Clinton’s Dishonest Allegations of “Isolationism”

March 4, 1999 • Commentary

Whenever the Clinton administration’s stewardship of foreign affairs is attacked, administration officials drag the isolationist straw man out of storage and give him a good public thrashing. The latest example of that tactic was President Clinton’s speech in San Francisco. Although conceding that, for the first time since the rise of fascism, “there is no overriding threat to our survival or freedom,” the president emphasized that the United States must stay engaged in the world and not “batten down the hatches.”

Clinton’s assertion that Americans confront a stark choice between engagement and isolationism typifies the administration’s simplistic portrayal of the post‐​Cold War foreign policy debate. Last summer Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated that Americans should not act “as if we could zip ourselves up into a continental cocoon and watch events unfold on CNN.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright routinely derides her critics as isolationists.

Such caricatures retard a debate on the real foreign policy options at the dawn of the 21st century. No one of any prominence is suggesting that the United States cut itself off from the world and create a Fortress America or a hermit republic. There are increasing calls, however, for Washington to focus its foreign policy resources, energy and attention on those relatively few developments in the international system that can have a direct and substantial impact on America’s own security and well‐​being. Critics worry that the Clinton administration is unwilling or unable to set priorities and distinguish between essential and nonessential matters.

Clinton’s San Francisco speech did little to allay that apprehension. The president outlined five “great challenges” requiring U.S. leadership: spreading peace; helping Russia and China achieve greater prosperity and political pluralism; combating terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; expanding international trade; and promoting democracy around the world.

Not only is that a breathtakingly broad agenda, it implies U.S. omnipotence. An intelligent and sustainable foreign policy must consist of something more than a wish list of desirable objectives. There are distinct limits to the ability of any nation — even one as powerful as the United States — to shape the global political, economic and strategic environment. For example, the political futures of Russia and China will be determined largely by domestic developments in those two countries. Likewise, democracy is not a product that can be exported to the developing world by U.S. political or economic exertions, however well intended.

Clinton’s assertion that Americans confront a stark choice between engagement and isolationism typifies the administration’s simplistic portrayal of the post‐​Cold War foreign policy debate.

Indeed, such objectives as the promotion of democracy and “spreading peace” are so inherently amorphous that they beg the real questions. Spread peace how? where? and at what level of cost or risk to the American people? To take just one example, is it really wise for the United States to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, risk the lives of American military personnel, invite terrorist retaliation against U.S. cities and put its credibility on the line by intervening in not one but two civil wars in the Balkans?

Perhaps there is a compelling rationale for those missions, but if so, the administration ought to rebut the substantive objections rather than dismiss opponents as knuckle‐​dragging isolationists. It also must provide a coherent strategic analysis instead of resorting to clichés about geopolitical dominoes toppling throughout the Balkans and triggering another world war in the absence of U.S. preventive action.

The president’s treatment of the Balkans issue in his San Francisco speech illustrates the administration’s overall tendency to use hyperbole and distortions when portraying America’s post‐​Cold War foreign policy options. All too often, the argument is that if Washington does not exercise leadership to ensure peace and justice in virtually every region, chaos will ensue and eventually require U.S. intervention at greater cost and under less favorable conditions.

That thesis ignores the possibility of other strategies and outcomes. A more selective global political and military role for the United States would exert inexorable pressure on other significant regional actors to do more, out of self‐​interest, to stabilize the security environment in their respective regions. It is both puzzling and troubling that, more than a half century after the end of World War II, Japan and its neighbors in East Asia are incapable of containing a smallish rogue state like North Korea and must instead rely on the United States. Similarly, Americans have a right to ask why the European Union, with nearly 400 million people, a collective gross domestic product of some $8 trillion and more than 1 million active‐​duty military personnel, cannot deal with instability in the Balkans or problems of similarly modest magnitude.

Is it really in America’s best interest to continue tolerating — and in some cases encouraging — such pervasive dependency? Or would it be better for the United States to insist that major democratic powers take primary responsibility for their own defense and the stability of their neighborhoods? It can at least be argued that fostering multiple centers of power in the world would lead to the creation of security buffers that would reduce America’s risk exposure and provide other important indirect benefits to the United States.

Whatever the merits of that theory, it is the kind of issue that should be at the center of a meaningful discussion about America’s role in the 21st century. The president’s use of the isolationist straw man may postpone the day when his administration must conduct an honest foreign policy debate, but it does a disservice to his country.

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