much higher—to 31 to 36 percent—as part of what has been called the “Vietnam syndrome.”

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