This article is © 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted at The Last Ditch on September 12, 2014 by WTM Enterprises.


The American establishment combats the resurgent “isolationist” threat


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Prefatory note. One might think that writing of the establishment's recent concern about Americans' alleged turn to "isolationism" is a project for yesterday, given the current war fever against ISIS. However, it is still not apparent that the American people's willingness to attack ISIS, out of a desire to avenge the brutal beheading of American citizens and the supposed threat the group poses to the American homeland (stemming in part from ISIS's own boastful threats), can lead to support for an overall interventionist policy that would satisfy the war hawks regarding other allegedly dangerous countries such as China, Russia, Iran, and Syria.
In 2013 it became apparent that the American people had grown averse to America's involvement in wars, and that received empirical confirmation in a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in November 2013, which revealed that 51 percent of Americans believed that their country's military involvement was excessive. [1] Once again the bugaboo of isolationism entered the mainstream spotlight, the derogatory label being attached to those who would like to cut back America's global intervention. [2] Opposition to the alleged resurgent isolationism united all sectors of the mainstream establishment — liberals, moderates, conservatives, ultra-interventionist neoconservatives, and the more moderate traditional foreign-policy establishment.

As an article in Time magazine, a mouthpiece of the American establishment, observed in April of this year:

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russia has once again focused attention on the question of America's international role. There is, across the political spectrum, a strong streak of anti-interventionism which holds that we should minimize our involvement abroad except for clear-cut national security purposes. In this view, the United States should avoid not only any non-defensive use of military force but any exercise of its power to influence world affairs — especially for "moral" causes such as human rights or democracy. Leftists wary of American power deplore what they see as President Obama's continuation of his predecessors' imperialist policies. Libertarians and libertarian conservatives wary of government power and foreign entanglements, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and his father, ex-Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, reject what they see as the mindless hawkishness of the mainstream Republican Party. [3]
Cathy Young, the article's author, granted that "[t]o some extent, the neo-isolationist trend is an understandable result of the fiasco in Iraq." She thus contended that "[c]aution about adventures abroad ... is entirely sensible. But a prudent foreign policy is not the same as an American retreat from an active global role — which would be bad for the world, bad for Americans and, at the risk of lapsing into Team America cliché, bad for freedom. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum." While Young acknowledged that recent American intervention had been excessive, she did not advocate any reduction in America's global involvement, maintaining that "[i]f the United States scales back its presence on the international scene, others will step up to fill the gap." [4]

Bill Keller, a liberal interventionist who until early this year was a columnist for the New York Times (and who served as its executive editor from 2003 to 2011) wrote in the summer of 2013 that, similar to the prevailing attitude in the United States on the eve of World War II, "America is again in a deep isolationist mood." Keller opined:

The cliché of the season is that Americans are war-weary from our long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is true, but not the whole story. To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration. But the isolationist temper is not just about the legacy of Iraq. Economic troubles and political dysfunction have contributed to a loss of confidence. Add to the mix a surge of xenophobia, with its calls for higher fences and big-brotherly attention to the danger within. (These anxieties also helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state, just as nativism in that earlier period gave license to J. Edgar Hoover's obsessive eavesdropping.) [5]
In linking opposition to war to expanding government surveillance and "attention to the danger within," Keller manages to achieve a complete inversion of reality, since history shows that it is actually wars that have those effects. It was World War II that provoked the U.S. government to force Japanese-Americans into internment camps far from their homes and World War I that led to the incarceration of many people for the crime of speaking against the war. Moreover, America's current massive surveillance apparatus, revealed by Edward Snowden, results from America's military involvement in the Middle East.

In Keller's view, isolationism embodies a number of negative attributes. "Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct," Keller declared. "It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home)." [6]

Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly inveighed against the purported isolationist attitude in the United States. In an effort last September to generate congressional support for air strikes against Assad's forces, for the claimed purpose of protecting the Syrian people, Kerry proclaimed at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that "this is not the time for armchair isolationism" and that "this is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country or our conscience can afford the cost of silence." [7]

In February 2014, Kerry commented to a small group of reporters that "[t]here's a new isolationism" and complained about the failure of Congress to support military efforts that were needed to protect U.S. interests. [8] And in May 2014, Kerry, in a commencement address at Yale that focused on international relations, warned that "[w]e cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade." [9]

From the neocon perspective, even President Obama was not free from the taint of isolationism. A May 2013 article by neocon Victor Davis Hanson bore the subtitle, "President Obama's neo-isolationist foreign policy." [10] Similarly, neocon John Bolton wrote:

