SIMI VALLEY, Calif — On the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, defense advocates voiced concerns that too many Americans are supporting isolationist military policies at a time when the U.S. military needs to take a larger role in international security issues.

“We have to be there,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday. “We have to be there to support freedom of navigation. We have to be there to support rule of law.

“We don’t want to go back to where we were on Pearl Harbor day, with an isolationist policy and being dragged into foreign conflicts. We have to oppose those tendencies.”

The comments came in response to conflicting opinions on America’s role as a military power and as an international leader in a survey conducted by forum organizers released last month. In the poll:

  • 86 percent of those surveyed voiced support for the military.
  • Nearly two-thirds said the country should maintain its military footprint around the world to deter possible attacks on the homeland.
  • Half said the United States needs to “take the lead” more in international events.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans see China as more of an economic threat than a military threat.
  • The number of survey participants who see Russia as an ally increased significantly from a year earlier, to almost 30 percent.
  • Fewer individuals saw the need for a military focus in East and South Asia — including China and Afghanistan — than a year ago.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who leads the House Republican Conference, said she is concerned that “groups in both parties are coming together in a dangerous way around isolationist principles.”

“We cannot continue to play the role that we have since the end of World War II if the public doesn’t support it,” she said. “We have to make sure that we’re reminding people about [the] extent that our freedom, economy, security depends upon us playing a [military] role in the world in a very engaged way.”

Panel members sparred on the reasons for the isolationist bent. Duckworth, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, blamed the commander in chief for advancing policies and rhetoric that downplays America’s international role and the importance of allies.

Cheney and Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush, said the policies of Democrats have created the same conflicts and problems. But they acknowledged that administration and congressional leaders need to take a bolder role emphasizing the importance of America as an international leader.

“You look at all of our institutions, and [the military] is one where the confidence of the American people cuts across all lines,” Rove said. “So we need to look at what can we do to build on that for its budget and mission.”

The defense forum, in its seventh year, brings together lawmakers and defense leaders for a day of discussions on national security strategy, priorities and challenges. The survey accompanying the event is available on the forum’s website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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