America First: The American Foreign Policy Shift to Middle East Neo-Isolationism

President Trump ran his 2016 campaign on the slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First.” While the Trump administration’s actions have not always lived up to their stated ideals, the underlying message has resonated with both parties’ respective bases. Sen. Bernie Sanders has frequently called for an end to the American wars in the Middle East, such as American involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has gained a sizeable following by placing foreign non-interventionism at the forefront of her presidential campaign. Trump’s foreign policy message is therefore far from iconoclastic; to the contrary, it is the new foreign policy consensus on “Main Street”, even if it has not yet supplanted the general consensus in Congress and the mainstream media. What explains this inversion in foreign policy preferences? A brief review of key events since World War II is instructive.

Historically, the United States government held a highly skeptical view towards foreign entanglements outside of North and South America prior to World War II. Americans entered both world wars with the utmost reluctance [1]. However, in the aftermath of the second world war, American politicians came to realize that the United States could play an instrumental role in preventing another world war by rebuilding Europe. Providing aid to Europe in the aftermath of the war and during the Cold War created strong new alliances such as NATO, and new deliberative bodies such as the UN [2]. However, in the frenzy to contain perceived threats of the spread of communism, the American government frequently overreached, overthrowing foreign leaders through CIA-backed coups. These coups often destabilized nations and resulted in pernicious outcomes, such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution [3].

The oil embargoes and subsequent price shocks in 1973 and 1979 convinced the American public that the U.S. economy could be held hostage by antagonistic Middle Eastern countries. This pervasive fear played a significant role in George H.W. Bush’s decision to fight Iraq during the First Gulf War, and his son’s decision to invade Iraq a little more than a decade later [4]. During the 1990s, there was also an increased public awareness of genocide, as the world watched the slaughter of innocent citizens in Rwanda and Bosnia. To make matters worse, U.N. peacekeeping efforts did little to stop the bloodshed, leading Americans to believe that the U.N. was a feckless talking shop [5]. Decisive action, Americans increasingly came to believe, could only be undertaken unilaterally or at the initiative of a headstrong hegemon. Therefore, when the U.N. Security Council refused to support military action in Iraq, the United States invaded anyway. 

Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the American electorate has gradually become war-weary [6]. After the elimination of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the American foreign policy establishment gradually came to see the American presence in the Middle East as a given. The military suffered from mission creep, with American combat and advisory troops finding themselves in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia without clear, transparent objectives [7]. Military strategy shifted from blitzes intended to quickly end war or genocide (such as Operation Desert Storm), to preventative troop placement in case a war ever broke out. A fear of a potential power vacuum post-American occupation has generated a fear in neoconservative policy circles of troop withdrawal; some congressmen, such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger, now support keeping troops in the Middle East effectively forever [8]. Everyday Americans couldn’t disagree more. While Americans have a strong belief in the moral propriety of self-defense and rescuing the innocent, the societal memory of British standing armies in the American colonies is likely responsible for a lingering disgust for permanent troop placements. They would prefer that resources used for military adventures be diverted to domestic spending.

The need for Middle Eastern oil has also dried up. While American oil production cratered from the 1970s through the mid-2000s, it has rapidly ratcheted up due to new oil extraction techniques (such as fracking) that allow petroleum companies to exploit previously untouchable deposits. This technological boom has rocketed the United States into the top spot for oil and natural gas production and insulated the nation from foreign oil supply shocks [9]. Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz this year, for example, only affected domestic oil prices for a few weeks [10]. 

There is one region, however, that provides a notable exception to the growing isolationist zeitgeist. While the Middle East rapidly becomes less important to American interests, eastern Asia is quickly becoming a hotbed for conflict. The last time Asia was relevant to American interests, Japan was the major threat. This time, the rise of China presents the potential quagmire of a Thucydides Trap in which the United States is forced to act quickly to check China’s power before the U.S. loses its sole hegemon status [11]. The U.S.-China trade war is likely only the beginning of an increasingly acrimonious U.S.-China relationship. Interestingly, the prospect of protracted conflict with China is likely helping to expedite Middle East isolationism. In the context of a new cold war in eastern Asia, seemingly interminable Shia-Sunni-Kurdish regional conflicts will increasingly seem irrelevant to U.S. interests. Middle Eastern nations will soon be left to their own devices.

[1] https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/american-isolationism

[2]https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/nato

[3] https://theintercept.com/2018/02/05/iran-cia-coup-mossadegh-ayatollah/

[4]https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/02/10/the-oil-weapon

[5]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/17/un-united-nations-peacekeepers-rwanda-bosnia

[6]https://www.thenation.com/article/new-poll-shows-public-overwhelmingly-opposed-to-endless-us-military-interventions/

[7]https://www.defenseone.com/news/2018/03/the-d-brief-march-15-2018/146688/

[8]https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/10/08/kinzinger-accused-trump-using-sen-rand-pauls-endless-wars-talking-points-justify-withdrawal-and-givi/3906958002/

[9]https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750528826/energy-boom-that-trump-celebrates-began-years-before-he-took-office

[10]https://www.marketwatch.com/story/oil-extends-slump-but-remains-on-track-for-a-monthly-gain-2019-09-30

[11]https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/thucydides-trap-are-us-and-china-headed-war

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Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

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