James Rubin shouldn’t be offering anyone history lessons:
But generals and historians are not the only ones who learn lessons from the last war. Politicians do too. And in the political realm, one huge unintended consequence of the war is the damage done to America’s confidence, to its willingness to lead. In much the same way that the British people and their leaders turned isolationist after the horrors of World War I [bold mine-DL], for too many Americans the Iraq war has become a rationale to turn inward, a reason to leave Afghanistan to its fate, to let the Europeans handle Libya and Mali, and to watch Syria burn.
It should be obvious that the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan primarily because of the desultory war in Afghanistan. The Iraq debacle has certainly made most Americans eager to get out of the Afghanistan war as well, and it has made the public much more skeptical of new military interventions, but there is not even an attempt here to explain why this is a bad thing for the United States. Like Hirsh did yesterday, Rubin is exaggerating the degree to which the U.S. has actually turned “inward,” and he’s also deliberately understating U.S. involvement in Libya and Mali, but even if this description were accurate there is no argument here for why Americans should view them as undesirable developments. If he has an idea how the U.S. might make some constructive difference in the Syrian conflict that doesn’t come with the costs of a new war, he has kept this to himself.
The most striking thing in this passage is Rubin’s startling claim of post-WWI British “isolationism.” It would be bad enough if he recycled the standard misleading claims about post-WWI America, but to claim that Britain turned “isolationist” after WWI is to confess to significant ignorance about the post-WWI world. Britain demobilized its wartime army after WWI, which prevented it from following through on the Allies’ plans to complete the partition of Turkey, but it did take over the Mandate territories, including Iraq, continued to dominate a technically independent Egypt, and of course ruled the rest of its vast colonial empire in Africa and Asia. Britain was so “isolationist” after WWI that, among other things, it took part in the Russian civil war along with the U.S.
The Iraq war has taught many Americans to oppose waging unnecessary and illegal wars in the name of exercising global “leadership.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to “turn inward” exactly, but if the public is presented with only two choices of “turning inward” or exercising “leadership” they will prefer the former. That’s especially true when “leadership” is identified with waging pointless and avoidable wars.