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U.S. NEEDS A LITTLE DOSE OF 'ISOLATIONISM' President Bush's mission to spread democracy is threatening the nation's security. It's time for us to tend to our own well-being.

Thanks to the deadly combination of American global interventionism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the United States is less secure today than perhaps any time in its history. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush returned to the themes that have dominated his foreign policy in the last five years: America must "reject the false comfort of isolationism" and continue our historic mission of "saving liberty," "leading freedom's advance," "promoting peaceful change," "ending tyranny" and, of course, helping "raise up democracies."

This is not a matter of mere idealism, Bush contended, for our own "future security" requires that we avoid "retreating within our borders."

There are at least three major problems with Bush's argument.

* Grandiose notions of America's global mission to promote democracy and freedom have repeatedly come to grief. If the failures of a great many American interventions in Central America and the Caribbean throughout the 20th century were not sufficient to demonstrate the futility of attempting to impose democracy at the point of a gun, one would have thought that the collapse of American policy in Vietnam would have driven home the lesson.

Apparently not, since the United States tried internal reform by military intervention and failed again in Haiti and Somalia in the l990s. Yet, despite all these lessons - and even, astonishingly, despite the ongoing catastrophe of the Iraq war - Bush is still sounding the same note.

* Recent experience ought to have completely shattered the comforting notion that democracy and the American national interest are one and the same. On the contrary, in the last few years, democratic elections have brought militant Islamic fundamentalists into power in Algeria, Iran and in the West Bank and Gaza. And there is a growing likelihood that the vaunted free elections in Iraq will produce a militant Shiite fundamentalist regime. Indeed, were it not for the autocracies of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, King Abdullah in Jordan, and perhaps even the Saudi monarchy, it is likely that Islamic fanatics would win free elections in those countries as well.

* Perhaps most important, it is precisely because the United States has been acting as the world's dominant superpower that our national security is now highly at risk. The most fundamental test of a nation's foreign policy is whether it enhances national security - not whether other nations adopt its values, ideologies and institutions. By that test, it is apparent that Bush's foreign policy has failed. Thanks to the deadly combination of American global interventionism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the United States is less secure today than perhaps at any time in its history and certainly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism.

As is now widely understood, the greatest threat to American security today is an attack on our cities by terrorists using biological or nuclear weapons. But why is the United States, more so than any other nation, the likely target for such attacks?

It is convenient for the Bush administration to claim it is because "they hate our freedoms," but we would do well to listen to what the Osama bin Ladens and Abu Musab al-Zarkawis of this world actually say: Above all, it is American military intervention in the internal affairs of the Islamic world that they hate.

Put differently, American interventionism has created or at least greatly exacerbated the kind of fanatic hatreds that threaten us today -- hatreds that otherwise might not have existed, or at least not so intensely as to motivate catastrophic and suicidal terrorism.

>Minding our own business

If this analysis is correct, the policy implications are clear: Except when our own national security is directly threatened, we must return to our true historical traditions of minding our own business and attending to the democratic freedoms, economic growth and overall well-being of our own country.

Such a policy is not "isolationism," a straw man that proponents of American grandiosity typically use to castigate critics of unending interventionism and militarism. Rather, a more modest policy would allow us to continue to engage in active diplomacy, foreign trade and investment, arms control agreements and multilateral cooperation in worthy environmental and economic efforts. What we would give up are ideological wars -- like Iraq -- and military interventionism in the internal affairs of other states. To put it more bluntly, what would change is the practice of attacking other countries to bring about "regime change."

During most of the 20th century, American national security clearly did depend on our becoming a global military power. From the rise of an expansionist Germany at the turn of the century until the demise of the Soviet Union and international communism in 1990, the major threats to our national security came from a possible collapse of the balance of power in Europe.

In 1914 and again in 1939, there was a considerable danger that an aggressive Germany would gain control of most of the population and resources of Western Europe, giving it the power to potentially expand into the Western Hemisphere.

Because the dangers were real, the American decisions to enter both world wars to ensure the defeat of German expansionism were wise. Similarly, the emergence of a possibly expansionist Soviet Union after 1945 justified our efforts to militarily "contain" it, principally through the NATO alliance in Europe.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism in 1990, together with the wider development of nuclear weapons, radically changed the international environment. With the Soviet threat gone, no other state could challenge the global or European balance of power.

