American Decline and The Middle East: The Role of Isolationism


Nearly every major International Relations journal has recently forecasted the United States’ decline. Washington’s limited role in NATO airstrikes in Libya and President Obama’s restrained foreign policy are cited as evidence of American demise. The decline perspective (summarised here, here and here) maintains that “foreign policy failures, most notably the Iraq conflict, have eroded America’s position in the world, both by revealing the impotence of American power and by eroding its legitimacy,” and “other powers are rising to challenge the dominant position of the United States: primarily the European Union, China, and Russia.”

This is not the first time that America’s decline has been predicted. The decline debate tends to reappear every decade or so. Past predictions of decline have been based on either economic distress or military failures, and often both – with the latter having a greater impact. According to Joseph Joffe, the United States is currently in its fifth wave of declinism. After World War II America was in a position of unparalleled strength, but discussion of decline started to emerge in 1957 with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. The second wave of declinism came in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War and Henry Kissinger’s prediction that the bipolar world was ending. The third wave in the late 1970s was precipitated by two oil crises and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Poor economic indicators brought on by Reaganomics and Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987 ushered in the fourth wave of decline. The most recent wave of decline has been brought on by the military problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis.

In recent decades the Middle East, more than any other region, has been a proving ground for American power, with rising and declining American power being equally tied to military operations in the region. Power is difficult to measure and is based as much on economic and military indicators as perceived ability and willingness to project force. This post argues that these predictions of decline are linked to and often caused by America’s ebb and flow of power projection that is brought on by its isolationist and interventionist shifts. The post compares the decline wave under President Carter with the current wave under President Obama to highlight the role that American power projection have in sparking predictions of decline.

Jimmy Carter took office on the heels of the American defeat in Vietnam, which saw the U.S. take a step back from the use of force and enter into a prolonged period of isolationism. It is important to note that this was not the same type of “true” isolationism that the U.S. exhibited before World War I. Instead, it was a reluctance to use military force and to engage in foreign conflicts. Today this phenomenon might be described as retrenchment. This reluctance to engage abroad, especially in the Middle East, in turn started predictions of decline in earnest. The Carter administration was especially reluctant to use force, even more so than other post-Vietnam War presidents. Carter had developed a reputation as a pacifist, and he took pride in the fact that no soldier was killed in combat during his presidency. Carter’s reluctance to use force and his handling of international crises solidified in many people’s minds, both domestically and internationally, that the American century was truly coming to an end.

One of the major challenges Carter faced in the Middle East was the Iranian Revolution. The Shah of Iran had been a long-time ally of the United States, but when uprisings began in Iran, the U.S. failed to assist the Shah or lend support to his government to keep it in power. Once more, after the Shah fled Iran Washington was reluctant to grant him sanctuary in the U.S. and only eventually acquiesced to admitting him into the country for short medical visits. To many Middle Eastern allies it appeared as though the United States had abandoned their long-time friend. This eroded the image of the U.S. as a reliable ally and caused other Middle Eastern heads of state to question their relationship with Washington.

The problems brought on by the Iranian Revolution were followed quickly by the Iran Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979 students overtook the United States embassy in Tehran, capturing the embassy staff and subsequently holding them for 444 days. Throughout the crisis Carter resisted persistent calls to use force or to punish Iran for its actions. Instead, Carter emphasized the importance of hostage safety and relied on diplomatic negotiations and sanctions, rather than force. However, many moderate Arab states viewed the U.S. response as slow and ineffective. This perception was further exacerbated by the failed rescue mission that was launched in April 1980. The dramatic and public military failure of the mission only furthered the growing perception of American impotence. Allies questioned whether the U.S. was a reliable military partner if it was not even able to defend its own interests. The lingering crisis and Washington’s apparent inability to resolve it were often cited as further evidence of America’s imminent demise.

American inaction during the hostage crisis was being contrasted with a Soviet display of power and decisiveness through its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. This led to a growing perception both internationally and domestically, that the United States was grossly inferior to the USSR militarily, and that it was a clear second in world military strength. French news Le Figaro summarized this perception on November 16, 1979, stating “It has become obvious in very recent times that the famous gap between the military capabilities of the two superpowers has narrowed, and to such a point that experts currently waver between two conclusions: either the balance of forces…has now been achieved, or else has already been upset in favor of the Soviet Union.”

Carter’s difficulties in the Middle East and his reluctance to use force diminished America’s international image and compounded the effects of the Vietnam Syndrome in a way left regional allies questioning American capabilities and commitment for decades. These lingering doubts resurfaced in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War when the United States attempted to obtain regional allied support for military operations.

Many of the issues that led to predictions of decline during the Carter administration are being repeated today, including the U.S. taking a step back from the use of force, mismanagement of crises in the Middle East, and a failure to support long-term allies. Much like the Carter administration taking office at the height of the Vietnam War Syndrome, President Obama took office with the wars and associated military setbacks of Iraq and Afghanistan still ongoing. The difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the U.S. to adopt a policy of retrenchment. This is a cycle we see time and again in the U.S. When Washington suffers a military setback it allows isolationist tendencies, to re-emerge. This tendency has perhaps been most visible in the United States’ response to the Arab Spring. Critics of the Obama administration argue that its reaction to the Arab Spring has been ineffective and inconsistent and has exacerbated the region’s problems. This has led to a questioning of American military power and willingness to use force. As with the Carter administration, Middle Eastern partners have once again begun to question whether the U.S. is a credible ally that will defend their interests. This was precipitated by the United States’ failure to support long-time ally Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprisings. Washington’s reluctance to use force and engage in foreign conflicts was again highlighted when it failed to take action against the Assad regime in Syria after it crossed Obama’s infamous “red line” with the use of chemical weapons. Many world leaders wondered if the U.S. had become a toothless superpower that had lost its appetite for the use of force.

Meanwhile, U.S. indecision was once again being contrasted with a Russian challenge to its dominance in the form of the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in which the U.S. seemed unwilling or unable to stand up for global order and self-professed values. These indicators of American retrenchment have fueled predictions of decline and have caused several regional allies to take a step back. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has ignored Washington’s calls to cease settlements in Palestinian territories. Likewise, Palestine approached the UN for formal statehood recognition, against the wishes of the Obama administration. Finally, even long-term ally, Saudi Arabia, has pursued a foreign policy independent of the U.S. in the Middle East by leading airstrikes in Yemen.

By comparing the decline of the 1970s with the current period of decline, certain commonalities start to appear. Both waves of decline have been precipitated by military setbacks, and both periods have been exacerbated by a policy of retrenchment that has caused allies to question U.S. credibility and its willingness and ability to effectively defend its interests and theirs. These cases suggest that predictions of decline are linked to American isolationist tendencies. Thus, the predictions of decline are not so much caused by diminishing capabilities, as commonly assumed, but by a diminishing willingness to use force and engage abroad.

Image: ‘Prior to the start of their working dinner during the Middle East negotiations, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel check their watches to see if it is officially sunset’ via Wikimedia Commons.

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