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September 14, 2005

Will Katrina Bring an Isolationist Revival?

by Jim Lobe

It was Jim Hoagland, the Washington Post's liberal hawk par excellence, who first pondered the possible foreign policy consequences of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans.

"Will post-Katrina America," he asked in his regular column, "be humbler, more cooperative, and more understanding of other nations' problems and failures?

"Or will the United States let its active engagement in the world's human and political crises become another casualty of Katrina's winds and floodwaters – and of the political turmoil they have triggered?"

Even as Congress and the Bush administration tote up the staggering costs of the most expensive natural disaster ever to hit the United States – current estimates range from $100 billion to $200 billion just in relief and rebuilding costs – few analysts have hazarded an answer to Hoagland's questions.

There has, of course, been speculation that the storm will weaken Bush's political authority, particularly over fellow Republicans, many of whom had become increasingly, if still mostly privately, nervous about the impact of the Iraq war on their reelection chances in 2006, even before Katrina struck.

The fact that an unprecedented number of Republican lawmakers have criticized the federal government's response to the crisis is one indication that the president is headed quickly toward lame-duck status or worse.

"The Bush Era is over," declared Post political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., who argued that the "source of Bush's political success was his claim that he could protect Americans," but that that notion was drowned "in the surging waters of New Orleans."

Others have pointed to the fact that some 7,000 National Guard troops from Louisiana and Mississippi, who could have been available for rescue and security operations at home, were instead deployed to Iraq, along with their equipment, when Katrina hit.

"They should be fighting the effects of flood waters at home – helping people in the communities they know best – not battling Iraqi people who want them to go away," noted left-wing media analyst Norman Solomon.

Even before Katrina made landfall, however, some of Washington's foreign policy elite was worrying that the U.S. difficulties in Iraq were souring many citizens on global engagement – at least in the form pursued by the Bush administration – much as an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War turned the country inward, if not isolationist, beginning in the late 1960s.

Just hours before much of New Orleans was submerged in floodwater, Francis Fukuyama, famous for his 1992 "The End of History" [.pdf], published a broadside attack in the New York Times on the administration's decision to take the country to war in Iraq instead of building a more sustainable international coalition focused on destroying al-Qaeda, and pressing for a stricter proliferation regime that would have attracted far more domestic and foreign support.

The article, entitled "Invasion of the Isolationists," noted that Republican support for the Iraq war has been confined to only two sectors – "the neoconservatives (who lack a political base of their own but who provide considerable intellectual firepower) and from … 'Jacksonian America' – American nationalists whose instincts lead them toward a pugnacious isolationism."

Worse, according to Fukuyama, the administration's failure to back up its prewar rationales for invading Iraq – weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein – has resulted in its defending the war on the neoconservatives"idealistic policy of political transformation of the broader Middle East," a justification, however, in which Jacksonians have no particular interest.

"If Jacksonians begin to perceive the war as unwinnable or a failure, there will be little future support for an expansive foreign policy that focuses on promoting democracy," according to Fukuyama. "That in turn could drive the 2008 Republican presidential primaries in ways likely to affect the future of American foreign policy as a whole."

That Katrina's wrath was focused on the Deep South, the heartland of the "Jacksonians" (named for former President Andrew Jackson, the brutal Indian fighter who also, coincidentally, expelled the British from the United States at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814) was especially ironic – and potentially politically significant – given the weight Fukuyama gives that constituency in sustaining Bush's aggressive unilateralism.

"I think there are a lot of southern Republicans who are asking why we're still spending blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan when we can't seem to take care of our own at home," said one Congressional aide this week. "Katrina brings home those kinds of policy choices in a very dramatic and concrete way."

That thinking is certain to have an impact on foreign policy, according to Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

"On balance, the impact of Katrina will likely be to make the United States more inwardly focused," he told IPS. "I think the American public will tend to say, 'We have plenty of troubles here at home. Why should we be doing such heavy lifting abroad?'"

"Iraq has been an unpopular war, and its prosecution is eating up ever more political and financial capital, so I think Katrina on balance will dampen the appetite for a wide range of global commitments," he added.

Indeed, the American Conservative Union (ACU), another Jacksonian bastion that has been very reluctant to criticize the $5 billion a month costs of the Iraq war and the nearly $500 billion annual defense budget, issued a statement Tuesday warning of a political revolt by its constituents.

"[C]onservatives throughout the United States are increasingly losing faith in the president and the Republican leadership in Congress to adequately prioritize and rein in overall federal spending," said ACU president David Keene.

He noted that even before Katrina, "American taxpayers have witnessed the largest spending increase under any preceding president and Congress since the Great Depression."

Anatol Lieven, a foreign policy analyst at the New America Foundation, also foresees foreign policy consequences to Katrina. "I wouldn't call it withdrawal from the world, but there had already been a certain tailoring of ambition as a result of Iraq," he told IPS. "But Katrina will push it further both because of the public mood and the financial constraints."

As to whether such a retreat would be one of "pugnacious isolationism" or, as Hoagland put it, a "humbler, more cooperative" course, remains uncertain.

Judging by Washington's performance at the World Summit at the United Nations this week, the Jacksonians, one of whose foremost exponents is U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, retains the upper hand – although the U.S. negotiating position was obviously worked out before Katrina hit.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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