>The nuclear component

At least as important, nuclear weapons have irrevocably changed the way in which we must calculate our national security. On the one hand, our own nuclear weapons, together with our overwhelming conventional military power, ensure that no nation or combination of nations could ever again directly threaten the Western Hemisphere, let alone the United States itself, by means of a conventional military attack.

Thus, it is no longer crucial to American security that we help maintain a European or, for that matter, an Asian balance of power.

On the other hand, the spread of nuclear weapons to other states, especially to fanatical states like North Korea and Iran, or perhaps even worse, potentially to terrorist groups like al-Qaida, means that our national security can now be gravely threatened even by tiny states or groups, which otherwise would have no weight in the scales of power.

Either way you look at it, nuclear weapons have made "balances of power" irrelevant.

However, though much of the rationale for our activist policies has ended, our military interventionism has continued, and in some ways even expanded. We have forgotten why it was necessary during the 20th century for the United States to become a global power; rather, we appear to have simply fallen in love with being a superpower, as if for its own sake.

It was a natural mistake, perhaps -- who doesn't love power? -- but that doesn't change the fact that the consequences have become disastrous for our national security.

It is hardly an accident that today the United States (and perhaps Britain) are the main targets of Islamic fundamentalism, rather than other Western states that have refrained from overseas military interventions.

Since there is no defense against nuclear attack, nor any known technology that is likely to work in the foreseeable future, the only way we can protect our national security is by reducing the incentives of fanatics to attack us. One way to do so, of course, is by deterrence, meaning the threat of massive retaliation. But deterrence may not work against irrational states or, especially, against unidentifiable terrorists.

Thus, we must also end our infatuation with global dominance and refrain from military interventions for any purpose other than imminent and grave threats to our national security.

>The threat of attack

Such threats cannot arise from the purely internal policies and institutions of other states; indeed, in the Middle East, the world's most dangerous region, there is ample reason to believe that it is democratic elections that most threaten us. What should matter to us is solely whether fanatical states or terrorists are threatening to directly attack us, especially when they have or are on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons.

What should we do? Consider the most important cases:

The Gulf War in 1991 was necessary and important, not so much because of the open Iraqi aggression against Kuwait but more fundamentally because of the hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had already acquired biological weapons and was close to building nuclear weapons. Given the nature of the Saddam regime and its proven record of expansionism, it was simply unacceptable for Iraq to have weapons of mass destruction.

The 2001 attack on al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as well as the particularly fanatic Islamic Afghan regime that supported it, was absolutely necessary, not merely in retaliation for 9/1 1, but because Osama bin Laden had openly stated he was seeking WMDs and would use them against America once he had them.

If there were hard evidence that Saddam had reconstituted his WMD program during the late 1990s, there would have been a strong case for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq in 2003. At the time, most outside experts and Western intelligence services did believe that it was highly likely that Iraq was again pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The great irony of the Iraq war, of course, was that it was only the Bush administration that had significant evidence that it wasn't. Yet, the U.S. attacked anyway, essentially for ideological reasons, in a war that (absent Iraqi WMD) could not be justified.

Once a nation has weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, a pre-emptive military attack is unlikely to succeed and might trigger massive retaliation. Since it is widely accepted that North Korea has had nuclear weapons since about 1994, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have essentially ruled out military action. What we must rely on, then, is deterrence: hoping that the North Korean regime is sufficiently rational to understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons itself or giving them to terrorists.

The Iranian case is particularly complicated. Given the nature of the regime and its clear fanaticism, it would be highly dangerous for it to acquire nuclear weapons. For that reason, if all other measures -- e.g., economic sanctions -- fail and if multilateral support can be found, there might well be a strong case, at least in theory, for a pre-emptive air strike designed to destroy Iran's main nuclear installations before it actually has built such weapons.

The problem is that it would be hard to know whether such a pre-emptive attack would work, and how Iran might retaliate. Given the uncertainties and the possible consequences, a military attack -- even a multilateral one -- would be a very fearsome prospect. Even so, Sen. John McCain's succinct statement of the problem is quite plausible: "There's only one thing worse than military action -- a nuclear-armed Iran."

Several recent public opinion surveys have shown that Americans are turning inward, and nearly half now agree that the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."

Save for the problem of WMD terrorism by rogue states or fanatical groups, this is sound counsel, and in this respect the American people are considerably wiser than their government.

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