The “Isolationism” Canard

February 9, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the San Diego Union‐​Tribune, February 9, 2006.

During his State of the Union address, President Bush warned Americans about the lure of “isolationism.” The president mentioned “isolationism” or “isolation” four times, warning that the strategy offered only “false comfort” that would result in “danger and decline.” By contrast, the president explained his own position clearly: “The future security of America depends on…the end of tyranny in our world.” But who are these isolationists, and what is it that they are proposing?

It’s tough to tell. The term “isolationist” didn’t arise until the late nineteenth century, when it was made popular by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an ardent militarist, who used the term to slur opponents of American imperialism. As historian Walter McDougall has pointed out, America’s “vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”

That’s pretty consistent with the way the president used the term. During the speech, he presented the choice on Iraq in the bipolar manner that has become his trademark: On Iraq, either you’re with the president, or you’re with the isolationists. “Responsible criticism,” according to the president, comes from within the first faction, whereas “defeatism,” “hindsight,” and “second‐​guessing” come from the latter. In the real world, the choice is much more complex than simply between the reckless and militant interventionism of Bush’s forced democracy policy and the head‐​in‐​the‐​sand posture of isolationism. Setting up the isolationist straw man was a cynical tactic used to frame the debate over Iraq, not a serious characterization of a real position on foreign policy.

True enough, there are a few on the national stage who embrace something akin to isolationism. Pat Buchanan, for one, would like to see the United States less involved militarily, culturally, and economically with foreign countries. But there is little groundswell at the grassroots for this worldview and almost no genuine isolationism in Congress or the punditocracy.

Unfortunately, Bush is not the only one to conjure up that phony specter. The term isolationism has been cropping up with increasing frequency. A November Pew poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the Pew pollsters, this was evidence of an isolationist sentiment. But what is the contrary position? That the United States should not mind its own business internationally? That we should attempt to direct foreign countries ourselves? Is it isolationist to believe that the United State s should seek security by defending its vital interests abroad, but balk at messianic projects to transform foreign governments?

In reality, there is a wide spectrum of views on America’s role in the world, and it is not adequately characterized by a “Bush supporters vs. isolationists” dichotomy. Many of us believe that the Bush administration’s definition of the national interest is absurdly broad; for instance, when the president claims that the security of Americans is contingent on “the end of tyranny in our world.” But our disagreement is not based on a desire to retrench ourselves in some walled commune, avoiding the world around us and ignoring the perils there. It is not isolation we seek, but a more discriminating view of the national interest.

The irony is that while the president is radically out of touch with the American foreign policy tradition, he accuses his opponents of following an extreme ideology. Bush’s belief that our security is contingent on congenial political arrangements in all foreign countries, no matter how obscure or strategically irrelevant they may be, is both wrong and dangerous. George F. Kennan, perhaps the senior American statesman of the 20th century, remarked in 1999 that “this whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought‐​through, vainglorious and undesirable.” By contrast, Kennan argued that American foreign policy is at its best when it is “very modest and restrained.” Perhaps the president believes Kennan, the intellectual architect of America’s containment policy, was just an isolationist.

President Bush’s foreign policy is causing the Republic great harm, besmirching our reputation in the world and dragging his popularity down at home. Tarring his many (and varied) critics with the “isolationist” epithet will not change any of those phenomena. Recently, columnist George Will pleaded for an “adult hour” in this year’s State of the Union. Instead, the president decided to play politics with the discussion of Iraq—and of foreign policy generally. Will’s adult hour will not come until the president takes off his ideological blinders and acknowledges that the world—and foreign affairs—are much more complicated than white hat vs. black hat. Or Bush vs. the isolationists.

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