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The 'I' Word Spooks Washington

See you back home
You've got to give President Barack Obama credit on one count: he's been paying attention. His big policy speech tonight on the war in Afghanistan was finely tuned to the national mood.

Take the evening's headline quote:

America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.

That was the coda of a section that included this remarkable passage:

Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people.

A couple of years ago this was the sort of thing you would have heard from antiwar activists on the pretty-far-over left -- and also from Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas whose emphatic small-government philosophy entails a rejection of just about any sort of overseas military involvement.

But now the argument is cropping up everywhere. A good piece in "The New York Times" today mentioned the intriguing case of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has just issued a statement calling upon the government to start spending money on American cities rather than Baghdad or Kabul. The "Times" pointed out that this was the first time since the Vietnam War that the mayors -- whose ranks, it should be said, include quite a few Republicans -- have seen fit to take a stand on U.S. foreign policy. The article went on to quote from a speech on June 21 by a young Democratic senator, Joe Manchin III (Democrat-West Virginia):

We can no longer, in good conscience, cut services and programs at home, raise taxes or -- and this is very important -- lift the debt ceiling in order to fund nation-building in Afghanistan. The question the president faces -- we all face -- is quite simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light of our nation's fiscal peril, we cannot do both.

Former presidential candidate John McCain (Republican-Arizona) thereupon took to the Senate floor to denounce Manchin's "isolationist-withdrawal-lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude that seems to be on the rise."

If the past few days were any indication, McCain, a classic Republican internationalist who believes that the United States remains the world's main force for good, has some busy weeks ahead of him. For it turns out that the bacillus of Manchin-style noninterventionism is no longer exclusive to historically challenged Democrats. Last weekend McCain found himself compelled to scold several members of his own party -- and presidential candidates, at that -- for flirting with isolationist sentiment. Jon Huntsman, previously Obama's ambassador to China, had said that

the very expensive boots on the ground may be something that is not critical for our national-security needs, nor is it something we can afford this point in our economic history.

And there was this from Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts:

I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban.

Let's get real, though. Viewed in historical context, these remarks scarcely constitute the sort of full-blown "isolationism" denounced by McCain and a number of other neo-conservative critics. This cautious edging-toward-the-door is hardly a repeat of the sort of aggressive "America First" noninterventionism that dominated U.S. politics in the interwar period right up to Pearl Harbor. (For that matter, let's not forget that it was 2000 Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush who promised voters that he was about to break with the obsessive "nation-building" of Bill Clinton. No one accused Bush of "isolationism" back then.)

Yet the urgency with which McCain and his colleagues have turned up the rhetorical heat on their colleagues suggests that something has them spooked. You can't blame them. The past decade of war has taken thousands of lives and shattered tens of thousands of American families, not to mention consuming $1.3 trillion of taxpayer money. Osama bin Laden is dead. The U.S. pullout from Iraq is well under way, and the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan, as the president repeated tonight, is merely a matter of timing.

(Obama, it should be noted, tiptoed carefully around the open-ended engagement in Libya, which is rapidly becoming a lightning rod for war-fatigued U.S. voters. He gave it only a sentence -- and that mainly so that he could describe it as the place "where we do not have a single soldier on the ground.")

Of course, it could even be that those frantic neo-conservatives have simply been reading the polls. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center on June 10 showed that the number of Americans who favor removing forces from Afghanistan has spiked. For the first time, a majority of them (56 percent) say that U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible.

Isolationism this is not. But neither is it business as usual. And maybe that's a good thing.

-- Christian Caryl