The following comes from part of a facebook discussion (an appropriate venue for such polemics, I know!) that resulted from one of my status updates (FB's response to tweets). For better or worse, I'm heavily indebted to Pat Buchanan for the tack I take in my approach to US history. Comments and corrections in my understanding will be much appreciated.
Status: Fewer than 50,000 military personnel left in Iraq, something I'm proud of my President for. Now just 100,000 in Afghanistan, 66,000 in Germany, 54,000 in Japan, 30,000 in Kuwait, and 30,000 in South Korea to go. A republic, not an empire.
[Keenan wrote: Would we risk further instability in the world by returning to an isolationist foreign policy?]
Prior to our entry into WWI, Jefferson doubled the size of the US by buying up over 800,000 square miles of land from the French (who, had we have been more meddlesome in European affairs, would've been more hostile towards us than they were following the naval Quasi-War we'd had with them from 1798-1800) at less than $20 a square mile. Jefferson also oversaw the creation of the US Navy in response to the plundering of merchant ships by Barbary corsairs in the Atlantic and Mediterranean that had been going on for centuries.
James Madison took much of contemporary Florida from the hands of the Spanish empire and attempted to invade and conquer Canada.
The war hero and future President Andrew Jackson invaded what was left of Florida and kicked the Spanish governor across the water into Cuba. The result was complete US control of what became the sunshine state.
James Monroe, who sent Jackson to take Florida, declared during his Presidency the Monroe Doctrine, essentially telling the rest of the world to butt out of US affairs in the Western Hemisphere.
John Tyler annexed Texas. Instead of implicitly ceding the American Southwest to the Mexicans as we are apt to do today, he explicitly took its greatest part from them.
James Polk followed that up by chopping off the northern half of what was then Mexico (the California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico of today) at a bargain-basement price in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Commodore Perry is probably more famous in the annals of Japanese history than in US history for forcing open trade between that formerly cloistered country and the West. He didn't remain stationed in Okinawa for six decades, though--he was back home in the US a year later.
In 1853, President Franklin bought up the remainder of Mexican-controlled territory (including modern-day Tucson) that would eventually become part of the US.
The US, under Andrew Johnson, supported Mexico's struggle for self-rule in opposing the French suzerainty that had been installed there by Napolean's nephew.
William Seward bought Alaska. He was less successful in acquiring Hawaii, British Columbia, Greenland, and the Virgin Islands. But he tried for those, too.
During Rutherford Hayes' administration, we almost went to war with Germany over questions over the status of the Samoan Islands.
William McKinley went to war with Spain, invaded Cuba, gave the US control of Puerto Rico, maintained US influence in the Philippines, used American troops to put down the Boxer Rebellion, and forced open trade between China and the rest of the West as Millard Fillmore had done in Japan half a century before.
Teddy Roosevelt made sure the Panama Canal was completed and mediated the treaty following Japan's surprising victory over Russia in 1904.
All that during the so-called period of US isolationism. We didn't isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead, we acted on the world stage when it was in our best interests, not on behalf of some entangling alliance or in defence of some universal proposition about the equality and civil rights of all man(and woman!)kind
My amateurish understanding of history freely admitted, I am not of the opinion that what the US has done since then--exported messianic liberal democracy on the barrel of a gun--has done us much good. World War I is widely regarded as a pointless bloodletting (Western Civilization's first Civil War, really). The Korean War? Vietnam? The Balkans? The war in Iraq? A decade in Afghanistan?
More controversial is criticism of our entry into WWII, but by starving the Japanese of energy while they were at war with China was a primary reason for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitler honored his alliance with Japan and declared war on us a couple days later, but had we not sent American troops into Europe, it's questionable as to how and where any military confrontations between the US and Germany would've commenced. Instead, at great cost in blood and treasure, we knocked out the Nazis before they'd done all they could've done to the Soviets. As a result, we got Stalin, who murdered millions more people than Hitler did, and a Cold War that lasted over four decades and ensconced in our economic fabric the military-industrial-congressional complex that underlies the countless "defense" boondoggles taxpayer dollars have been squandered on ever since.
That rebuttal to the derogatory "isolationist" charge aside, US military personnel constitute almost 70% of all foreign deployments worldwide. We have nearly 400,000 boots on the ground outside of the US. The rest of the world combined, by contrast, has a total of about 175,000 spread across the entire globe. If our soldiers come home from their extended vacations in Germany, the US embassy in Berlin will not be closed down. The Germans will still export BMWs to us. We will still export jets to them.
Instead of establishing permanent military bases throughout Europe and Asia, why not maintain a foreign policy stating that if you attack us or facilitate those who do, we're going to strike back an order of magnitude more ferociously (and then some), reducing your domestic military installations to rubble, killing your leaders, and aiming our nuclear arsenal at you just in case that response isn't enough to set you straight--then we're going to get out and leave the cleanup to you and your despondent citizenry?
As Landon rightly points out, China is establishing soft influence all over the place--in the Middle East, Africa, South America, the rest of Asia--without any overseas military bases or deployed soldiers to speak of. I don't even think they have an outpost in North Korea (although I could be off on that).
[Evan wrote: I'm sure South Korea wouldn't appreciate our departure.]
Polls show that most South Koreans--by about a 55%-45% margin--want the US to extirpate itself militarily from their country (there is a generational divide on the issue, with older Koreans being more amenable to our presence than younger Koreans are). South Korea's economy is 20-30 times the size of the North's. Its military expenditures are four times the North's, and its population is more than twice that of its northern neighbor. Why are we footing the bill and putting our guys at risk on behalf of an ungrateful nation that can (and should!) defend itself?