There’s always been strong antiwar sentiment in this country. While it hasn’t always kept us out of conflicts or held us back from expanding across the continent to the Pacific in the 19th century, it kept us out of most of World War I and might well have done the same during World War II had Japan not bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany not followed up by declaring war on us too.
After those conflicts, Vietnam galvanized the modern antiwar movement. Many who forged their political view in the anti-war sixties are at the forefront of this movement today. Although the Democrats actually got us into Vietnam, the antiwar left essentially captured the Democratic Party after Lyndon Johnson stepped down.
But the question we have to ask ourselves as we move toward November is whether this way of seeing things is viable in today’s world. It’s true that there is no good reason to like war and thus strong reason to want to avoid it. Still, can we always do so and, more important, should we?
Many argue that our need to act militarily is really only a function of our involvement abroad. If we would only pull back, only mind our own business, foreigners wouldn’t dislike us as they do and terrorists wouldn’t attack us. After all, should we really care what they do to one another or what happens abroad as long as we’re secure on our side of the globe? And it’s true that if we could hunker down behind our oceans and ignore the rest of the world we would be safer. The problem, of course, is that we can’t.
The U.S. economy, and the kind of lives it makes possible for us, are completely dependent on our interrelations with the rest of the world. The jobs we have at home, the money we earn, the things we can buy are all dependent on U.S. prosperity. But we cannot prosper alone. We need trade with others because they buy what we make and we buy what they make. For that we need a stable and prosperous world. But these are at risk, and always are, from those who want to dominate and control others.
Well, isn’t that what we want, too? Isn’t a desire to keep the world safe reflective of our urge to dominate and control, too? In a sense it is, but this only means that the geopolitical world, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If we don’t fill it, others will. It would be nice to isolate ourselves from the rest of the planet except for when we want to peek out over our oceans for an occasional friendly visit at times of our choosing. But if we do, we might find the rest of the world not quite as friendly as we had hoped. Worse, how would we keep them from visiting us for unfriendly purposes?
More than sixty years after World War II ended, we still have troops in Europe and Japan. More than half a century after the Korean War, we still keep troops there. It would be nice to bring them all home but then what is left in their wake? Human beings are always vying for power and influence and if you don’t play the game, others will.
There’s no opting out, even in Iraq, where we began something for what appeared at the time to be very good reasons and where we have the potential to leave things better than we found them – if we stick it out. So come November, we’re going to have a stark choice: to move back toward isolationism, as demanded by core antiwar Democrats, or to remain engaged, like it or not, to fill a vacuum others would be only too keen to fill in our place.
It’s like riding a tiger. Hanging on is very dangerous, but getting off may just get you eaten.