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The Neo-Isolationist President

In his speech at West Point last week, President Obama removed all doubt that his foreign policy is destined to diminish America’s pivotal, stabilizing role around the world. He said that while the U.S. would continue to honor its treaty obligations, when it comes to conflagrations outside this umbrella the country would henceforth work only through coalitions and international organizations like the United Nations.

According to the Obama blueprint, the U.S. would not hesitate to use military force when “core interests demand it” – that is, “when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.”

But, he went on, when “crises arise that stir up our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction…we should not go it alone.” He dismissed the “Bush doctrine,” saying “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” He railed against those who “say every problem has a military solution,” who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

Thus, events like the Russian seizure of Crimea or China’s threats to its neighbors would attract U.S. action only if other nations were also willing to stick their necks out – a doubtful proposition at best. And of course Russia and China have veto power in the UN Security Council, which would have to authorize any UN action.

Since the end of World War II it has become increasingly clear that if the United States is to be a force for international order and peaceful coexistence, it cannot rely on massive military power to impose its will. Though the U.S. emerged from World War II in a preeminent military position – with the Soviet Union, England and France digging themselves out of wartime devastation – it soon became apparent that the real task would be addressing the challenges posed by local communist and nationalistic insurgencies that did not fit the great war model.

Just five years after America’s victory over Germany and Japan, China and North Korea were able to fight the U.S. to a standstill in the Korean War. To be sure, the U.S, was unable, because of political restraints, to use its military capacity to the fullest in Korea. Yet that was but part of the new reality. It became more apparent in the course of the Vietnam War. Try as it might, with unprecedented bombing and destruction, the U.S. could not defeat the Vietnamese nationalists, who were part of the indigenous local population.

The Gulf War of 1991 was different, involving set battles in which U.S. forces rolled over Saddam Hussein’s minions and ousted them from Kuwait. But the postwar trend resumed twelve years later in the second Gulf War, which resulted in the ouster of Saddam Hussein but saw the emergence of an insurgent movement Saddam had long suppressed.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 was a similar story, with early success giving way to a long and costly war against insurgents.

Certainly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan once more made it evident that in order to continue its role in maintaining world order, the U.S. would have to transition from a set-battle mindset and figure out how to deal with more diffuse and elusive enemies. Indeed, the president spoke of the need “to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama’s proposed solution – relying on ephemeral coalitions and a UN in thrall to the Third World as well as subject to Russian and Chinese veto power – is woefully short of the mark. Nor does the plan he announced to create a $5 billion fund to support anti-terror efforts around the world change anything.

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