The new isolationism

The Obama administration is throwing America’s weight around less and less on the world scene, and many conservatives are saying that America should just mind its own business and avoid, as George Washington recommended, “foreign entanglements.”  Is this revival of isolationism a good thing?  Consider Michael Gerson’s worries after the jump and see if you agree.  Or can we derive principles for when we should and should not get involved in  foreign entanglements?  

From Michael Gerson:

What foreign policy practitioners politely call the “churn” of events is beginning to look more like chaos. Egypt teeters between the establishment of a democracy and the restoration of the caliphate. Syria melts away as an organized state and perhaps as a geographic fact. Iran is on the verge of building the Shiite bomb and igniting a sectarian nuclear arms race (and you thought a purely ideological nuclear arms race was scary). North Korea continues its bold experiment in proliferation and abnormal psychology.

And beneath it all, some large trends: In the Middle East and North Africa, a combination of economic stagnation, a youth bulge and a sense of historical grievance — all the preconditions for radicalism and terrorism. In Asia, the rapid reversal of 250 years of Western economic and technological predominance, which is raising questions about America’s future military predominance.

Barring the option of utter despair, these challenges would seem to require expanded, sophisticated American engagement to shape an economic and security environment favorable to our long-term interests. Do any of these problems grow easier with time and inattention?

But consider the actual American response: budgetary chaos and military cuts, ideological self-questioning and mixed leadership signals.

The sequestration of the U.S. military budget was a stunning geopolitical development. Defense cuts of this scale and irrationality — shrinking the Marine Corps by 25 percent, reducing the size of the Army by 143,000 soldiers; undermining modernization, training and readiness — were supposed to be unacceptable to Republicans. Until Republicans accepted them with minimal protest. The commander in chief, who supports a different mix of military cuts, did not seem particularly outraged, either. Military leaders are publicly predicting a serious deterioration of capabilities, and one assumes that allies and enemies are listening.

At the same time, politicians have begun an ideological debate on the country’s global role. Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America, with a set of unavoidable global interests, it doesn’t work this way. Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position.

In addition, the Rand Paul right would have America abandon funding for economic development, democracy promotion, global health and education and the stabilization of weak states — the non-military interventions that make military ones less needed in the future. And these conservatives define the war on terrorism, particularly the use of drones, as the leading edge of domestic oppression. A campaign conducted by U.S. intelligence services and military forces with exceptional patience, restraint and care in targeting is vilified for political gain and ideological pleasure. Could there be a more potent symbol of the unlearning of the lessons of 9/11?

via Michael Gerson: Obama’s foreign policy and the risks of retreat – The Washington Post.

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  • tODD

    I, for one, am shocked that military leaders are protesting cuts to their budgets, predicting doom. And they had heretofore run such a tight fiscal ship!

    Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America, with a set of unavoidable global interests, it doesn’t work this way.

    Ooh, sick burn! European countries=wusses! Also, no European countries are known to have global interests. Also also, it’s not like having the massive military that we do has ever gotten us in over our heads in foreign ventures, so I don’t see why that would start being a problem now.

    A [drone] campaign conducted by U.S. intelligence services and military forces with exceptional patience, restraint and care in targeting is vilified for political gain and ideological pleasure.

    I would like to know what Gerson is smoking, and if it is legal outside of Colorado and Washington.

  • Patrick Kyle

    Just talked to some Afghan war vets just back in the US. What they told me was appalling. They know we are fighting for absolutely nothing, and doing so in such a way as to expose them to the most danger. I was told the Afghans don’t want us there unless we are giving them handouts. They told me of a school bus full of little girls on their way to school that got blown up because ‘girls shouldn’t be educated.’ Some teenagers put on a small western style co ed dance. The village elders and the parents stoned 13 of the kids to death. The ‘rules’ set by our leaders for shooting back at the enemy are so restrictive that they cause needless American deaths. Our press is not honest with us about this. The Afghans, Iraqis, Saudis, and a host of others don’t want our ‘democracy’. They are not interested.

