The Case Against Neo-Isolationism
Not doing enough – rather than doing too much – has made the world less safe for U.S. interests and less hospitable for American values.
Historians will likely look back at the United States in early 2024 and scratch their heads at the curious disconnect between any objective observation of the country’s power and the profound reluctance of its leaders to use it. Right now, the United States boasts the world’s most dynamic economy, has become an energy superpower, and maintains a strong military edge over its competitors. Despite these attributes, Washington nevertheless remains wracked with doubt about its purpose in the world.
Case in point: the paralysis in Congress over a proposed $118 billion bill for funding border security, Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, all places where core American interests are at stake. Although $118 billion sounds like a lot of money, it’s a drop in the bucket of America’s nearly $27 trillion national economy and its $6 trillion-plus federal budget. There are indeed a lot of zeros between “trillion” and “billion.”
Yet the biggest deficit in America these days isn’t budgetary—it’s a deficit of imagination, political consensus, and courage inspired by leadership.
The problems that hamstring U.S. foreign policy didn’t just magically appear overnight. This state of affairs has been brought to you in large part by the cheerleaders for America’s retreat and defeat, a cadre of neo-isolationists on both the right and left who have argued for years that America does more harm than good in the world. Among these neo-isolationist voices are those who push a “gated community” mentality on national security, the idea that America should just come home and wall itself off from the world.
Of course, the wars and violence we see today in places like the Middle East and Ukraine are driven mostly by dynamics in those regions—but the severity of the crises in these places has more to do with America not doing enough and sending mixed signals than doing too much and overreaching. Some of the biggest unforced errors and foreign policy mistakes America has made in recent years are the product of their strident advocacy masquerading as high-minded strategic analysis.
A revealing encounter with the Houthis of Yemen five years ago
Over the past quarter century, perhaps no part of the world has served as a prop in America’s foreign policy debates like the Middle East. It’s a region both of us know very well—we’ve lived, studied, and worked there, and we’ve learned some of its languages and established life-long relationships with people living there.
A few years ago, we were on a trip with a few other foreign policy thinkers and Middle East specialists to the Sultanate of Oman. Located on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman imagines itself as a sort of “Switzerland” of the Middle East, a country whose leaders try to maintain good ties with many different countries across this fractious region and uses these relationships to help lower tensions. This has made Oman a quiet, but important interlocutor for Washington whether it is winning the release of hostages in Iran or transmitting messages to various non-state actors.
On this visit, we had an occasion to meet with some senior representatives from one of these groups, the Houthis. This group seized power next door in Yemen about a decade ago. It has more recently become notorious for attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea—attacks that have forced shipping lines to reroute vessels around Africa, stretching supply chains, contributing to greater greenhouse gas emissions, and denying Egypt of much needed hard currency due to reduced Suez Canal tolls.
We met the Houthi delegation at a lovely retreat within sight of the Gulf of Oman. We Americans sat on overstuffed couches and armchairs on one side of the room and the representatives of the Houthis (known formally as Ansar Allah or “Believers in God”) on the other. After the usual pleasantries, one of us asked, “Do you take seriously your declared goal of destroying America and Israel? Do you actually curse the Jews as your flag states?”
Having spent as much collective time in the Middle East as we have, some of us were expecting the Houthi representatives to suggest that they were misunderstood or that their banner was merely a way to mobilize supporters in their domestic political struggle against both a repressive central government and separatists in the southern part of Yemen. Instead, the Houthis offered a full-throated exposition of the desire to annihilate America and Israel laced with crude antisemitism. They also relayed that if there was room on their banner, it would certainly also include “Death to Saudi Arabia.”
The encounter was bracing. To their credit, the Houthis did not dissemble about who they are and what they represent. One of our colleagues chose to leave in protest, unwilling to countenance one second more with this group of international deplorables. But anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and antisemitism are unfortunately part of the dominant discourse in the Middle East, so the two of us stayed along with some others to ask tough questions and to learn more about the Houthis’ worldview. And as we’ve seen in America on college campuses and in our media, some of these same ideas and arguments have reared their ugly heads in our debates back home.
The Beltway foreign policy bubble
What we found most surprising, though, was the yawning chasm between the debate about the war in Yemen in Washington and the objective reality of the conflict on the ground. At the time we were in Oman in early 2019, there were many rather loud voices in the United States calling on the Trump administration to “end the Yemen war.” To achieve this goal, these voices prescribed the suspension of security cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the termination of arms sales to those countries, and general American retrenchment from the region.
These recommendations overlooked the fact that the conflict in Yemen had a logic of its own and would have continued regardless of whether or not the United States sold weapons to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. The demand to “end the war” also gave short shrift to the nature of the Houthi religious extremism, their use of child soldiers as well as a long litany of other human rights abuses—to say nothing of its burgeoning military relationship with Iran. This pressure had everything to do with who the Houthis were fighting, especially Saudi Arabia, and the fervently held but erroneous belief that leaders in Tehran wanted a new relationship with the United States. Supporting Riyadh and its partners in the Yemen conflict put that goal in jeopardy.
