Yet another national poll shows Americans want their government to be "less active" overseas. In 2001, the same pollsters asked people the same question less than a week before 9/11: 14 percent gave the "less active" answer. That more than a decade of constant warfare has soured many Americans on interventionism should come as no surprise, but who expected a quadrupling of anti-interventionist sentiment?
This comes as a shock to the War Party, and to their base in the Washington Establishment: while they no doubt realize broad support for their foreign policy agenda has largely evaporated, this "isolationist" tsunami should have them in panic mode. And, indeed, there are a few stories about this, including one all about some self-proclaimed "expert" who says "isolationism" is endangering World Peace, or something to that effect. But in general Washington’s reaction to this poll has been like their reaction to all the other similar polls with similar results that have been released in the past few years or so: indifference.
That’s because, as far as the political class is concerned, what the American people think about foreign policy doesn’t much matter – because the matter has already been decided. There are good reasons for this Bourbon indifference to the views of the rabble.
To begin with, the two party system rigs the "debate." Normal Americans don’t think about political/ideological issues except around election time, and notably during presidential elections. They listen to the two candidates, watch the televised debates, and on that basis make their choice. The problem is they don’t usually have much of a choice when it comes to foreign policy issues: that’s because the primary process has already sifted out the candidates least acceptable to the War Party. The result is that voters in the general election get to "choose" between candidates competing with one another to see who can be the most belligerent.
On the Republican side, the party is burdened with a ready-made interventionist constituency. The "born again" evangelicals who make up so much of the party’s base adhere to a dispensationalist theology biased in favor of supporting Israel unconditionally – which means supporting Tel Aviv’s policy of dragging us into their many wars and blood feuds.
On the Democratic side, the party leadership is in a state of vassalage to a donor class that predicates its support on the presidential candidate taking a pro-Israel position, but this is not the decisive factor. The Democrats, after all, are the party of FDR and LBJ: as such, they are committed to internationalism as a matter of high principle, with only the ghost of William Jennings Bryan making barely audible protests.
And of course one could make a similar claim about the Republicans’ institutional-ideological commitment to overseas mayhem: this, after all, is the party of Nixon and Bush II. Indeed, that legacy hangs heavily around the necks of the party’s dwindling activist base, but there’s a new boy in town: his name his Rand Paul. Whose name, by the way, graces the title of the Washington Post’s analysis of the poll results: "What if Rand Paul is right about foreign policy?"
The modern GOP must deal with the shades of Nixon and the still-living ghost of George W., but the party has an alternative tradition to look to: the Republicans, don’t forget, were once the party of Robert A. Taft, a.k.a. "Mr. Republican." Taft opposed US entry into the European theater during World War II, opposed NATO, and warned, in Eisenhowerian terms, of the domestic dangers of militarism. And Taft was a relative moderate compared to "isolationist" Republicans in the House, like Howard Buffet (yes, the famous billionaire’s father), who warned "we cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home," and Taft’s 1952 GOP convention floor manager Rep. George Bender, who savaged Winston Churchill for his criticism of Henry Wallace going abroad to criticize US foreign policy. If Churchill could come to Fulton, Missouri and deliver his famous "iron curtain" speech which launched the cold war, said Bender, then Wallace should be granted the same exporting license to promote peace overseas.
Wisely, Sen. Paul hasn’t explicitly conjured these historical figures: why re-fight the lost battles of yesteryear? He has enough on his plate fighting the very real foreign policy wars of 2014, and his many enemies would like nothing better than to tar him with the "isolationist" brush. But the tarring effect of that particular brush is wearing a bit thin: isolationist was a propagandistic phrase invented to appeal to the emotions of a generation now passing rapidly into history. Aside from the aging effect, there’s the numbing effect of likening every target-of-opportunity to Hitler and yelping "Munich!" at the mere hint of a peace flare-up. This constant babble has inured the public to the War Party’s time-honored tactic of propaganda-by-historical-analogy. If every tinpot dictator is Hitler, then perpetual war is our inevitable future. In the face of such a bleak prospect, the average American may be forgiven for thinking we should just pull up the drawbridge and say to heck with it.
