06.14.10

America's Dangerous Isolationism

Maybe the mineral deposits in Afghanistan will make us care about the war again. Peter Beinart on how indifference is letting policymakers do whatever they want, whether it works or not.

At least The New York Times remembers that we’re at war. On Saturday, it published a remarkable piece by a remarkable reporter, Dexter Filkins, suggesting that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lost virtually all interest in the anti-Taliban struggle that we are waging on his behalf. On Sunday, another extraordinary war correspondent, Anthony Shadid, reported on an attack by men in army uniform on Iraq’s central bank. The brazenness of the attack, Shadid noted, combined with the paralysis of Iraq’s political class, which has still not formed a government more than three months since the nation held elections, threatens to plunge Iraq into “the strife that the country experienced during the worst sectarian bloodshed in 2006 and 2007, when Iraq teetered on the edge of anarchy.”

Do these brave, gifted journalists know that with the exception of the American soldiers who are fighting these wars, and their families, barely anyone back homes cares? The Tea Party’s 10  point “Contract from America” doesn’t even mention foreign policy. At his keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference in February, Glenn Beck never uttered the words “Afghanistan” or “Iraq.” And as Michael Cohen noted in a recent New Republic article entitled “ All Silent on the Lefty Front,” liberal commentators are just as uninterested. Paul Krugman has not written a column on Afghanistan since Barack Obama took office.

On the ground, Americans are fighting hard and dying young, but in Washington, barely anyone outside of government seems to care whether we can achieve the goals for which they are sacrificing so much.

America’s public discourse is more inward-looking than it has been since the 1990s. Today, as then, the central drama in American politics is the right’s effort to undo the work of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, to restore the “freedom” that Americans enjoyed before the federal government inspected meat, taxed millionaires and prevented the elderly from starving in the street. Foreign policy, by contrast, has once again become the province of wonks. Except for Israel and maybe global warming, it’s virtually impossible to ignite a debate among non-specialists, which is why foreign policy so rarely rears its head anymore on cable TV.

One might think that this emotional isolationism would bring demands for military retrenchment. But ironically, the public’s boredom and disillusionment with international affairs actually makes it easier for the Obama administration to sustain U.S. deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Richard Nixon realized when he ended the draft in 1973, and thus sucked the oxygen out of the anti-Vietnam movement, it’s easier to prosecute a war when that war doesn’t directly affect the vast majority of Americans. Today, even more than then, war’s human costs have been confined to a military clique—a clique whose ability to organize politically is limited by law. In George W. Bush’s second term, Iraq became a dominant political issue nonetheless, largely because it came to symbolize a broader discontent with the people in power and the direction of the country. But among liberals, Obama remains far more popular than Bush, and because most liberals did not oppose the Afghan war from the start, they are not as passionately opposed to it now. Were the Tea Partiers true Libertarians—genuinely opposed to expensive and intrusive government—they would take up the anti-war banner. But with the exception of Ron Paul and a few others, they’re not true Libertarians; they’re anti-welfare staters, and so they treat Iraq and Afghanistan as irrelevant to their anti-government crusade.

Without a robust public debate, it is naïve to expect policymakers to confront hard truths. The Obama administration’s Afghan policy was premised on the belief that the U.S. could rapidly shift the military balance there, thus forcing many Taliban to lay down their arms and reach a political settlement with the government in Kabul in time for the U.S. to begin drawing down troops next summer. That vision was always at odds with the reality that counterinsurgency is expensive and painfully slow. And now, six months into the Afghan surge, we see little evidence of the rapid progress upon which Obama’s policy was premised and more evidence that with this Afghan government, progress may not be possible at all.

In a healthy political environment, Americans would be debating this endlessly. By highlighting public frustration, that debate might even prove useful to President Obama, who has been fighting a bureaucratic battle against those in the U.S. military who want an open-ended commitment to the Afghan war. But instead, since the activists and commentators are largely indifferent, the policymakers can do whatever they want, whether it is working or not. On the ground, Americans are fighting hard and dying young, but in Washington, barely anyone outside of government seems to care whether we can achieve the goals for which they are sacrificing so much. Perhaps Filkins and Shadid should remain in Afghanistan and Iraq. As depressing as covering those war-ravaged nations must be, they might be even more depressed if they came back here.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.