I started the review by quoting the British political scientist D.W. Brogan’s famous essay in 1953 in Harper’s—well-worth reading today, I think—about the illusion of American omnipotence. Brogan’s basic point was that Americans, particularly on the right, tend to think that conspiracies are involved when Washington encounters setbacks abroad. He was pointing specifically to the Soviet Union and China and McCarthyism—the idea that there had been a sell-out, that Alger Hiss had singlehandedly subverted America at Yalta (when he was, in fact, a minor State Department official). Americans, Brogan suggested, needed to abandon the idea that they can alter the world at their whim.
Whether this amounts to isolationism, however, is a different story. Brogan was trying to get Americans to abandon the devil theory of foreign policy and take a more sober look at foreign afffairs.
Brogan’s advice is useful and unfortunately still quite necessary. Whether it is panic over “losing” a China that was never under our control or condemnation of “inaction” in response to a foreign conflict in Syria, the one constant in all of these criticisms is an exaggerated and overly generous view of both U.S. and presidential power. If one assumes that the U.S. has the power to prevent undesirable things from happening anywhere in the world, then it must be the fault of the president for “refusing” to prevent them. According to this view, U.S. power doesn’t have limits, or at least no limits that matter, and if something happens while the U.S. is on “the sidelines” the U.S. is nonetheless responsible for what happened because it could easily stop it. If one assumes that the exercise of U.S. power is almost always constructive and never makes other conflicts worse, restraint might appear to be timidity and prudence could seem to be a failure of nerve, but this requires ignoring some significant episodes in U.S. history. Of course, the U.S. record abroad is a checkered one. Just in the last fifty years, the U.S. has embarked on more than one disastrous blunder that had horrible consequences for the people in the countries affected. There are some conflicts that the U.S. cannot bring to an end without first intensifying the conflict and causing more damage, and there are some conflicts to which there is no possible U.S.-imposed solution. For a certain type of hawkish interventionist, the last sentence isn’t true and must not be true, which is why they try to hold presidents responsible for events they cannot control and demand results from U.S. policies that cannot be achieved without significant cost.
Returning to the Pletka article, I was struck by her odd choice of opening the argument by marveling that George Will and Eugene Robinson happened to agree more or less on Syria policy. Both want the U.S. to stay out of the conflict, which isn’t surprising. Pletka refers to the “dissonant harmony” between them, but it isn’t at all strange that a conservative burned by the failure of the Iraq war would be inclined to favor a less aggressive and activist foreign policy, which could on occasion put him in agreement with someone on the left. Will and Robinson have roughly two-thirds of the country in agreement with them on Syria. Unlike many of his colleagues at the Post and most conservative columnists, Will does seem to have learned and internalized lessons from the Iraq war, and as a result he doesn’t look for excuses to argue for new wars. In Pletka’s world, this is a problem to be solved. That is why she sneeringly identifies Will as “(R-1930),” since I guess he’s supposed to be the reincarnation of William Borah because he doesn’t want the U.S. to wage its fourth war in a decade. Not surprisingly, Pletka doesn’t address Will and Robinson’s reasons for wanting to stay out of Syria. It’s all just reduced to “the siren song of isolationism” so that she can dismiss it out of hand. Pletka concludes her article with a series of questions about the U.S. role in the world, but she obviously isn’t interested in any answers that don’t match her own.