While Mr. Obama has wisely chosen the "internationalist" bumper sticker for his administration, his actual policies have had strong isolationist elements. Mr. Obama has been weak and ineffectual because of his debilitating reluctance to use the wide range of assets available to advance American interests, not just because of his punctiliousness about using military force. Even as he advocated at West Point the uncontroversial notion that diplomacy and "soft power" are the preferred approaches, while holding military force in reserve, Mr. Obama's own record demonstrates neither resolute policies, nor effective diplomacy, nor a credible threat.
He continued: "Mr. Obama has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism. He is isolationist in rejecting the extensive, muscular projection of American power and influence, not just militarily, but in the broadest sense of active leadership to guard or advance U.S. interests around the world." Bolton summed up by writing: "Critically, what Mr. Obama's isolationist strain and his multilateralist strain have in common is that both envisage declining American influence." [11]

While the term isolationist has been applied to individuals from all parts of the political spectrum, it has primarily been used to describe old-style conservatives. Thus, the Washington Post neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer portrayed the emerging isolationist phenomenon in August 2013: "The return of the most venerable strain of conservative foreign policy — isolationism — was utterly predictable. Isolationists dominated the [Republican] party until Pearl Harbor and then acquiesced to an activist internationalism during the Cold War because of a fierce detestation of communism.

"With communism gone, the conservative coalition should have fractured long ago. This was delayed by Sept. 11 and the rise of radical Islam. But now, 12 years into that era — after Afghanistan and Iraq, after drone wars and the NSA revelations — the natural tension between isolationist and internationalist tendencies has resurfaced." [12]

The attack on so-called isolationists among Republicans has been quite vehement. Jennifer Rubin, a resident Washington Post neocon, scathingly writes of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of hard-line libertarian non-interventionist Ron Paul: "At times, Paul sounds like the thought bubble over Obama's head. Indeed, they share a common determination to avoid reality. In their world, the Iraq war was never won. The withdrawal of forces with no stay-behind troops was the right thing to do. And the real danger is the United States doing something effective." [13]

According to James Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia, "Barack Obama is wrong in sending a message of pullback in this country, and I am not sympathetic to Republicans who feel that way either.... We are the only people that can provide stability in the 21st century — the way we did in the 20th — and we are not doing that." [14] Peter King, a congressman from New York state, trumpeted: "We cannot allow isolationists to take over" the Republican Party. [15]

The term isolationism does not accurately describe the position of any current American politician (or even past politician, for that matter); rather, it is a slur intended to silence debate. Those to whom "isolationism" is attributed never advocate cutting America off — politically, economically, and culturally — from the rest of the world in the manner of such countries as the former Chinese empire (especially during the Ming and Manchu dynasties, in the 15th-19th centuries), the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan (1641-1853), and the Hermit Kingdom of Korea in the 19th century. (Even in those cases the isolation was usually not complete.)

Advocates of U.S. intervention in World War II effectively wielded "isolationist" as a derogatory label against the staunch opponents of America's military involvement — especially the America First Committee, whose foremost spokesman was the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. Today it is assumed that opposition to the "Good War" against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was self-evidently foolish, if it did not represent actual support for those countries. Interventionists of that era, including members of the Roosevelt administration, smeared America First as being a "Nazi transmission belt." [16]

Whatever the merit of the anti-isolationist argument in respect to World War II, however, it did not prove that military participation in conflicts abroad would always be the proper position to take. That obvious fact was clearly recognized by mainstream liberal and moderate internationalists during the latter part of the Cold War. The slogan of the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, George McGovern, was "Come Home, America." Even the architect of the policy of American "containment" of Soviet communism, George F. Kennan, was highly critical of America's global implementation of that strategy in areas that went far beyond what he considered as America's vital interests in Europe. [17]

Yale historian Paul Kennedy's 1987 best-seller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, popularized the theory of "imperial overstretch" (also known as "imperial overreach"), which held that an empire could extend itself to the point where its costs eventually overburdened the economic base of the country, causing national decline. Such imperialist overcommitment, according to Kennedy, had brought about the decline of Spain in the early 18th century and Britain in the early 20th century, and now threatened the United States. Since Kennedy expressed that view before the United States had begun its wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, one would think that the problem has become considerably worse. Furthermore, it would seem that America's current economic crisis serves to validate the thesis.

Returning to the issue of isolationism, we might wonder why the critique of isolationism is not applied to other countries, but is seemingly reserved for the United States. American interventionists don't want Putin's Russia to influence even countries on its border, much less those that are thousands of miles away, as is the case for U.S. intervention. The same applies to Iran, China, and other countries whose goals conflict with those of the U.S. interventionists. It appears that these countries are actually expected to pursue a strictly isolationist policy except when their cooperation is needed to achieve some international goal sought by American interventionists.