Senator Paul is playing a very smart game when it comes to foreign policy: his latest venture is very much like his Ukraine plan, which involved not "letting Vladimir Putin get away with it" – and also cutting off all aid to Ukraine. Seems like only Jonathan Chait caught on to that one, but so far I’m the only one who seems to have caught on to Sen. Paul’s latest curve ball: his "pro-Israel" bill that would wind up costing the Israelis a pretty penny.
Entitled the "Stand With Israel Act," the legislation would cut off all aid to the Palestinian authorities within five weeks if they fail to recognize Israel, abjure terrorism, and pledge not to attack the Jewish state.
It is being opposed by AIPAC, the largest and most politically connected pro-Israel lobbying organization, and – from its perspective – with good reason,: because the loss in aid would have to be made up for by the occupying power, i.e. Israel, which has the legal obligation, under international law, to provide basic infrastructure on Palestinian territory it controls. The international and local repercussions of not providing these basics just aren’t worth the price, and so AIPAC is doing Tel Aviv’s bidding in opposing Paul’s bill – not that the AIPAC leadership has to be told.
Moreover, AIPAC argues that present law is sufficient to rule out any US aid to a coalition Fatah-Hamas government, while Paul’s bill calls this into question. Ah, say the Paul folks, but can the Obama administration be trusted to not utilize the ever-present waiver which is a key part of any restriction on "foreign aid"? We have all sorts of "human rights" and "anti-terrorist" legislation making economic and military aid conditional on satisfying all sorts of criteria: the kicker is the President can waive these conditions in the name of the "national interest" – he being the very embodiment of that exalted myth.
Very clever – the "Stand With Israel" Act satisfies practically every constituency important to the Senator’s presidential prospects. The very name is enough to fool the snake-handling yahoos whose pastors liken standing with Israel to standing up for Jesus. Hey, they’re cutting off aid to those terrorist heathens! Yippee! You got a problem with that?
Informed that Israel may wind up paying the tab, this same yahoo might very well look you in the eye and ask: Well, what’s wrong with that?
No wonder AIPAC is opposing the "Stand With Israel" Act.
Another key constituency the bill should satisfy: libertarians. In calling for an end to aid, it fulfills a central requirement of libertarian orthodoxy in that it cuts government expenditures – and lessens US involvement in a matter that is none of our business. In this it also satisfies another key constituency: the overwhelming majority of Americans who, if polled, would support the Senator’s bill overwhelmingly. Foreign aid being the least popular government program imaginable, these same Americans would also end or at least severely curtail aid to Israel. But that will come later, after the ground has been prepared.
This is a replay of Sen. Paul’s memorable campaign to end aid to Egypt – which, in retrospect, was a prescient move, one for which he isn’t getting the credit he’s due. While he promoted it by declaring that not one penny ought to be going to "countries that burn our flag," it’s one of history’s little ironies that the current flag-burners are also military autocrats – and the aid keeps flowing on account of that presidential waiver.
The quadrupling of "isolationist" sentiment in the years since 9/11 shows the importance of playing the long game. This was the strategy we here at Antiwar.com adopted in the days and months following that signal event, in which it seemed the country and indeed the entire Western world had gone mad. Like medieval monks preserving the last remnants of literacy and human civilization – did you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz? – against a new Dark Age of militarism and mayhem, we held the fort and counted on being proved right in the end.
And now we are coming very near to the end. That’s what the rise in anti-interventionist sentiment augurs: a political showdown between the War Party and its many enemies on the right as well as the left. Whether this involves the person of Senator Paul, or some other political figure, is hard to tell at this point. However, the mere fact that the Senator’s name is now popular shorthand for a foreign policy of minding our own business is a sign of the times. The elites want intervention, and the people want peace. A showdown is coming – so stay tuned to this space.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.