In the immediate future, I do not think the United States will be intervening abroad on the ground — not in the Middle East or, for that matter, many places in other parts of the world. The reason is not just a new Republican isolationism, or the strange but growing alliance between left-wing pacifists and right-wing libertarians.
Some of the new reluctance to intervene abroad is due to disillusionment with Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the sense that the means — a terrible cost of American blood and treasure — do not seem yet to be justified by the ends of the current Maliki and Karzai governments. Few Americans are patient enough to hear arguments that a residual force in Iraq would have preserved our victory there, or that Afghanistan need not revert to the Taliban next year. Their attitude to the Obama administration’s unfortunate abdication of both theaters is mostly, “I am unhappy that we look weak getting out, but nonetheless happier that we are getting out.”
There is not much optimism left that either of those two nations will, over the coming decades, evolve along the lines of South Korea, from a stable free-market authoritarianism to true consensual government. Endemic ingratitude also seems to matter to the public. Most Americans don’t feel that either Iraqis or Afghans appreciated us very much for ridding them of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. For that matter, do Egyptians, Jordanians, or Palestinians seem thankful for U.S. aid?
We are broke and owe $17 trillion in long-term debt, which makes it harder, psychologically, to borrow the money to intervene in Syria. The lack of money, like mental exhaustion and ingratitude, is an additional catalyst for inaction. Obama certainly is not just an isolationist who welcomes a U.S. recessional; he is also an isolationist who understands that his do-nothing policy is not all that unpopular with a broke and underemployed public.