Since the mainstream today assumes the "isolationist" position to be without any merit, the only real debate in the mainstream media seems to be whether isolationism has taken over the Republican Party. At the beginning of the year, the Post's Rubin stated that even political experts often "overestimate the influence of the neo-isolationist wing of the GOP." She continued:

Plainly, there are some loud voices in the GOP who want the United States to withdraw from the world and shrink defense. (These generally do not include Christian evangelicals who favor a robust, pro-Israel stance in the Middle East.) They are egged on by very loud voices from people such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who seems convinced we face a bigger threat from the National Security Agency than from al-Qaeda. But these voices haven't carried the day so far. With the exception of Paul, the likely 2016 contenders who have voiced foreign policy views are all strong-on-defense internationalists (e.g. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush).
She added, however: "That said, it is incumbent on all those political figures, as well as conservative pundits, think tankers and congressional candidates, to make the case for a strong American presence in the world and to rebut the cartoonish version of Bush foreign policy." [18]

In the face of that condemnation of "isolationism," Rand Paul, with his sights on the Republican nomination for the presidency, has gone out his way to rid himself of the isolationist stigma and establish his interventionist bona fides. For example, Paul recently told the Associated Press that "[i]f I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily." [19]

The continued mainstream lambasting of isolationism in tandem with the extreme brutality of ISIS that includes the decapitating of American citizens seems to be having an effect on the American people's view of U.S. foreign policy. An August 2014 Pew Research poll found that the share of Americans saying that the United States does too little to deal with global problems has risen from 17 percent to 31 percent since November 2013, while the percentage saying it is doing too much has declined from 51 percent to 39 percent. For Republicans alone, the share saying the United States has done too little has rocketed from 18 percent to 46 percent, while the percentage saying it is doing too much has fallen from 52 percent to 37 percent. [20]

The question is whether the willingness to destroy ISIS, which was motivated by the desire to protect the American homeland and avenge the killing of American citizens, can be transferred to support for intervention against Iran, Syria, China, Russia, and other interventionist-designated evildoers in the world against which the American people do not currently feel such strong motivations. Moreover, the neoconservatives must make every effort to ensure that any U.S. cooperation with Israel's enemies Syria and Iran in battling ISIS does not lead to any lasting rapprochement, if the neocons are to achieve the continuation of their Middle East war agenda.  Ω

September 12, 2014

Published in 2014 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

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1. Jeremy Bender, "American Isolationism Soars to the Highest Level in Decades," Business Insider, April 1, 2014; Pew Research Center, "As Dangers Loom, More Think the U.S. Does 'Too Little' to Solve World Problems," August 28, 2014.

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2. Stephen Sniegoski, "America's Massive Debt and the 'Isolationist Threat,'" Veterans Today, August 10, 2011.

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3. Cathy Young, "The Problem with the New Isolationism," Time Magazine, April 23, 2014.

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4. Ibid.

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5. Bill Keller, "Our New Isolationism," New York Times, September 8, 2013.

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6. Ibid.

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7. Ashe Schow, "John Kerry: This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Washington Examiner, September 3, 2013.

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8. Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton, "Kerry decries 'new isolationism,' says U.S. acts like poor nation," Reuters, February 26, 2014.

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9. Timothy Cama, "At Yale, Kerry warns against isolationism," The Hill, May 18, 2014; Jules Witcover, "John Kerry: An interventionalist in the age of isolationism," Baltimore Sun, May 23, 2014; editorial, "Kerry offers a wise warning on isolationism," Boston Globe, May 20, 2014.

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10. Victor Davis Hanson, "The Diffidence Doctrine: President Obama's neo-isolationist foreign policy," National Review, May 6, 2013.

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11. John Bolton, "Doubling Down on a Muddled Foreign Policy: The president has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism," Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2014. Others claiming that Obama is an isolationist include former Senator Rick Santorum, who accused Senator Rand Paul of advocating a foreign policy similar to "Obama's failed isolationism," in "Santorum Slams Rand Paul for Advocating 'Obama's Failed Isolationism,'" Daily Caller, August 28, 2014.

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12. Charles Krauthammer, "How fractured is the GOP?," Washington Post, August 1, 2013.

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13. Jennifer Rubin, "Isolationist ideologue Rand Paul spouts off again," Washington Post, August 28, 2014.

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14. Seth McLaughlin, "2016 tease? Jim Gilmore heads to New Hampshire, warns against GOP isolationism," Washington Times, September 3, 2014.

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15. Elliot Jager, "Peter King: Don't Let Rand Paul Isolationists Take Over GOP," Newsmax, March 10, 2014.

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16. Justus D. Doenecke, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941, p. 1.

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17. Frank Costigliolafeb, "What Would Kennan Say to Obama?," New York Times, February 27, 2014.

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18. Jennifer Rubin, "Republicans resist the isolationist line," Washington Post, January 7, 2014.

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19. Katie Glueck, "Rand Paul: 'I am not an isolationist,'" Politico, September 4, 2014.

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20. Paul Waldman, "The Republican Quasi-Isolationists Change Their Tune," American Prospect, September 4, 2014; Pew Research Center, "As Dangers Loom, More Think the U.S. Does 'Too Little' to Solve World Problems," August 28, 2014.

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