America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

Almost every war that America has fought since the beginning of the twentieth century was a war America had determined to avoid. We were neutral in World War I . . . until unlimited submarine warfare against our trans-Atlantic shipping became intolerable. We resisted entering World War II until Pearl Harbor. We defined the Korean peninsula as lying outside our “defense perimeter,” as our secretary of state declared in 1950, a few months before North Korea attacked South Korea and we leapt into the fray. A few years later, we rebuffed French appeals for support in Vietnam in order to avoid involving ourselves in that distant country which was soon to become the venue of our longest war and greatest defeat. In 1990, our ambassador to Iraq explained to Saddam Hussein that Washington had “no opinion on . . . your border disagreement with Kuwait,” which he took as encouragement to swallow his small neighbor, forcing a half million Americans to travel around the world to force him to disgorge it. A year after that, our secretary of state quipped about the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia that “we have no dog in that fight,” a sentiment echoed by his successor, of the opposite party, who, demonstrating his virtuosity at geography, observed that that country was “a long way from home” in a place where we lacked “vital interests”—all this not long before we sent our air force to bomb Serbia into ceasing its attacks on Bosnia and then bombed it again a few years later until it coughed up Kosovo.

Yes, there is a pattern here. When international conflicts devolve into serious violence, they often land on America’s doorstep regardless of our wishes because ours is a big, influential, powerful country with far-flung interests. Ours is also arguably history’s most successful country, so it is natural that those who have the good fortune to be Americans would rather go about their lives than entangle themselves overseas. But time and again we have seen that the choice is not up to us. Switzerland can remain neutral as wars come and go. America, not so easily.

On my list of wars above, several might have been averted or at least fought on more favorable terms had we been more ready to fight. By the same token, our most brilliant foreign policy success, namely, averting a hot World War III and bringing the Cold War to a conclusion on our own terms, was the fruit of the most energetically internationalist policy that the US had ever adopted, indeed that any non-imperial power had ever pursued. This experience, as well as our dismal record at staying out of wars, should teach us some strong lessons about the deepest and most important question in US foreign policy, which is not about tactics and places but about how intensely engaged we should be. The shorthand for this debate is internationalism versus isolationism. The latter term may be unfair since no one preaches true isolation, but I use it to characterize the impulse toward a modest or restrained approach.

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The case for this “isolationism” is weak, but not nonexistent. If we have sometimes erred in the direction of being too reluctant to engage, there may also have been instances when we were too hasty. We plunged into a second Iraq War that many Americans came to believe was too costly, too difficult to win, and of uncertain necessity. But even if this judgment is right, the Iraq War was a part of President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, and possibly that war might have been averted had we fought terrorism more energetically before September 11, 2001. This includes opportunities to take Osama bin Laden out of action that we failed to seize. Had we been bolder, too, in 1991 and forced the ouster of Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War, we might have found no reason to go back into Iraq twelve years later.

My point is not that America should resort to force lightly, heedless of the risk of embarking on a war that is either unnecessary or unwinnable, but rather that rarely is it realistic to imagine that we can “mind our own business and let other countries get along as best they can,” however much Americans may wish to do just that. American power is the ballast that keeps the world relatively stable. Because it is both very powerful and devoid of imperial ambition, there is no other state, consortium, or international institution that can replace it. This is what President Bill Clinton meant when he called America the “indispensable nation.” The locution sounded embarrassingly self-glorifying but in fact merely reflected his wonderment at discovering that he could not successfully offload America’s burdens onto the UN, as he attempted during his first term in office, when he sought to “focus like a laser” on the domestic economy.

Despite Clinton’s epiphany, President Obama has sharply downsized America’s global role. It is said that the president is merely reflecting the national mood, but it is scarcely surprising that popular opinion is trending isolationist in the absence of a presidential summons to international action.

Since the end of the Cold War, isolationism has been fed by two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, that America should not sully itself in a messy world; on the other, that America, itself, with its capitalism and its “hyper” power, is a bane to others. President Obama, whose intellectual origins were on the Left and who came to office criticizing his predecessors for insensitivity and arrogance, seems to embody the second of these two ideas, while his policy of disengagement draws support from a public more apt to believe the first of them.

Of course, the important question, as always, is not an absolute choice between internationalism and isolationism but whether America can be active enough to forestall another cataclysmic event like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. And if it is to serve our security in this respect, activism cannot be a goal in itself nor can it be random. It must be guided by an assessment of potential threats.