    Gerson’s article is paternalistic b**l s#&(t Whatever will the rest of the world do without our benevolent guidance?

  • trotk

    There is a difference between isolationism and non-interventionism. Neo-conservatives need t0 address real arguments, not straw-men.

  • Cincinnatus

    Good Lord. Nothing about the last four years has been isolationist. Daniel Larison over at The American Conservative has dispensed with Gerson’s absurd charge far better than I could. All I can say is that this article is tripe.

    It’s so bad I regret responding.

  • Rich Kauzlarich

    So where we these conservatives ten years ago?

  • Steve Billingsley

    Cincinnatus @ 4

    +10 – the Obama administration is not isolationist. Not even close. President Drone is quite comfortable with the use of military power. The administration does some things differently than the Bush administration would, but it is only a difference of degrees and emphases. There hasn’t been an isolationist foreign policy in the US since at least the Monroe Doctrine.

    Non-interventionism isn’t a foreign policy. It is a specific foreign-policy choice to not intervene in particular situations. (E.g. – we haven’t sent ground troops to Syria or bombed Assad’s forces – though if we are talking in a year that might have changed). Any isolationists who voted for Obama are rubes.

  • Cincinnatus

    Well, what really galls me about neoconservative filth like this is that it slanders any opposition to–or even concern about–any interventionist policy whatsoever as “isolationism.” Skeptical about the overuse of drones in places like Yemen and Pakistan? Isolationist! Worried that $700,000,000,000 in defense appropriations is a bit steep during a time of economic austerity? Isolationist! Wondering why America needs to drop bombs on Bosnia, or Libya, or Lebanon, or any number of other countries that have no direct relevance to American affairs? Isolationist!

    And so on.

    Also, anyone who uses the term “democracy promotion” earnestly should be pilloried without reserve.

  • Patrick hits on some of the key questions for me, albeit indirectly. Our armed forces won WWII and the following peace partially because of firepower, but perhaps more importantly because they carried the idea of America that tended to win hearts overseas. Sure, liberated Europe and Japan have parliamentary systems instead of our system of a Congress and Executive, but from movies to music to fast food and fashion, there remains a clear stamp of “America” nearly 70 years later. Thankfully their bread, beer, and wine have survived the onslaught. :^)

    Now, do we see even a hint of this in Iraq, Afghanistan…..or really even a serious attempt to convey the principles that have made our country great to the world around us? Or are we relentlessly minimizing the principles that have led our nation to have a very different outcome, historically speaking, from others?

    I’m thinking the latter, and the ugly reality is that it’s bearing really ugly fruit all over the world.

  • Cincinnatus

    bike bubba:

    Your cultural chauvinism has created some blind spots, methinks. If you don’t think American military, diplomatic, and intelligence forces haven’t been waging a massive campaign of propaganda and cultural education/formation, you apparently missed all the talk about “winning hearts and minds.”

    The truth is that the Islamic cultures with which we’re currently engaged know all about what America has to offer. They know all about McDonalds and cheap groceries and Hollywood movies and low wages and pornography and excessive liberty and so on. They know about it, and they reject it. Naturally, many younger Muslims in these countries have been seduced by our soft imperialism–and that makes the others resent and reject it even more forcefully. Though it’s been a party of our mythology for the past 70 years that no one can resist America’s super-cool culture of freedom and prosperity, it’s simply not true. Many peoples and places don’t want it. But we don’t give them a choice.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Well, it is not just the enourmous cost of military intervention. It is also the human cost – the National Post ran this article today: The US is spending more than $40 billion a year on compensation to soldiers’ families – some from wars over a century ago. The cost of today’s wars is far from over…

    That said, you do not need absolutist isolationism. Just intelligent interaction.For instance (in hindsight) – Bush’s intervention in Iraq – no so great. His war on Malaria – excellent. Winning friends is good for business, the economy etc.