Some of these voices signed a letter in 2019 expressing regret over how the Obama administration in which many served had mishandled the Yemen file. Instead of proposing ways to address Yemen’s problems or the security and ideological challenges presented by the Houthis, however, the letter appeared directed more toward the superficial, inside-the-Beltway politics of the conflict.
In our meeting in Oman, the Houthi leaders made clear that they saw those voices in U.S. foreign policy debates who echoed their own arguments as useful assets to their military campaigns inside Yemen and across the region. One Houthi representative made clear that the movement was monitoring America’s debates closely, and they saw proposed legislation introduced that vowed to “end the war in Yemen” by cutting ties with America’s regional security partners as a sign they’d successfully influenced America’s debate.
Flash forward to the present day and it’s easy to see the irony of the current moment. After hammering countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their intervention against the Houthis and threatening to cut off arms sales and service contracts, many of the same officials are now responsible for a policy that includes U.S. military strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen. While the Biden administration has prudently undertaken military operations in defense of international commerce and shipping, the White House is being predictably criticized by voices on the far left and right for doing so much in the same way it is being attacked for supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas.
No doubt some on the neo-isolationist right and left genuinely worry about the suffering of Yemenis. But they bear significant responsibility for a U.S. foreign policy approach that years ago failed to grasp the threat that the Houthis and their Iranian allies posed to stability in the Arabian Peninsula and freedom of navigation in the Bab El-Mandeb strait. This problem was left unaddressed because the prevailing narratives and memes in foreign policy circles were that America was the problem in the Middle East and, in any event, conflicts in the region were not all that important to the United States. Indeed, the fact that the Houthis now have leverage over international commerce and in the process sow geopolitical instability undermines the essentially political claims of activists and analysts who regard American foreign policy as either neo-colonialist or overstretched around the world.
There’s some truth to claims of American strategic overcommitment. For the past three decades, Washington was indeed over-ambitious in its efforts to transform the Middle East. But the isolationism vogue on right and left that emerged in response to the invasion of Iraq, the Freedom Agenda, and other follies offers too simple and extreme a solution for the United States: come home and ignore the world, and things will get better, not worse.
Moving U.S. foreign policy into the present and future
The first two decades of this century left America’s foreign policy debate with a bad hangover. Rather than remaining stuck in the past like neo-isolationists on the right and left are today, it’s time to bring the debate back to the realities of the present and forward into the future.
One might believe that the multiple geopolitical shocks of the past few years—including the COVID-19 pandemic, a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Hamas’s brutal attack against Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza—would have served as a wakeup call for America. Not so much. Narratives and memes have a way of taking hold over certain parts of a society, even when they’re well past their expiration date.
The U.S. foreign policy community isn’t immune: some of its members want to cling to their dogmas and ideologies even as the world is changing right before their very eyes. Like Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese soldier who fled to the jungles of Guam and surrendered 27 years after World War II ended, these holdouts in U.S. foreign policy cling to ideas that perhaps had more resonance and relevance about a quarter century before.
Neo-isolationists of the left and right have an almost knee-jerk response to any step the United States might take to address threats in the Middle East like those posed by the Houthis and other Iranian-backed groups: don’t invade Iraq in 2003. Put simply, they offer a false choice between re-running the U.S.-led invasion and doing nothing meaningful at all. They episodically and selectively use concepts like democracy and human rights as they advocate for America’s retreat from the world, never fully explaining how America would gain more leverage, not less, in retreat. It was a playbook repeatedly used over the past decade or so, not just in Yemen but Syria and the first phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Some voices calling for restraint and a more measured U.S. foreign approach offer some valuable ideas, including stronger Congressional checks and balances on U.S. foreign policy and suggestions about how to elevate diplomacy in America’s approach in the world. But as we see in some of the voices in response to the Iranian-backed attack that killed three U.S. soldiers last month in Jordan, calls for diplomacy disconnected from the security threats and tough realities of places like the Middle East remains a hollow argument that won’t lead to lasting peace or stability.
If American policymakers buy into core neo-isolationist assumptions that Washington is the problem or that there are few, if any, American interests—let alone ideals—worth defending, they should be aware of the likely result: global disorder up to and possibly including the sort of worldwide conflagration that erupted not just once but twice a century ago.
The long peace of the second half of the twentieth century was in no small part a function of American primacy. Even if during that period American policymakers made grievous mistakes that cost lives and wasted resources, it was also an era of unprecedented global prosperity and general peace. The post-World War II era may have been unique and singular, but American should not apologize for either its power or the willingness to use it judiciously to ensure global order.
If the United States retreats from the world, there will be more invasions like Ukraine, more civil wars like Syria, and more terrible days like October 7.