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Cohen: American isolationism comes at a high price

  • (JOEL PETT / Lexington Herald-Leader)

This being the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, I have plunged into several books on the subject, most of them relating to what started it, and I have come up with the following conclusion: mustaches.

Most of Europe’s leaders had either a mustache or a beard — the German kaiser, the jejune Wilhelm II, had the most resplendent mustache of them all, “fixed into place every morning by his personal barber,” Margaret McMillan tells us in her new history of the road to war.

This confirms what I always thought: The Germans started the war.

I am being a bit of a smarty-pants here, although my mustache theory is as good as anyone’s. The war killed at least 16 million people and changed history on a dime, creating the modern Middle East, for instance, and setting the stage for World War II, and yet it is still unclear what caused this epic conflict. Was it alliances? Was it nationalism? Was it the arms race or a variation on that theme, capitalism with all its alleged evils?

I am severely underqualified to provide an answer. But the sheer irrationality of the war does offer a lesson: Expect the unexpected. Leave room for irrationality. Respect the role of emotion and remember that most men fight for the man next to them, not for their country or some great cause.

In the end, though, that sucker trait is used by countries and great causes. It doesn’t really matter why you fight, just as long as you fight.

I exhume World War I not just to mark its centennial, but for a purpose.

The war ended after the United States got into the fray. America then reverted to its traditional isolationism and we got, partially as a result, World War II. Now we are reverting once again to a form of isolationism — not as extreme as the first, but the emotion is there, this time even more on the left than on the right.

On the left, anyone who suggested that the United States intervene early in Syria, when the Assad regime might have been toppled without resorting to putting boots on the ground, was denounced as a war-monger. I am tempted to say that the United States did nothing. Actually, it was worse than nothing.

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