  • “The truth is that the Islamic cultures with which we’re currently engaged know all about what America has to offer. They know all about McDonalds and cheap groceries and Hollywood movies and low wages and pornography and excessive liberty and so on. They know about it, and they reject it. Naturally, many younger Muslims in these countries have been seduced by our soft imperialism–and that makes the others resent and reject it even more forcefully.”
    Yes America represents everything Evil, and the Islamic culture is a pristine bastion of temperance. Except for the practice of enslaving young boys and making them dress and dance like girls for you before you sodomize them. Excessive liberty is such a bad thing, only us Americans should enjoy it. Only American homosexuals should have the right to marry. Human rights? no,we mean American rights for Americans. but then when we lose the idea that these are human rights, well who cares if the American gov. takes them away?
    When we are unwilling to defend the individual rights of our neighbor, we have forfeited them.

  • Cincinnatus


    *applause* I am in awe of your capacity to read into my comment all sorts of normative implications that simply aren’t there, and to attribute to me all sorts of intellectual transgressions that, likewise, simply aren’t there. Gerson should employ you as a ghostwriter!

    Clearly, my intent was to show a) that the American culture we import abroad is a mixture of “good” and “evil” (porn bad, cheap groceries arguably ok), as is Islamic culture and b) that it is not a fact of nature that everyone else in the world wants American culture shoved down their throats and would rejoice to accept it if only they were sufficiently enlightened.

    And yes, human rights are, as Jeremy Bentham put it, “nonsense on stilts.” But that’s another discussion. Even if human rights are a thing that can be defined in a universally applicable way, that doesn’t mean it’s our job or anyone’s job to make sure everyone else on the planet agrees and obeys.

  • Steve Bauer

    America’s foreign policy has never been about defending the rights of our neighbors (otherwise why the snugglebunnies with Saudi Arabia?). It has always been about protecting our interests, no matter how our policies may eviscerate the rights of our neighbors. That may be how the world works but we shouldn’t be scratching our heads wondering why the rest of the world doesn’t love us. The rest of the world has learned to read the gloss behind our actions and disregard all the fancy rhetoric.

    America is facing what every aspirant to empire eventually faces. There comes a point where there are just too many balls in the air for any nation (or nations) to juggle and the whole thing comes down.

  • Cincinnatus; I’m under no impression that what you describe about a massive propaganda campaign is untrue. My response is that the winning of the “propaganda war” after WWII had a lot less to do with the Voice of America, and a lot more with GIs sharing chocolate with kids while behaving decently around the young ladies in the area. In other words, by acting very differently than the Soviets on the other side of the Elbe.

    But since Jane Russell pin-ups have been replaced with porn, and formerly sexually segregated armed forces are now sexual free for alls, I would guess that it would be a lot harder for today’s GIs to win European hearts of 1945 than it was for those in 1945.

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus @ 9, by “excessive liberty”, I presume you mean in their eyes, or, alternatively, you really meant libertinism. Because we certainly no longer offer enough, let alone excessive, liberty in this country in any realm other than the bedroom and the arts.

    Gerson is, and always has been, a doofus. First, Republicans weren’t happy about the unequal level of cuts the Defense Department endured compared to other departments but rightly calculated, over the opposition of some, that our debt crisis is a far worse threat to our national viability than a smaller and less well equipped military. It was a mature decision to force Obama’s hand, because he though Republicans would fold on the sequester to save defense spending.

    Second, because of pork barrel appropriations, and the natural tendency of any government bureaucracy to wasted a huge percentage of taxpayer dollars, our defense dollars are not well spent. Hopefully, ultimately, after much pain, these relatively minimal cuts in the level of increased spending will force better budgeting and spending decisions. I doubt it, but there is always hope.

    Third, a major problem we have is in determining what is necessary in the defense of our national interests, and limiting our defensive involvement to those matters. Our military is not a humanitarian organization. Occasionally, we have those resources available to alleviate suffering in a crisis, but we should not be entering conflicts that are not our concern. Europe should field its own defenses for matters that are in its sphere and do not involve any direct U.S. interests, for example.

