When in Doubt, Blame Imaginary ‘Isolationism’
The U.S. has approximately 50,000 military personnel in Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf, and our military is involved in wars in Syria and Yemen, but the headline we get as 2019 ends is this: “US isolationism leaves Middle East on edge as new decade dawns.” That is the headline for a report from The Guardian, but it could easily have come from many other newspapers. There is a congealing consensus that the U.S. is “disengaging” from the region at the same time that our government’s military presence keeps increasing.
There are just a couple small problems with the story they are telling: the Middle East is the last region in the world where one can argue that the U.S. is behaving in an “isolationist” fashion, and the region has been repeatedly destabilized by U.S. interventions big and small for at least the last 30 years. If the region is “on edge,” it is not because of our government’s “isolationism,” because that doesn’t exist. If the region is “on edge,” the heightened tensions and anxieties probably have something to do with the reckless U.S. economic war against Iran, the ongoing U.S.-backed conflict in Yemen, and the continuation of the war in Syria. Pretending that the U.S. is “disengaging” when it is doing just the opposite misinforms readers and distracts us from the real problems with U.S. foreign policy in the region. It treats a hyperactive, excessively involved America as the stable norm that has to be maintained, and it pejoratively casts anything that hawks don’t like as “isolationism.”
The chief piece of evidence for “isolationism” offered in the report is the decision not to go to war over the Abqaiq attack in Saudi Arabia. The argument, such as it is, is that because the U.S. refused to fight a war it was not obligated to fight to defend a state that isn’t actually an ally, it is therefore “isolationist.” The report is not very good if one wants to come away from it being better informed about the world, but it is a useful example of how lazy stereotypes and inaccurate definitions muddle and distort our foreign policy debate. The vocabulary of our foreign policy discourse is so impoverished that correspondents routinely use the wrong words to describe what is going on, and we are all worse off because of it.
Consider this section of the report:
The impact of the US failing to respond to an attack on Saudi oil facilities was that an act of war on a US ally had gone unpunished, and that ally was now willing to talk with the country that Washington had been determined to bring to its knees.
Referring to Saudi Arabia as an “ally” has been commonplace for a long time, but it was never true. The Abqaiq attack forced many U.S. politicians and analysts to acknowledge the truth that the U.S. owed the Saudis nothing. What are the terrible consequences of not rushing to fight for Saudi Arabia? It turns out that it has meant that Saudi Arabia is looking for a way to reduce tensions with their neighbor. That may be undermining the pressure campaign against Iran, but then the pressure campaign is what created the crisis that led to the attacks in the first place, so what exactly is the problem?
If the U.S. had attacked Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf earlier this year, the Persian Gulf would be a shooting gallery, the Saudis and the UAE would be getting pummeled with Iranian missiles, and many Americans and Iranians would already be dead in a war that would still be going on. Choosing not to escalate from one attack into a regional war was not a “failure,” and it certainly doesn’t mean that the U.S. is “isolationist.” The absurd framing and inaccurate language used in this report help to obscure America’s overly militarized, extremely meddlesome foreign policy from public view. Reports like this make it that much harder to advance an alternative foreign policy in which the U.S. is not constantly starting or escalating wars in a region where it has few real interests.