Witnesses to years of US isolationism

The photos of Omran Daqneesh and Aylan Kurdi, and the diplomatic chaos that has accompanied developments in Syria, have become the topic of prominent American intellectuals and observers

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

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In his foreword in Fouad Ajami’s book “The Syrian Rebellion,” Charles Hill, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, quotes historian Arnold Toynbee as saying: “Syria is the roundabout in which all the forces face one another and spin off consequences - for good or ill – around the compass.”

The photos of Omran Daqneesh and Aylan Kurdi, and the diplomatic chaos that has accompanied developments in Syria, have become the topic of prominent American intellectuals and observers. Ajami has criticized the White House’s tiredness, and considers the administration of President Barack Obama “hopeless” because there is no international community without a US role.

Not intervening in crises worldwide threatens the global order itself. Obama reluctantly intervened in Libya, describing it as “leading from behind.” However, there has been nothing like the Syrian massacre since those in Rwanda, Cambodia and Srebrenica.

It is not America’s role to be the world’s policeman, but it has to perform its role in maintaining global order. This cannot be achieved by isolationism. Obama has diminished the US role. In his book “The Dispensable Nation,” esteemed expert Vali Nasr narrates an account of his work as senior advisor to the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Nasr presents his opinion and that of Holbrooke - godfather of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war - on how Obama managed the withdrawal from Iraq.

He also discusses issues related to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, and evaluates the US stance toward several countries. He provides detailed lessons from the Balkan massacres, and talks about the extraordinary roles that Holbrooke played. He compares them to what resembles submission to crises worldwide, particularly regarding dialogue with Iran.

Obama never met with Holbrooke alone, and did not give him much of his time. This reminds us of Ajami’s joke that a young speechwriter such as Benjamin Rhodes is more important to Obama than a high-ranking counsellor such as Zbigniew Brzezinski.

It is not America’s role to be the world’s policeman, but it has to perform its role in maintaining global order. This cannot be achieved by isolationism

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

The opinions of Nasr, Ajami and Holbrooke all pronounce the demise of US power, which intimidated those who attacked civil peace worldwide. Regarding the Balkan conflict, Nasr said Holbrooke intentionally conveyed threats of US force to stubborn Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

According to Nasr, Holbrooke walked out of a frustrating meeting, sat alone with his military advisor, and asked him to send B-52 bombers to an airbase in Britain, and to ensure that CNN broadcasts footage of this. Nasr said the result was that the Bosnian war ended shortly after. During all the affairs he handled, Holbrooke believed that military power was the most important thing in diplomacy. This is how the Vietnam war ended.

Nasr attributes US diplomatic failure in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan to Obama transferring foreign policy files to the Pentagon and CIA. Nasr says if it had not been for Hillary Clinton’s stubbornness and ability to impose herself, the State Department would have lost all its influence.

The White House handled most foreign policy files, including that of Iran, Arab states and Israel. Pakistani and Afghan affairs were an exception due to Holbrooke’s speed in forming the SRAP mission.

This is consistent with Ajami’s complaint of Secretary of State John Kerry, who he considers a mere White House employee as he cannot even come up with a plan for Syria. This was one of the major reasons behind Ajami’s hopelessness of any salvation for the Syrian revolution.


The scenes resemble one another, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq and Syria. The possibility of US withdrawal from the region has stirred heated debate. In an article in Foreign Policy, Clinton defended the idea that the United States must shift its interests away from the Middle East toward Asia.

Nasr, who worked with Clinton, responded to this disastrous idea and to the squandering of U.S. regional interests. He said if Americans believe that leading the world is getting out of their control, it is not due to the economic inactivity from which they have suffered for the past four years, but to their unawareness of their real global role.

Nasr added that the US adoption of a military approach to foreign policy has destroyed its reputation in the eyes of allies and friends. He said contradictions in how the US pursues its interests have raised suspicions about its worthiness to lead the world.

Ajami’s opinions are similar, as he thinks US abandonment of Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq would have been disastrous. American public opinion under former President Franklin Roosevelt was against intervention in World War II, but he intervened - a decisive decision that proved its worthiness.

The Arab and Muslim communities have known the United States as an aide and supporter that shares deep common interests. Its withdrawal will turn the region into a gathering of mafia-style countries with scarce cultural and moral insights, and no mutual interests. The positive influence of Western civilization, as represented by the United States, would no longer remain as American values are the era’s values and system.

When isolationism dominates upcoming US policy, and when the necessity to intervene is ignored, there will be more regional unrest. There is a huge difference between American values and those of Russia, China and other such countries.

Years ago, philosopher Jean Baudrillard said: “America is an ideal and integrated world. It’s like a woman like no other. It’s a cinematic town, it’s the end of the world. It’s the disaster… It’s the destruction of meaning and its disappearance.”

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 25, 2016.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

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