If This Be ‘Isolationism’. . .

The mainstream meme emerging from the CNN/Union Leader Republican presidential debate is apparently that everyone went easy on Romney, which makes him, somehow, the “front runner.” Less noticed but more credible – and much more interesting – was what one post-debate analysis by Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl expressed in the form of a question: “Will the GOP nominate a dove?” That was the title, no doubt the work of a relatively fair-minded editor, but Diehl’s take is more ideological:

“Is the Republican party turning isolationist for 2012? No doubt it’s too soon to know–but the responses of GOP presidential candidates to questions about Libya and Afghanistan in Monday night’s debate were striking. None supported President Obama’s decision to join NATO’s military intervention against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. ‘There was no vital national interest,” said Rep. Michelle Bachmann, summing up what appeared to be the prevailing view.”

The term “Isolationism” was originally coined as an epithet, and the word certainly has about it a troglodytic air: one imagines a cranky old man yelling “get off my lawn” to children passing in the street. Yet that’s an image which surely fits the mood of the American public these days, and certainly they have much to be cranky about – especially when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy.

During the Bush era, they were subjected to a regime of constant and costly warfare, with US policymakers determined to “democratize” and otherwise “liberate” the Middle East – “draining the swamp,” as neocon ideologues so blithely described their war aims. Having discovered that the swamp was, instead, draining the US, the American public has turned – albeit not on a dime – and now opposes all foreign adventurism with a stubbornness that our elites disdainfully refer to with the “i”-word – as if they were doctors diagnosing the foreign policy equivalent of gout.

Yet, in reality, there is no such thing as “isolationism,” and no such creature as an “isolationist”: it is a fiction manufactured by the interventionist politicians of both parties to characterize any and all opposition to aggressive and unnecessary wars. No one, not even the hardcore protectionists in the labor unions and on the paleoconservative right, wants to isolate America from the rest of the world, and Diehl’s use of the term is particularly egregious: after all, if ever there was a “war of choice,” then it is the Libyan adventure, which the US officially describes as a “humanitarian” effort launched (initially at least) in order to “save countless lives.” As Glenn Greenwald and others have pointed out, it’s more likely pressure from oil companies locked out of lucrative Libyan contracts – Libya has the richest oil reserves in North Africa – that motivated US intervention in what is essentially a civil war.

In any case, the official explanation for the Libyan war is an ideological one, one that abjures any concept of national self interest, and indeed this appears to be Diehl’s litmus test indicating the presence of the “isolationist” virus. If you believe, like Bachmann and the rest of the GOP candidates, that self-interest must determine our actions abroad, then you’re an isolationist, but this is obviously nonsense, as most of the candidates at the debate – with the lone exception of Ron Paul – have at one time or another endorsed some form of foreign intervention, whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever.

That the trend is now running against the War Party in the GOP, and toward foreign policy realism, is a political fact of reality such practiced opportunists as Mitt Romney are naturally quick to pick up on. In answer to the rather generalized foreign policy question he was asked by the obnoxiously John “Coke or Pepsi?” King, the alleged “front runner” proffered that the lesson of Afghanistan is that “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.” That the Afghans – both the Taliban and the Karzai government – are fighting for their independence against the Americans is not something Romney is capable of either understanding or expressing. The point, however, is that anti-interventionism is the leitmotif of the GOP’s foreign policy mindset.

This comes with some important caveats, as Diehl points out:

“To be sure, Tim Pawlenty has previously supported air strikes in Libya and criticized Obama’s strategy there as too ‘timid.’ On Monday he said he supported drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, contrary to libertarian Ron Paul, who predictably declared that he would end American military operations everywhere. But Pawlenty didn’t speak about Libya …”

You bet he didn’t, because he knows which way the wind is blowing, and doesn’t want to come out of the closet as a run-of-the-mill GOP warmonger any sooner than necessary.

Diehl’s dissing of Paul as “predictable” is to be expected: after all, we’re talking about the Washington Post, the voice of evil in America: but I wonder how predictable any of this was, at least as far as the WaPo is concerned. Surely none of their predictably neoconservative op ed columnists had this development in their sights. And much if not all of the credit goes to Rep. Paul, whose last presidential run was characterized by constant conflicts with the GOP Establishment and the other candidates (or do I repeat myself) over precisely these kinds of issues. Only Paul defied the neocon consensus, and came out, guns blazing, against interventionism in all its forms, going so far as to denounce the neocons on the floor of Congress as the perpetrators of a gigantic fraud. Now, as Paul notes, the GOP is moving toward his foreign policy views, as well as his libertarian economic views [.pdf], and this is true especially among younger Republican voters and activists – who represent the future of the GOP.

The dominance – nay, the relevance – of the neocons is over, as Diehl concludes:

“All in all this first Republican debate offered a striking change of tone for a party that a decade ago was dominated, in foreign policy, by the neoconservative movement, which favored (and still does) aggressive American intervention abroad. It also differed sharply from the last Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), who has been one of the strongest advocates of military action in Libya.”

This isn’t just partisan politics, as some have suggested, although that’s a factor: it has more to do with the transformation of the conservative movement, the energizing force behind the GOP, and this ideological sea change is, in turn, motivated by the crisis of the American empire, which seems to be entering a critical phase. The impending bankruptcy of the federal government – as predicted for years by Paul and his supporters – has clarified the muddiness that has characterized GOP thinking on the subject up until this point. This, combined with the war-weariness of the American public, who are sick unto death of foreign meddling and want our leaders to focus on our seemingly intractable problems right here at home, is yet another factor in the equation.

For years, we here at Antiwar.com have been hoping for – and hopefully predicting – that this day would come: a day when the default position of conservatives is no longer “bomb ‘em, and let God sort out the rest.” Because what this means is that the Grand Alliance between the formerly dominant interventionist wings of both parties is sundered, and politics no longer stops at the water’s edge. Furthermore, this means that the big excuse the Democratic party establishment has always used to keep its antiwar constituency in line – the Republicans will take swift advantage of any “weakness” in the party’s foreign policy stance – is no longer operative.

What the revival of “isolationism” in the GOP means is that foreign policy is once again – at long last! – a debatable issue in presidential elections, and on down. And that’s the first step in reclaiming and reviving the foreign policy of the Founders – and shaking off the burden of empire.

So let them call us “isolationists” – what do we care what they call us, as long as we win? The proper answer to the “isolationist”-baiters is: if this be isolationism, then let the warmongers make the most of it!


Okay, so who won the debate? If we measure victory by the amount of applause each candidate received, then it was clearly the only consistent anti-interventionist: Ron Paul.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].