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Isolationist Streak Tempers US Attitude on East Europe

WHAT the public approved of the latest US strike on Iraq is not incompatible with what I have been perceiving for several months: This nation now is in the grip of a new kind of isolationism.

I well remember, in the 1930s and early 1940s, the widespread public resistance to the United States fighting wars abroad. That was called "isolationism," and in large part it was a reaction to World War I and the great number of American casualties suffered in a conflict that fell well short of Woodrow Wilson's goal of making the world safe for democracy.

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Americans everywhere, particularly in the Midwest, where I was growing up, wanted no part of what was viewed as just another episode in Europe's historic inability to find its own peace. "Let them fight it out among themselves this time," was what I heard. But as Hitler's aggression began to be seen as posing a terrible danger to the US, France, England, and democracy in general, isolationism started to fade, although Americans resisted entering the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That att ack, and the consequent alliance of the Japanese with the Germans, finally brought the isolationists behind US involvement.

The "new isolationism" is much different from what we experienced in the early '40s, far less passionate and more difficult to discern and describe. It's a kind of inward-looking with people saying, "It's time we take care of our many problems at home."

There is widespread compassion for those suffering in Bosnia, Africa, and elsewhere. Likewise, there still is support for a certain amount of economic and military help abroad.

Nonetheless, the end of the cold war has done much to encourage Americans to look inward since they no longer feel they have continually to look overseas at the Soviet threat. They also were led to believe that there would be billions of dollars sliced from defense spending that could be applied to domestic needs. That promised bonus has been hard to detect.

The "new isolationism" permitted, even cheered, an almost painless Gulf War and the recent strike on Iraq. The key word here is "painless." Let the US get involved in a war abroad where the body bags begin to be shipped back, with the home folks seeing all this on TV in their living rooms - and public support would evaporate very quickly. Some shapers of public thought are pushing for strong US military intervention in Bosnia. But, up to now, the president seems to have been attuned to the limitations im posed by public opinion.

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