Commentary

The Isolationist Charge: The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

Samuel Johnson said patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Today the epithet “isolationist” is the last refuge of the warmonger.

Sen. John McCain may be Washington’s most enthusiastic hawk — supporter of war in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, jokester about war with Iran, and advocate of confrontation with Russia during that nation’s war with Georgia. If there is blood to be shed, he wants the U.S. involved.

But the Republican presidential candidates are not with him. Several have looked into the fiscal abyss that awaits America and are saying “stop.” On ABC’s This Week McCain complained that the GOP contenders questioned Barack Obama’s foolish and illegal war in Libya: “This is isolationism.”

McCain’s ignorance is striking. He claimed that U.S. intervention stopped a slaughter in the city of Benghazi, even though Libya’s Moammar Qadhafi had not committed mass killings in the other cities which he recaptured. And Qadhafi aimed his florid rhetoric at rebel fighters, not civilians. Alas, advocates of the Libya war refuse to let the facts interfere with their propaganda.

Worse, though, is McCain’s resort to the standard demagogic tactic of those who favor U.S. intervention everywhere every time. The term “isolationist” once meant something: people who hoped to keep America separate from the rest of the world. They generally wanted few political ties, little trade, minimal immigration, and limited cultural exchange, as well as a restrained military policy.

Such people may still exist today, but they aren’t much in evidence in Washington. They certainly weren’t represented on the debate stage in New Hampshire, to which McCain referred. And they are largely absent among the people criticizing yet another war and prospective nation-building project in yet another Muslim nation.

Of course, McCain isn’t the first uber-hawk who prefers to shout insults than defend intervention. In fact, it is the preferred tactic of those whose policies would leave American permanently at war.

With no congressional authorization based on either the Constitution or War Powers Resolution, the Libya conflict is illegal. The public has turned negative. Most NATO members want as little as possible to do with what is really Britain’s and France’s war. And things will only get worse the longer the war drags on.

The U.S. and Europe have been bombing Libya for three months and all they have managed to do is extend the fighting, killing more of the civilians who are supposed to be saved. No one knows when the conflict will end or who is likely to take control if the rebels win, since they are divided among themselves, and include former Qadhafi officials, Islamic extremists, along with genuine democratic activists.

McCain likely would have had a different perspective two years ago when he and three other Senators visited Libya. According to the State Department cable reporting on the August 2009 trip, McCain opened a meeting with Muammar Qadhafi’s son Muatassim: “We never would have guessed ten years ago that we could be sitting in Tripoli.” When the Libyans pressed for military aid, the State Department observer reported: “Senator McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security.” The cable went on to observe: “McCain’s meetings with Muammar and Muatassim al-Qadhafi, were positive, highlighting the progress that has also been made in the bilateral relationship.”

No doubt then McCain would have accused anyone who opposed military assistance to the Qadhafi government of isolationism. The cable noted: “The Senators recognized Libya’s cooperation on counterterrorism and conveyed that it was in the interest of both countries to make the relationship stronger.” Only an isolationist would object to aiding a nation guilty of terrorist attacks on Americans.

Of course, that was then and this is now.

For someone like McCain, it doesn’t matter what the U.S. is doing so long as it is meddling overseas. You don’t want to arm a former terrorist in the war on terror, you are an isolationist. You don’t want to bomb an oppressive dictator, you are an isolationist. You want to peacefully advance America’s interest, you are an isolationist.

Over the years “isolationist” has been routinely used to libel people who don’t want the U.S. government to wander the globe bombing, invading, and occupying other nations and writing checks to assorted corrupt thugs, vicious authoritarians, and incompetent socialists. Isolationist also has been applied to those who believe the Constitution reserves to Congress the authority to start wars. The only way to avoid the epithet is to be a profligate spender and promiscuous warmonger who routinely violates the Constitution.

America, and more important, Americans, should engage the world. Except in highly unusual circumstances, the U.S. government should maintain political relations with other nations. Transnational issues — refugees, environment, proliferation — warrant transnational cooperation. On the rare occasion when America has truly vital interests at stake, military action may be justified.

The most important activities between nations should be between peoples. Trade and investment, culture and sports, education and travel, economic development and humanitarian assistance, and much more. The proper presumption, in a free society at least, is that most human action and exchange take place outside of government. Minimizing political entanglements, as George Washington famously advocated in his Farewell Address, is not isolationism but prudent engagement.

Indeed, prudence is what is missing from the program of those who shout “isolationist” at anyone who opposes their policies for endless intervention and war. It is not isolationist to point out that most conflicts are more expensive and turn out far differently than expected. It is not isolationist to emphasize the human cost at the other end of American bombs. It is not isolationist to warn of how even short wars tend to turn into long occupations.

It is not isolationist to highlight Washington’s precarious fiscal situation. It is not isolationist to affirm that the U.S. government’s highest duty is to those it claims to represent — and who pay, and sometimes die, for its activities. It is not isolationist to insist that the president follow the Constitution and the law.

It is not isolationist but good sense.

America’s natural condition should be peace, not war. Reflexive interventionists like Sen. McCain think otherwise, which is why they routinely smear their opponents as isolationists. With no arguments to make, they have only insults to shout. But the real epithet today should be interventionist.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).