The War Against ‘Isolationism’

Yesterday’s radicalism is today’s conventional wisdom – and nothing underscores this truism more than the current foreign policy debate. Remember way back when neoconservatives were calling for “draining the swamp” of the Middle East, George W. Bush was hailing the advent of a “global democratic revolution” to be led by the US, and anyone who dissented was marginalized as part of what Andrew Sullivan called a pro-terrorist “fifth column”? Those were heady days for the War Party, which was still enjoying the momentum of the post-9/11 rage that sucked us into two major wars simultaneously. It was also before the Great Meltdown of 2008, when the biggest pillars of the American economy creaked, cracked, and nearly collapsed of their own weight.

As a great songwriter put it a couple of decades ago: the times, they are a’changing.

A Pew poll taken a couple of years ago in which respondents were asked whether the US should “mind its own business” showed a huge disparity between elite and hoi polloi opinion on the matter, with the elites saying “No, no, a thousand times no!” and the plebeians answering “Heck yeah!” I suspect elite opinion hasn’t changed much: among the general public, however, recent polls show an even more overwhelming popular consensus in favor of non-intervention, including one taken by The Hill newspaper which records a whopping 72 percent saying “the United States is fighting in too many places,” and a mere 16 percent saying “the current level of engagement represented an appropriate level.” (Twelve percent weren’t sure.)

Against this level of popular disapproval, no administration can stand. That’s why the President is getting ready to announce the withdrawal of some 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, with more in the pipeline. There’s also the supposedly ongoing withdrawal from Iraq – yes, we’re still there!

Of course, there are the usual caveats about “conditions on the ground,” i.e. the possibility that the generals will veto more substantial future troop cuts. In short, these announcements of troop withdrawals are just smoke and mirrors: even if the administration actually follows through on the maximum cut of 30,000 soldiers out of Afghanistan, in stages, that will still leave 70,000. And will someone tell me what we are doing still bogged down in Iraq, which is being held up as a “model” of successful US intervention? According to the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the US and Iraq, all American troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011 – but the American public doesn’t believe it, and neither do I. The Hill reports:

“Forty-nine percent said it is not very likely that troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, and another 10 percent said it is not at all likely. Seven percent said it is very likely troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, and 22 percent said it is somewhat likely.”

In the face of such skepticism, the White House is scrambling to appear credible: thus the Obama speech on Afghanistan, which will be delivered on Wednesday night, is meant to reassure voters that the Afghan war is coming to an end. However, it isn’t going to happen, and I think the American public realizes that, too.

For the first time since the 1970s, the American ruling class is frightened to death that its global empire is in danger of being subverted on the home front by an “isolationist” movement, and elite pundits are up in arms. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen writes that the President should leave “as few as possible” troops in Afghanistan, but then avers:

“The trouble with recommending such a course is that it conforms to the foreign policy views of almost all the Republican presidential candidates. Their position regarding Afghanistan is, however, just a piece of their wholesale embrace of Herbert Hoover Republicanism. They would turn the country inward – what Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham characterize as isolationism – while also adopting Hoover’s disastrous economic policy. Not satisfied with a recession, they would cut government spending and bring on a depression.

“The Republican response to both foreign and domestic problems somehow fits what is beginning to look like the 1930s all over again. Back then, a severe worldwide depression encouraged the rise of Fascist and Communist movements and turned nations inward….

“Staying in Afghanistan will only buttress the argument of the New Isolationists. This is the larger danger. The world needs us and will soon need us even more. China, India, Pakistan, Japan and the two Koreas are about as compatible as the Real Housewives of New York. They all either have or are capable of developing nuclear weapons. Iran is on its way. Its program could cause the Israelis to attack and it might also prompt Saudi Arabia and maybe Egypt to go nuclear. Jordan could implode and Iraq could come apart.”

Calls by Establishment figures like Cohen – and all too many Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman – to withdraw substantially from Afghanistan and keep our pledge to get out of Iraq should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Because what they have in mind is not a foreign policy of minding our own business, but one of new interventions in Asia, Africa, and regions yet untouched by our policy of perpetual war. Pakistan, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and – most of all – Iran are all on the War Party’s agenda. Libya is just the latest example of expanding US/NATO ambitions.

