Thursday, November 7, 2013

America in Isolation

by Zalman Shoval

In the United States, the 1930s and 1940s were years of extreme isolationism and alienation toward the rest of the world in general and foreigners in particular. The prevalent motto in Congress and the media was: "Leave us alone with your problems."

Not unrelated to this isolationist atmosphere, a strong wave of anti-Semitism spread throughout the U.S. at that time. It sometimes turned violent, which led some prominent American Jews, like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Jewish-owned newspapers like The New York Times to ignore the distress of the Jews in Europe, "so as to avoid arousing more waves of anti-Semitism."

The political leaders in the U.S. today, on both sides of the aisle, would angrily deny the claim that they are isolationist, but the facts on the ground and the things being said and written publicly are a testament that the claim is not completely without merit. On the right side of the political map there are those who are happy to express their isolationist worldviews, while on the left they prefer phrases such as "leading from behind" or "we will act only through the United Nations and the family of nations." 

Isolationism, however, is a matter of tangible behavior, not semantics. Thus, for example, we hear U.S. President Barack Obama say America no longer wants to be the "world's policeman," and his national security adviser, Susan Rice -- to justify the lethargic stance against Syria and Iran -- says "there is an entire world where the U.S. also has interests and opportunities."

Obama declared in his speech at the U.N. that Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are clear American interests; the question is, how does his government interpret these interests. One obvious example of the isolationist mentality was provided last week in a New York Times editorial piece. The editorial discussed the frustrations of traditional American allies in the Middle East toward the Obama administration due to its conduct vis-à-vis Syria, Iran and Egypt, writing: "Mr. Obama’s first responsibility is to America’s national interest. And he has been absolutely right in refusing to be goaded into a war in Syria or bullied into squandering a rare, if remote, chance to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal." In other words, all of these issues, including Iran's nuclear program, are not in America's national interest.

Of course the article does not refrain from accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of "doing his best to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran, including urging Congress to impose more economic sanctions on Iran that could bring the incipient negotiations between Iran’s new government and the major powers to a halt." From here it won't be long before America's allies, like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel, are presented as "damaging" and trying to sabotage the idyll currently being pursued between America and Iran. In the meantime, the Times is also critical of the White House on a number of issues, including its foreign affairs conduct.

The Washington Post claims that Obama's mistake is that he believes that what is transpiring in the Middle East is not a serious threat to American interests, and that it is possible for these issues to be "safely relegated to the nebulous realm of U.N. diplomacy and Geneva conferences, where Secretary of State John Kerry lives."

A slightly cynical article in The Weekly Standard touches, in this context, on the Palestinian issue. According to the author, the U.S. has used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to strengthen its grip on Israel and the Palestinians, and through them on the entire Middle East, but if Obama and his advisers no longer have an interest in the region then there is no special reason for them to care if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found. Our conflict, according to this piece, "is a local issue regardless with no influence on global stability, and whoever has not understood this, the Arab Spring came along and reminded him."

One of the differences, and not an especially favorable one, between the 1930s and 1940s and today, is that back then the president was Franklin Roosevelt, who understood that despite the difficult economic problems facing America, his country would have to come to the aid of Great Britain in order to save the entire free world, including America itself. Now, one often gets the impression that the U.S. prefers to willfully ignore its responsibilities as the leader of the free world.

Zalman Shoval


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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