  • Cincinattus,
    human rights, nonsense on stilts? you prove my point. Thank you. I do not want to hear you arguing against Guantanamo bay, or the use of Waterboarding then. You have forfeited your right to do so.
    Steve Bauer, our foreign policy is about human rights, it isn’t all that it is about, and sometimes play a much more minor role than I’d like it to play, but it does factor into the equation. Presumably this is why the Obama administration is beginning to think of intervening in Syria now that the reports have it Chemical Weapons are being deployed.

  • tODD

    Bror (@16), I disagree. One can argue against the continued use of Guantanamo and waterboarding entirely on the basis of extant law, without having to resort to some inchoate system of rights that no one can agree on and is constantly in flux, anyhow.

  • Cincinnatus


    *shrug* Ok. I don’t say this too loudly–I would be burnt at the stake, presumably–but I have no moral problem with the use of waterboarding or Guantanamo against non-Americans (they would obviously violate the rights of American citizens). I advocate their cessation and closure, respectively, because I think they depict America in a bad light, but foreign terrorists don’t possess the rights and liberties afforded to American citizens in the American Constitution. And I find these practices problematic because they’ve been integral in America’s interventionist imperialism. But I don’t find them problematic on the grounds of “human rights.”

    So why have I “forfeited my right” to discuss this issue? Is appealing to abstract human rights the only way to oppose (or advocate) something like waterboarding/torture? I can’t see why this would be the case.

  • See, I think that the terrorists may have forfeited their rights, but not by being born in another country. The fact that they are foreigners has little to nothing to do with that.
    The laws we have were set up to protect rights that Americans felt they had by virtue of being human. When we have lost sight of that, when we no longer think a human intrinsically has these rights by virtue of being a human, the foundation of the law is done away with and soon after so is the law.

  • Cincinnatus


    I strongly (STRONGLY) disagree with you, but I’m willing to countenance the notion. That is, I don’t think you’ve “forfeited” your “right” to discuss the topic because of your philosophical preferences.

    By the way, in case you think Christians and/or conservatives must assent to human rights and universal human dignity and so on in order to be Christians and conservatives, I would encourage you to consult the works of Edmund Burke and Alasdair MacIntyre, two Christian conservatives who rather persuasively deny the idea of natural rights.

  • kerner


    Jeremy Bentham notwithstanding, I do believe in “human rights”, and I have in the past disagreed with some of the other principles you seem to consider axiomatic. But for the moment, I’d like to concentrate on the following.

    It seems to me that all civilizations are either growing or declining. A vibrant civilization is successful relative to its contemporaries, and its power and influence in the world (or region of the world) grows. If the civilization is based, in part, on ideas and principles, it advances those ideas as well because others observe the civilization’s success and seek to emulate it. The same civilization will also acquire enemies and competitors that will seek to restrain its growth or push it back.

    A declining civilization finds itself constantly losing power and influence relative to its contemporaries, as the contemporary countries inevitably take every advantage they can of it. Its ideas and principles are not widely emulated because no one wants to immitate a failure.

    Bu the model that is rarely, almost never, seen is the model you seem to favor. A civilization that is a static state that only wishes to be left alone, minds its own business, and is in fact left alone. The only county that I can think of that has maintained this position for any significant period of time is Switzerland. and I believe that this was only possible because of Switzerland’s unusual geography, that made it difficult to overwhelm militarily. Most other countries that are otherwise similar to Switzerland (eg. Belgium or the Netherlands) have been routinely at the mercy of their larger and more powerful neighbors who have conquered and reconquered them pretty much at will.

