Americans want a smaller role in global affairs than the stage-hogging part we command today. Nearly half say the U.S. should be less active minding the world's business, and only 19 percent say more so, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests.
Who can blame them? Our roads are shabby, the rail system Third World. We're told America can't afford the social niceties that nations we defend take for granted.
Though a return to an earlier isolationism would be dangerous, today's hyperactivity is the other extreme. America is a big, powerful place and must do more than lesser nations. We must also bear in mind, however, that others are quite happy to have us spend our blood, treasure and prestige fixing their problems.
Following are four irritating examples:
--Ukraine. There's been much complaint over the Obama administration's reluctance to economically punish Russian aggression in Ukraine without the European Union's full participation.
It happens that Ukraine is in Europe, and the current tragedy stems from Ukrainians' efforts to seek closer ties with western Europe. If Europeans, so dependent on Russian energy supplies, face more risks in enacting such sanctions, well, that is a factor Europe must deal with. Of course, our European allies would prefer that the United States take the blows. Why wouldn't they?
In Washington, meanwhile, Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is demanding that Obama respond to Russian behavior with something more muscular than "a slap on the wrist." What, exactly, does the good senator have in mind?
--South Korea and Japan. Both South Korea and Japan feel threatened by an assertive China and crazy North Korea. But the leaders of South Korea and Japan reportedly can't stand each other for historical reasons.
Somehow it's become America's job to get these allies to like each other enough to cooperate. If they don't care enough to confront serious common threats, why must we press them?
This is our problem to the extent that should push come to shove, all will expect the United States to come to the rescue. Such thinking leaves leaders the luxury of nursing their old resentments.
--Afghanistan. U.S. troops have helped protect Afghanistan from a descent into bloody chaos. Nonetheless, a hostile President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States to continue their presence.
It's as if he was doing us a big favor letting us in.
The "good news" is that two leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential elections are breaking with Karzai. They want to keep Americans there.
By the way, weren't we training Afghans to take over their own security?
--Israel/Palestine. Ah, the PEACE PROCESS. We read of "frantic diplomacy" by Secretary of State John Kerry to get the two sides moving. Of course, it failed. It always fails.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have much to gain from settling their differences. And as the United States becomes independent of Mideast oil, its stakes in the game are going down.
Many were amazed at the spectacle of the administration offering to free Jonathan Pollard, the American now serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. The administration figured letting Pollard go might encourage Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow through on his promise to release Palestinian prisoners.
One, the enormous sums we send to Israel should be incentive enough. Two, Pollard is our prisoner, not Israel's.
That America would be making concessions to get warring parties to act, again in their own interests, shows how cracked our need to solve everyone's problems has become.
Somewhere between taking on no burdens and taking on all burdens lies a balance of national interests and concern for humanity. Let's find it.