Dreary Old Clichés

I choose to see it as a sign of verging on desperation. The war in Afghanistan is still going on at a certain level all these years after our leaders congratulated themselves on winning it, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai still has trouble setting foot outside Kabul. A majority of Americans now believe, and are likely to continue to believe, despite what will probably be a one-day instant bump in the opinion polls, that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Despite the ritual partisanship that led the Republican half of the hall to stand and applaud as if a comment was something other than a tired talking point every 45 seconds or so, everybody knows that Republicans fearful of losing control of Congress would like to see some significant troop withdrawals from Iraq this year. Given that the president is fundamentally unserious about terrorism anyway, requiring only enough from Iraq to be able to claim that progress is being made, he could very well overcome his innate stubbornness and give them a token or two.

A government audit of the "reconstruction" effort in Iraq states that the U.S. is most unlikely to complete hundreds of basic water and electricity projects that had been planned because more than $3 billion was shifted to meet unanticipated security and other needs. Projects related to drinking water that were supposed to benefit 8 million people will now help only 2.75 million, according to the report. Only two of 10 sewage projects will be completed.

Not surprisingly Bush is now reported to be seeking an extra $90 billion in this year’s budget – $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $20 billion for Katrina-related reconstruction. Separately, the administration is seeking an increase of almost 5 percent in the Pentagon’s budget, some $439 billion. But don’t worry, the taxpayers have deep pockets and lenders continue to lend, so there’s plenty more where that came from.

Attack Isolationism

As a result of these and many more disappointments with the imperial endeavor, according to the Washington Post, the house newsletter of the permanent government, "The hardships of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strengthened isolationist sentiment in this country, as well as those who claim it is futile for the United States to combat Islamic extremism by promoting democracy in and beyond the Middle East." So it was time to break out one of the oldest canards in American political discourse – the assertion that anybody who questions any particular military adventure is – cue the boo track – a nasty old isolationist.

In a reasonably sane world such an assertion would have little or no traction. Impatience with wasteful spending and the unnecessary loss of American lives is hardly the same as wanting to withdraw from the world. The notion that military force is the most constructive way to engage the world is more than a little strange to begin with. To suggest that questioning a particular use of military force is tantamount to wanting to retreat behind our borders and have no contact with the outside world is almost beyond absurd.

In his attack on “isolationism,” the president bought into and furthered a false alternative that has poisoned American political discussion for decades now. This use of the term isolationism to demonize opponents or critics has usually been a staple of liberal Democrats, but putatively conservative Republicans now seem to find it handy. It doesn’t have any more intellectual validity now than it did in decades past.

It’s difficult to see at all how a disinclination to have the tax money exacted by force from us used to meddle in the affairs of other countries, to create war and conflict, to engage in an endless crusade to “improve” the poor benighted people of the rest of the world equates to wanting to be isolated from the rest of the world. It strikes me more as a plea – probably a vain plea but nonetheless an understandable one – to use resources more intelligently than by trying to establish an empire – even an empire of "freedom," a wonderful concept that American president now seem to take to mean whatever interferences (like domestic spying) they choose to impose on the American people.

I know there are people who oppose this war and other overseas meddling who also endorse economic protectionism and steps to halt or reverse the trend toward "globalization" that come about as a result of increased trade among people of different nations. But many of us who deplore this war also favor free trade and more open immigration.

I, for example, am all for complete free trade, preferably instigated unilaterally rather than waiting for international conferences specializing in endless "you go first" negotiations to put their blessings on reduced tariffs and other barriers to international trade. It’s not because I buy the pious fiction the Bushlet also interjected into his speech to the effect that "Nobody in the world can outwork or outproduce the American worker.”

This is usually said as a preface to plumping for somewhat freer trade. It might make Americans feel confident or smug, but it’s a lousy argument for free trade and veers close to the attitudes that underpin mercantilism. If it were really true, there would be little point in trading, since we already produce the best of everything at the cheapest prices.

But the most intellectually respectable case for free trade presumes almost the opposite: that there are some things other countries can produce cheaper or better than our country can (Adam Smith’s example was wine grapes, which aren’t known to flourish all that well in Scotland). Free trade allows the consumers of the country wise enough to engage in it to benefit from the fact that other countries produce certain goods that are better or cheaper than what can be produced at home – and the producers to find markets for the goods and services that the home country really does do better than other countries.

I would note that there are plenty of relationships among people of different countries besides buying or selling goods that are and should be welcomed by most people of reasonably good will. Tourism, cultural exchanges like trips by symphony orchestras and other performing arts organizations, foreign student exchanges, and all sorts of welcome interchange occur at the level of private citizen-to-citizen activity. In fact, interchanges among governments, even those that involve military action, are a small minority of the interchanges and exchanges that take place in this world.

I welcome these and numerous other kinds of relationships with every other country on earth. I just don’t relish "improving" other countries by military means. I would even argue that confining ourselves to peaceful trade and other kinds of interchanges would do much more to promote peace and even to defuse potential security threats – by eliminating the kind of meddling that makes it easy to recruit people to do harm to the U.S. and its interests – than insisting on the "right" to remake other countries at the point of a gun or missile launcher.

If that’s isolationism, make the most of it. To me it’s pretty much the obverse of isolationism.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).