The Fatigue of Fighting

The Fatigue of Fighting

By Richard Halloran - January 11, 2009

The clues are scattered but they add up to a stark conclusion: Americans are tired of their contentious engagement with the rest of the world.

Americans are tired of carrying what they see as the burden of defending the peace; they are tired of seeing their sons and daughters, 120,000 of them, die in military action since World War II; they are tired of being taxed to pay for wars.

And they are tired of writhing faces on TV spewing hatred for America. When those people shout: "Yankee, go home," many Americans would like to reply: "Stop the world, we want to get off."

President-elect Barack Obama may be aware of this fatigue, having campaigned on a promise of hope. Whether he confronts this weariness in his inaugural address will reveal much about his administration. So will the testimony of Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton in Senate confirmation hearings.

The signs of fatigue show up in poll after poll: One says only 13 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going. In another, 64 percent say America is on the wrong track. Of the looming conflict between India and Pakistan, 81 percent say the US should stay out. In the clash between Israelis and Arabs, 51 percent say hands off. Iraq, say 64 percent, is not worth fighting for.

Of the United Nations, 65 percent saying it does a poor job. Free trade agreements, say 61 percent, cause Americans to lose jobs. Another 56 percent contend that the US spends too much on foreign aid. National defense spending, 44 percent assert, is too high.

The lack of American interest in foreign affairs is reflected in declining international news coverage except for eruptions. A survey showed extensive reporting on the financial crisis, President-elect Obama, the political shenanigans of the Illinois governor, and problems in the auto industry-but little from outside the US. American travel abroad has also leveled off.

Isolationism has deep roots in America. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson warned against "entangling alliances." The US kept much to itself until the Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I in 1917-18. Not until World War II did the US really come out of its isolationist shell.

The fundamental security posture of the postwar period was set by a National Security Council document called NSC-68 drawn up in President Harry Truman's administration. It set diplomatic, economic, and military foundations for containing the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.

After the Korean War ended in 1953, the high point of America's stance was set by President John Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

That seemingly unlimited commitment, however, lasted only eight years. President Richard Nixon, seeing the US bogged down in Vietnam, declared the US would provide a nuclear shield over nations vital to US security. Beyond that, he said: "We shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

President Jimmy Carter in 1980 was slightly more expansive on potential threats to oil resources near the Persian Gulf: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

President Ronald Reagan focused on assisting anti-communist movements to "roll back" Soviet influence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, American leaders floundered. President George Bush the elder sent troops to expel Iraq from Kuwait but had no overarching strategy.

President Bill Clinton said the US would remain "actively engaged" and emphasized: "Durable relationships with allies and friendly nations are vital." He added, however: "Our strategy is tempered by recognition that there are limits to America's involvement in the world."

After the terrorist assaults of 9/11, President George Bush the Younger said the US had a choice: "The path of fear-isolationism and protectionism, retreat and retrenchment-appeals to those who find our challenges too great and fail to see our opportunities. Yet history teaches that every time American leaders have taken this path, the challenges have only increased and the missed opportunities have left future generations less secure."

Now it's Mr. Obama's turn.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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