The foreign policy issue in American politics has undergone some remarkable shifts over the years. We are in the midst of just such a shift, but before we can properly understand what is happening today we must consult Clio, the muse of history, and see what patterns we can discern.
As witnesses to the birth of the American empire at the turn of the last century, the two major parties staked out roughly opposite positions. As William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt presided over the acquisition of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba, it was the Republicans – the party of big business, crony capitalism, and “preparedness” – who waved the banner of expansionism, and the populist Bryanite Democrats who stood for anti-imperialism. This changed with the usurpation of the old Democratic populism by the “progressivism” represented by The New Republic and Woodrow Wilson, whose policies would christen an entire school of foreign policy thought under the rubric of “Wilsonian” internationalism.
It was the backlash against Wilson’s war to “make the world safe for democracy” that the “isolationist” (i.e. anti-interventionist) sentiments of the American people – and both parties – were solidified, at least for a while. “Isolationist” sentiment in Congress was centered in the Republican party, exemplified by the “Irreconcilables,” who opposed US entry into the League of Nations, but anti-interventionism was the default position of both parties in the wake of the Great War.
This bipartisan devotion to the foreign policy of the Founders didn’t last, however: as war clouds gathered once again on the European horizon, the left-wing of the Democratic party in alliance with the Anglophile Establishment on the east coast openly agitated for war with the Axis powers. Arrayed against them were Midwestern progressives and conservative businessmen, with a few libertarian intellectuals thrown in to spice up the pot, known today as the “Old Right.”
As per usual, these disparate stances had less to do with objectively observable national security considerations than with the woof and warp of domestic politics. The Old Right, consisting of conservative Republicans and a constitutionalist remnant of the Democratic party, feared that war would give Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers the weapons they needed to consolidate their control of the economy and the country. As libertarian Rose Wilder Lane put it, we’ll “beat national socialism in the trenches and get it on the home front.”
The Democrats, heavily influenced by their far left-wing, were also – ironically – subject to considerable pressure by banking interests, whose holdings of British and other European government bonds were at risk as the Nazis steamrollered across the continent. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party turned on a dime and became the loudest interventionists of them all, the die was cast: the “Great Debate” became a battle between pro-Soviet/pro-British elements versus the nationalist-“isolationist” America First movement.
Pearl Harbor doomed the latter, but the anti-interventionists didn’t immediately fade away. Sen. Robert A. Taft, known as “Mr. Republican,” who led the America First wing of the party until 1953, opposed the formation of NATO. But the cold war was rapidly reversing the polarities of American politics, and the McCarthyite rampage led ineluctably to a turnaround among conservatives on the foreign policy question: they became militant interventionists, with National Review under editor William F. Buckley, Jr., leading the call to “roll back” communism. Meanwhile, the liberal-left abandoned its former militance and advocated – for the most part – détente with the Soviet Union.
With the implosion of international communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, it looked likely for a while that the old “isolationism” of the right would rise again, with Republicans skeptical of Bill Clinton’s Balkan war – but several factors intervened to block this development.
First, our symbiotic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states motivated George Herbert Walker Bush to intervene when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait: the first Gulf War was the result. The Democrats, for the most part, retained their mildly anti-interventionist position, out of habit, although there were significant defections.
Secondly, and more profoundly, the 9/11 attack intervened, and arrested the development of any anti-interventionist sentiment in both parties for a good while. As was the case in the run up to World War I, war hysteria united both parties, with anti-interventionist dissent consigned to the fringes. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was supported by the leadership of both parties.
When war weariness became a general malaise this led to the election of Barack Obama. While Obama campaigned – and won – on the basis of his antiwar credentials, his presidency was anything but anti-interventionist. His reign was marked by the ascendancy of the “responsibility to protect” faction of Wilsonian internationalists, and he intervened in Libya and Syria on this basis, as well as continuing – and even ratcheting up – the endless “war on terrorism” initiated by his predecessor.
So where are the patterns in this historical pageant? If we go all the way back to the earliest days of the republic, we can see that the foreign policy position of the parties has been determined by their designation of the chief danger to our national security. It is an answer to the question: Who is the “the enemy?”
In the days of Washington and Jefferson, the choices were either the British, or the French: the former represented a domestic danger, as imagined by the Jeffersonians, in the form of the restoration of royalism in America, while the latter, in the Federalist mindset, was the source of an alleged Jacobin menace, which was said to inspire Jefferson and his followers. And so we can see that, from the very beginning, these alleged foreign enemies were merely representations – stand-ins, if you will – of domestic political actors.