    My point is that a civilization that does not care what the people in other nations believe or how they behave will soon find itself at the mercy of one or more of those other nations where they do care about that. I saw this in my youth with international Communism. Russia and China wanted other countries to be Communist. The US didn’t really care what the other countries of the world thought or how they governed themselves. The result was that the more disorganized countries of the world developed flourishing Communist parties or revoutionary movements, but very few came to resemble the USA very much. Instead, we frequently found ourselves supporting corrupt petty dictatorships because (as FDR put it) they might be sons of bitches, but they were “OUR sons of bitches”. But being the USA’s son of a bitch impressed neither the people of that nation nor our own people, who quite correctly saw these petty dictators as unprincipled self servers. The locals didn’t consider them worth fighting for, and many Americans couldn’t justify giving them any help. The Communists, by contrast, stood for something (however wrong they were) and they had the courage of their convictions. As a result, the US spent most of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s trying to “contain” Communism unsuccessfully. It wasn’t until Reagan re-instilled our own courage of our own convictions that we began to defeat international Communism.

    Therefore, even though I agree with you that many people in the world are not buying what the USA is selling, so to speak, I still believe that it is ultimately in our interest to keep on selling it. I mean, the more countries we can convince that a free market is a good thing, that the rule of law is a good thing, and that Jeremy Bentham was wrong-people DO have human rights, the fewer enemies we will have. I realize that we never convince everyone, and that we may actually convince very few. On the other hand, we do seem to have had some varying degrees of success “imposing” our principles on some of our defeated enemies : Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Phillippines, maybe to some small degree in Iraq (although we may have blown our chance there).

    You apparently believe that my position is idealistic nonsense. But my response is that your alternative is a recipe for decline and defeat.

  • Jon H.

    Bror @19 – No one forfeits rights with which he has been endowed by his Creator, if such is the source of said rights. So the Decl of Indep says. I suspect we don’t really believe that any more, or assume it’s a parochial truth, not a universal one. But one can have those rights abridged by due process of law. “Terrorists” can have their liberty, perhaps even their lives, taken, but only through a transparent, reviewable legal process, not through torture or indefinite pretrial confinement. But I’m simplistic.

  • Isolationism, like many other political issues, is a convenient mask for political hypocrisy, wherein one side will accuse the other of it, while practicing it themselves while in power.

  • Cincinnatus,
    I have read Edmund Burke, and of course he is a conservative in some sense of the word. But what he was conserving isn’t necessarily what I am interested in conserving. Though I do remember finding some of his ideas to be intriguing.
    I’m rather a bit more interested in conserving the principles upon which our American forefathers established this country, which broke from Edmund Burke’s and the principles which governed England.
    And as a matter of fact, I do believe that Christ having died and shed his blood for a person does merit the consideration that if my lord and savior found them worth dying for, I might find them worth treating with some dignity, with the idea that perhaps if I am to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, I should respect the individual rights in them that I hold dear to myself. I screw that up more often than not, but yeah, I believe that nonetheless.

  • kerner

    +1 Bror.

  • Cincinnatus


    If I have time later, I’ll respond to kerner. For now, I’ll say this: everything of which you speak–the Christian obligation to treat others with love, etc.–has nothing to do with rights but everything to do with duties. The discourse of rights is self-oriented; the discourse of duties is other-oriented. The difference is subtle, but crucial. To consider how crucial the distinction is, Christ may have had a duty to shed his blood for my sins, but I have/had no right to demand that Christ shed his blood for my sins.

    By the way, what are you interested in conserving? Obviously, I doubt you share Burke’s admiration for the monarchy, but the rest of his conservatism served as the theoretical basis for the recovery of American conservative thought in the twentieth century. Moreover, depending on which “forefathers” you’re reading (i.e., not Jefferson), they certainly did not break with Burke’s principles. The American revolution was nothing if not an attempt to preserve English–not natural or human–rights and liberties.

  • Cincinnatus

    J. Dean@25:

    That would be true if any party in American government had practiced anything even remotely resembling isolationism in the past 80 years. Sadly, that’s not the case. Name an isolationist Congress or Presidency since 1930.

  • helen

    Patrick says…
    Just talked to some Afghan war vets just back in the US. What they told me was appalling. They know we are fighting for absolutely nothing, and doing so in such a way as to expose them to the most danger. I was told the Afghans don’t want us there unless we are giving them handouts.

    The Brits found this out a couple of centuries ago. Kipling wrote about it before 1900.
    It is a pity that nobody in the US government reads history or literature any more!