Isolationism: Behind the myth, a usable past

post to UNC Press Blog, 29 June 2011

The term “isolationism” has recently sprung to public prominence thanks to a rift in the ranks of the Republican Party. Some of its leading presidential candidates are calling for a more restrained U.S. global role. They are driven in part by Tea Party doubts about big military budgets and helter-skelter intervention, in part by unchecked presidential power, and for the rest by mounting fiscal problems.

These developments have alarmed keepers of the faith such as John McCain, who have instinctively responded with charges of isolationism. From a historian’s perspective, this clash is an opportunity to be doubly perverse—not only to reflect on a dubious term but also to direct attention to some signal virtues evident in a period in which isolationism supposedly governed U.S. policy. Read More »

Out of Afghanistan: Tragedy or Farce?

post to UNC Press Blog, 14 June 2011

Watching the Obama administration try to extricate itself from Afghanistan is like watching a familiar tragedy. You know it’s not going to end well. Instead of facing facts, the protagonists cling to the delusion that they can somehow—with the right decision implemented in the right way at the right time—avoid failure.

Two previous, major U.S. military interventions reveal how self-deceived policymakers can be. Gradually, inexorably, the U.S. position in Korea in 1950-1951 and in Vietnam in the late 1960s became impossible and forced Washington to abandon even the pretense of victory. The sequence of setbacks then as now is pretty clear but also not pretty. Read More »