The same pattern has persisted throughout our history. In the two world wars, the German “threat” was represented at home by our numerous German-American population, who generally resisted the “progressive” domestic politics of the war-making Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, as well as being solidly “isolationist.” During the cold war communism was The Enemy, and this was merely a projection onto foreign soil of the anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by the McCarthy crusade and the general fear of radicalism and communist “subversion” in the United States.
Now we arrive at the present, where we encounter what may be a unique moment in the history of the politics of US foreign policy.
The projection of domestic bogeymen onto a foreign landscape has persisted to the present day, with one important modification, and it is this: in the past, while one of the parties held up an “enemy” as a dire threat to our national security, the other party defined itself largely in opposition to this. For example, during the cold war era, conservative Republicans wanted to spend billions on the military in the name of meeting the Soviet “threat,” while liberal Democrats responded that the money was better spent at home taking care of our own people. They did not pose an alternative threat. That has now changed.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, The Enemy is Russia. In a curious upending of their mindset in years past, liberal Democrats have become rabid Russophobes who see a Putin “agent” under every bed and bush. The reasons for this are entirely domestic, i.e. political: having fielded a presidential candidate who inspired nothing but either ennui or revulsion, they are intent on finding a reason other than their own incompetence and ideological bankruptcy for Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat. They’ve settled on “Russian interference,” i.e. the WikiLeaks revelations of Democratic corruption, and are now embarked on a campaign – in tandem with their many friends in the mainstream media – to target President Donald Trump as an outright agent of the Kremlin.
This is what motivates their demands that the President “do something” about the alleged ‘”threat” posed by Putin to our European allies, and their insistence that we must strengthen and expand NATO, and unconditionally support one of the most corrupt and illiberal regimes in Europe, namely Ukraine. Their response to Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia is to denounce him as “Putin’s puppet.”
As for the Republicans, the aftereffects of 9/11 are still quite strong: the result is that they define The Enemy as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Again, this is a representation, in large part, of an alleged threat that is said to exist domestically. This threat is then projected onto an overseas screen, either ISIS (in Syria) or al-Qaeda (in, say, Yemen). Never mind that, aside from the 9/11 attackers and a few others, most of the worst terrorist incidents that have occurred have been carried out by US citizens who are second generation immigrants. In this sense, Republican foreign policy has become a form of “security theater.”
Furthermore, “radical Islamic terrorism” is a very broad term that, as used by President Trump, encompasses the Shi’ite version of Islam, the adherents of which have never carried out a single attack in the United States. Indeed, Iran – the seat of Shi’ite power – is engaged in a vicious war with the Sunni Islamists, in Syria and elsewhere. Yet the Trump administration persists in labeling Iran “the single biggest exporter of terrorism” in the world – a designation that blanks out the substantial role played by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia in exporting the radical Islamist ideology that motivates both ISIS and al-Qaeda.
And while Trump has given voice to more than a few anti-interventionist sentiments – he’s against “regime change,” he’s skeptical of NATO, he wants to “get along with Russia,” and he claims to represent a foreign policy that puts “America first” – under his administration the historical pattern persists. The only difference is his choice of enemies.
This puts us anti-interventionists is a perilous position: both parties are pushing a war agenda, with the only difference being the target of American bombs.
Now one could argue – as I have in these pages – that Trump’s ostensible reluctance to repeat the mistakes of the past gives us some degree of leverage. And it is true that, in trying to repair relations with Russia, and avoid the terrible consequences of conflict with that nuclear-armed power, the President has stuck his neck out and taken a very big political risk. Yet the fact remains that the targeting of Iran – exhibited, so far, in terms of pure bombast – represents a clear and present danger to the peace of the world.
And so we are between a rock and a hard place. If the Democrats win, we get World War III with Russia: if the Republicans win, we get a reiteration of our endless “war on terrorism.”
That’s why Antiwar.com is more essential than ever – because the danger of war has never been greater. With both parties pushing a war agenda, the political space for anti-interventionists is considerably narrowed.
But that doesn’t mean that the politics of foreign policy is tilted against us: that’s because we have the support of the war-weary public, which is sick and tired of foreign wars and cares not one whit about either alleged Russian “aggression” in some faraway country or whether ISIS is in Mosul or Mauritania. The natural “isolationism” of the average American is our greatest asset and ally, and we here at Antiwar.com are intent on taking full advantage of it. But we can’t do that without your support – your financial support.
The War Party has a bottomless treasury: they not only have the enormous resources of the US government, they also can count on the boundless generosity of the war profiteers, what President Eisenhower dubbed the military-industrial complex. They also have the media in their pocket, which is always eager to broadcast “fake news” designed to lure us onto foreign battlefields.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
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.