Two Cheers for ‘Isolationism’

A policy has to be judged by its results, and by that standard interventionism is a complete and total failure, as a look at the day’s headlines reveals.

We’ve heard several public officials say Al Qaeda has been effectively dismantled, with its top leadership – including Osama bin Laden – out of commission. But that doesn’t mean our open-ended “war on terrorism” is anywhere near its end – far from it. Wired reports that the Pentagon’s special ops chief, Michael Sheehan, when asked at a congressional hearing how much longer the war will last, answered “ten to twenty years.”

The mightiest army ever assembled on earth went to war with a ragtag bunch of Islamist nutjobs living in a cave somewhere – and it took them 30-plus years, trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of casualties to defeat them? Is this what historians will write of our Thirty Years War on Terror?

In Iraq, hundreds are being killed in sectarian assaults as the “government” of Nouri al Maliki presides over the disintegration of what had once been a country. Al Qaeda-in-Iraq, once pronounced dead, has been resurrected by the Syrian civil war, and is now making a major comeback as Iraq’s low intensity civil war heats up. Forty people were killed, and 45 wounded, in a single day across Iraq. In Baghdad, an officer in the elite anti-terrorism squad was murdered in his home, along with his wife and two children: in Basra. a prominent Sunni cleric was assassinated, while in Ramadi, 10 Sunni policemen were kidnapped.

In Afghanistan, a recent wave of successful Taliban attacks on US-trained police has resulted in at least two dozen deaths: a bomb blast in Kabul inaugurated the fighting season, with 16 dead, including 6 Americans, and dozens wounded. Sheehan’s “ten to twenty years” easily applies to Afghanistan, where – a decade after sweeping the Taliban from power, holding elections, and subsidizing our Afghan sock puppets to the tune of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – the “government” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is less stable, less able to defend itself, and openly hostile to its American sugar daddy.

The left-wing of the Obama cult really believes their hero is ending the American occupation of Afghanistan: just wait until these vaunted progressives find out he’s merely privatizing it! Yikes! There are already more than 100,000 private military contractors in the employ of the US government in Afghanistan, and the “withdrawal” means we’ll be sending in a second wave of mercenaries to train our Afghan allies and lead the fight against the resurgent Taliban. In any case, the “residual” force we’ll be leaving behind, its size yet to be determined, can always be increased at the whim of the White House. Obama’s likely successor, regardless of party, will no doubt market this escalation as yet another glorious campaign in a war that could theoretically go on forever – or at least as long as an essentially bankrupt nation can pretend to be a global hegemon.

In which case, contra Sheehan, we don’t have “ten to twenty years.” Yet our elites are living in the eye of the hurricane: they don’t feel its gale force winds. In the Beltway bubble, all is well, and the sun never sets on the American empire. Unlike its British predecessor, however, which lasted a good 300 years, the American Raj shows every sign of decomposing just as it reaches its zenith.

After over a decade of constant warfare, at an incalculable cost in human lives and material resources, the Americans are everywhere in retreat. Kicked out of Iraq, effectively stalemated in Afghanistan, and stymied in Pakistan, Washington is losing influence throughout the region.

The ideological rationale for the Iraq war – that we would “drain the swamp” of Arab stagnation and therefore eliminate the sources of Islamist radicalism – turns out to have been imported straight from Bizarro World, where everything is stood on its head. Instead of neutralizing the factors that made bin Laden a hero to much of the Muslim world, the conquest and occupation of Iraq created a base for Al Qaeda that had never existed previously (despite the Bush administration’s quite effective effort to link Saddam Hussein in the public mind to the 9/11 attacks).

The political rationale for the Iraq and Afghan wars is another example of Bizarro World “logic” in action. All those years after we were told “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” two terrorists succeeded in shutting down a major American city, murdering 3 and injuring more than 260. Will we now invade Chechnya, Dagestan, and the other ‘stans in a futile crusade to deprive “the terrorists” of safe havens?

In the name of “humanitarianism,” and at the behest of weepy liberals as well as hardcore neocons, Washington aided the Syrian “rebels” until their allegiance to Al Qaeda became too obvious to be evaded any longer, but by then it was too late – those lung-eating fanatics had already established themselves as the strongest faction, financially as well as militarily. This disaster was the result of the White House caving in to demands that the US exercise “global leadership” – and, indeed, this appeal to Americans’ inborn conceit is responsible for most of the trouble we’ve incurred since the Spanish-American War.

The very idea of “global leadership” is a fiction: no one country can be said to “lead” anything in a global context. It is a meaningless concept. Each and every country has its own unique interests, which depend on its location, its size, its history, and a number of other factors peculiar to itself. And while a strong country can bully a number of weaker states, and subordinate their interests to its own, there are limitations to this approach – and isn’t that the lesson of the last decade or so?

If you don’t accept the idea that America must assert its “global leadership” at every turn – that no crisis, no matter how far away and remote from our real interests, can be allowed to go to waste – then you must be one of those dreadful “isolationists” the Washington elite is always warning us about. Every time some poll shows how sick and tired Americans are of carrying the world’s burdens on their shoulders, the “experts” descry the rise of “isolationism,” as one would warn of an approaching plague of locusts. That there are no real isolationists, and never really were any in this country, is beside the point: it’s just a way of shutting down debate over America’s proper role in the world. If you aren’t an interventionist, well then you must be an “isolationist” – end of discussion.

“Isolationist” was coined as a smear word, and so it is: and yet there is something to be said for the term. For if the domestic function of government is to protect us from criminals, to isolate law-abiding citizens from those who would do us harm, then this limns its proper function internationally. That is what defending the country means: isolating us from dangers emanating from abroad. In this sense, Americans want to be isolated – from all the woes of a dangerous world.

That our interventionist foreign policy has failed to do this – that it has, in fact, visited those woes upon us like never before in our history – is becoming readily apparent to the average American. In Washington, however, they still cling to the ragged conceit of “global leadership,” deriding any suggestion that we attend to our own affairs as the “isolationism” of reactionary troglodytes.

Well, then, so be it. If the interventionists will own up to the abysmal failure of their policies – if they’ll acknowledge the horrific costs of wars that made us less safe, less prosperous, and a whole lot less able to defend our real interests around the world – then the advocates of peace should embrace the “i”-word, if not whole-heartedly then with the knowledge that the other “i”-word – interventionist – is today even more of a marketing nightmare.


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.

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].