In the face of shrinking financial resources, the Obama-ites propose to save our post-World War II foreign policy of exercising “global leadership” by means of burden-sharing. However, with the Euro-zone in a state of advanced collapse, it’s unlikely the Brits, the suddenly-ferocious French, or indeed anyone else on the Old Continent can or will come across with the military muscle to put some flesh on the 90 lb. weakling of “multi-lateralism.” European voters are even less likely to approve of a new surge of imperialism abroad, especially when their cozy little welfare states suddenly find themselves forced into making draconian cutbacks. The specter of Greece is haunting Europe – and America, too.

With no relief in sight coming from the Europeans, it looks like the American elites will have to face the prospect of browbeating their own public into supporting the Empire: the large scale offensive against “isolationism,” now blaring forth from every major media outlet, is their response. On the right, we have Sen. Lindsey Graham telling Congress – and, by implication, us – to “shut up” about Libya, and on the left we have the Kevin Drums of this world suspending judgment in deference to The Leader.

If browbeating and invocations of party discipline don’t work, the interventionists will resort to other methods. Next on the agenda: scare-mongering. The threat of terrorism on American soil has been the key to gaining support for interventionism in the past, and we can expect this effort to ratchet up with new vigor in the near future. Yet waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 is beginning to wear a bit thin, as Rudy “One Delegate” Giuliani learned to his sorrow and surprise. The thuggish Giuliani’s rhetoric has always been rather crude, and the War Party, in desperation, is forced to resort to subtlety.

Cohen, cited above, has his own version of scare tactics, designed to appeal to “responsible” liberals: if we succumb to “isolationism,” he avers, then the world – bereft of the enlightened wisdom of our Washington elites – will inevitably go to hell, with horrific albeit highly speculative consequences for us. His harking back to the 1930s – also a favorite tactic of the neoconservatives, for whom it’s always 1939 – is another way to fight back against those dreaded “isolationists.” By associating non-interventionism with “Herbert Hoover Republicanism,” Cohen seeks to keep the fast-defecting Democratic base in the anti-“isolationist” coalition.

For progressives of Cohen’s stamp, the idea that Washington has the answer to all the world’s problems – not just America’s – is deeply rooted in history and ideology. That our government must “do something” in the face of every disaster, real and imagined, is the first assumption of modern progressivism. It’s no accident that many of the same people who oppose “Hooverism” (i.e. economic non-interventionism) are also arguing for an “activist” foreign policy. In this sense, one of the oldest adages of the interventionists is quite true: politics doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.

Our anti-Hooverites are devout Keynesians: they believe government spending can lift America out of its economic depression, and this is the largely unacknowledged motive behind elite liberal support for our failed foreign policy of global intervention. Because military spending is indeed government spending, and, in the Keynesian mindset, the more the merrier.

For years, the US has poured its resources into making itself into the military arsenal of the world, while our traditional industries have atrophied. At a time when the rest of the economy is sliding into the abyss, the military-industrial complex is doing just fine, thank you. US military operations abroad, and the billions we ship overseas in “foreign aid,” may impoverish most of us – but some people are profiting, particularly US exporters. If our role as world policeman is abolished, or even cut back, that means, in the short term, more Americans on the ever-lengthening unemployment line.

Our elites have neither the will, nor the intention, of shrinking the US presence in the world: they are far too invested, politically and psychologically, in the idea that Washington is and must remain the center of the known universe. Within the limits of the District of Columbia, the virtue of humility is nearly unknown: indeed, it is considered a vice. Rather than admit defeat, they are willing to risk whatever political consequences might follow from their stubborn hubris, confident that they’ve rigged the political system sufficiently to render the popular revolt against interventionism impotent.

How it will end is anybody’s guess, but mine is this: our elites, like those in the Middle East (and now Europe), are underestimating the rage boiling beneath the surface of everyday life in America. Smugly complacent, they scold the people for succumbing to “isolationism” and assure them that they – the “experts” – know best how to solve the world’s problems … when they can’t even solve the problems we are confronting here at home.

This “let them eat cake” attitude is bound to provoke a radical “blowback” effect – as Marie Antoinette realized as she ascended to the guillotine.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, 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].