Today, one stands out, and that is radical Islam, or political Islam. This is a movement whose core goal is to mobilize the umma, the universe of believers, against the West. It also entails a call (often backed by harsh coercion) to stricter observance of the faith. But this in turn is motivated less by the fancy of saving souls, as in eras of Christian brutality, than by the conviction that the derogation from piety is the cause of the Muslims’ weakness vis-à-vis the infidel, and this weakness, conversely, is said to be the ultimate evidence of Allah’s displeasure with the umma.

Al-Qaeda’s attacks on America on 9/11 constituted the expression of this ideology most devastating to Americans. But the problem is much larger and potentially even more threatening. Political Islam aims to dominate the Muslim world. Whether it can succeed in this goal remains an open question.

We might consider its progress to date in comparison to the history of the last movement that challenged Western civilization, Marxism. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century, this powerful ideology accumulated millions of adherents but really took off only after seventy years, when a Marxist movement seized Russia and harnessed the power of a great state to its revolutionary goals. For another thirty years, despite gathering momentum worldwide, it failed to gain sway beyond the borders of the USSR (and Mongolia) before finally exploding outward after World War II to gain power over one-third of humanity, nearly bringing the West to ruin.

Political Islam is in an earlier stage of its trajectory. It was born with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s (and also had separate roots in India), giving rise to a worldwide movement that took over its first important country, Iran, fifty years later. This gave a sense of momentum to political Islam everywhere, notwithstanding the divide between Shia and Sunnis. Only about one-fifth of the world’s Muslim-majority countries are electoral democracies, and the proportion is much smaller in the Middle East, but such elections as have been held in recent decades have consistently registered great strength for parties espousing political Islam, and opinion polling in countries without elections reveals similar public sentiment.

True, support for the most violent and extreme versions of this philosophy is expressed by only a minority, but not a negligible one. Something like fifteen or twenty percent in many Muslim countries say they approve of al-Qaeda, or did of Osama Bin Laden when he was alive, which is often a larger share than express positive views of the US or its president. On the whole, political Islam commands more adherents globally than did Communism when it seized Russia or during the years that it constituted such a menace to civilization. And although it may represent only a minority, the dynamism of political Islam gives it an ability to dominate events at the expense of the “silent majority,” as exemplified by the conflict in Syria. There, a secular regime is heavily dependent on (Shiite) Islamist fighters from Lebanon and Iran, while an opposition movement, which is or was also predominantly secular, has been largely swallowed up by (Sunni) Islamist militants.

The strength of political Islam has been all too evident since the Arab uprisings of 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power briefly in Egypt, arguably the most important Sunni state if not quite the largest, and in Tunisia. It has suffered setbacks in both countries, but whether it can recoup and achieve similar gains in the surrounding countries remains an open question. Also, Turkey has gone Islamist. This is worrying not only because of its strategic weight but also because the secularizing legacy of Kemal Ataturk that Turkey appears to be shrugging off was the closest analog in Islam to the Enlightenment in the world of Christendom. Of course Ataturk’s greatness lay elsewhere than Voltaire’s, but the cardinal contribution of each was a radical assault on clerical authority.


Do we really have anything to fear from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda? Aren’t they moderates and isn’t their moderation even, as some have suggested, the best antidote to immoderate Islamists like al-Qaeda? However moderate they may be, the essence of their ideology is a sense of grievance toward the West or at least of competition. Even if merely the latter, it is not to be satisfied by peaceful achievements any more than the Prophet Muhammad sought to demonstrate the superiority of his revelation by leading his disciples in outperforming the infidels in industry and learning.

If political Islam comes to rule over a large part of the Muslim world, it will lead to wars, perhaps some among the believers as in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon today, and also between them and the non-Muslims. The terrorist wing of political Islam may not predominate, but it will flourish, battened on new resources. Al-Qaeda will grow, or there will be one, two, many al-Qaedas, to borrow a phrase from the Communists, and there will be more state-directed terrorism of the sort Iran has pioneered.

All of this will be infinitely more terrible if political Islam comes to be armed with nuclear weapons, as President Obama seems ready to allow rather than break faith with his ideological conviction that America’s problems are overwhelmingly of its own making. An Iranian nuclear bomb need not be detonated to give a tremendous shot in the arm to militant Islam. The Middle Eastern cauldron, already hot, will boil more intensely, and in the end there will be another war, or wars, that we will look back on and see could have been averted, had we only acted earlier, with more wisdom, courage, and energy.

Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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