The Case Against Isolation

It’s one thing to be weary of war and wary of intervening. But Republicans who think the U.S. can survive as an island are wrong—and dangerous. By Michael Tomasky

09.13.13 8:45 AM ET

It’s been quite a piece of theater, watching Republicans, most of whom would normally be shouting from the rooftops for bombs over Damascus, insist that we must stay out of Syria. I wrote about this GOP hypocrisy Monday.

But now let us direct our gaze toward the non-hypocrites. At least, it is often said of the isolationists, they are operating according to principle. Fine. But it’s a morally bankrupt principle, and an idiotic one, and one that will only hasten the advent of the kind of darker and more dangerous world that most conservatives are constantly trying to terrify the rest of us about. It’s hard to call anything worse than neoconservatism, but if there is one foreign-policy impulse that just might be worse, it’s leave-us-alone isolationism.

The foreign-policy history of the Republican Party is a history of the battle between the nativist isolationists and the bellicose internationalists. I’ve always found it interesting that the GOP should encompass both frothing extremes, while the Democrats have tended to occupy the saner (not always so sane, admittedly) middle ground. Historically, I would argue, the GOP defaults toward isolationism, because that was the natural reflex of many of the party’s key constituent elements in the early 20th century (Southern and Midwestern agrarians, self-made capitalists).

It takes a cataclysmic and frightening event for the warmonger wing of the party to win the day. The Iron Curtain and the advent of the Cold War was one such effect. One can thus think of the GOP’s general hard-line posture during the Cold War as a break from the norm, albeit a very long one indeed. September 11 was another. But this interregnum lasted not 40 years, but 12; so now, a dozen years and two expensive and wearying wars later, the war caucus is losing again, and the party is reverting to its original isolationist roots.

Lord knows there are many reasons why this is a good thing. But the intra-GOP alternative is hardly more appealing. We can make the case two ways. The first, the more standard one, is the hypothetical application of isolationism to actual episodes in American history, most notably World War II. Forget our military involvement; this begins with lend-lease. If there had been more isolationist Republicans in Congress in 1940, we’d never have armed Britain, and there’s every chance Britain would have fallen to Hitler. From there, who knows.

But there’s another way to state the case against isolationism, which is not hypothetical and involves peering into episodes in our history when we did behave in a somewhat isolationist fashion and see what in fact happened. There aren’t many of these, at least in our modern history. There was George H.W. Bush’s inaction on Bosnia, which remains a black mark in our history. And from the same era there was our step back from involvement in Afghanistan at the end of that country’s bitter war with the Soviet Union.

The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. Then the civil war started. The United States of course had armed the mujahedeen. But at the end of the Cold War, there was no appetite in Congress for American involvement in a remote and barren little country’s civil war. The United States left matters in the hands of the warlords, which in reality meant leaving them in the hands of Pakistan and to some extent Saudi Arabia. The U.S. withdrawal was seen as a betrayal by many Afghans. It created the vacuum into which the Taliban finally stepped in 1994. The Taliban made common cause with Al Qaeda and gave its leaders and soldiers a safe haven, and I believe you know what happened next. So our decision in the early 1990s to wash our hands of Afghanistan helped set off a series of events that brought us September 11.

There are multiple reasons, moral and practical, to be wary of American involvement overseas. If our advisers had maintained a presence in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, we’d quite possibly have done something wrong or terrible in some other direction. I am not arguing here that we need to spread covert CIA dollars across the globe. But to leave the global arena as the isolationists want us to do just lets actors whose motivations are even worse than ours call the shots.

That is what will happen in the Middle East if we aren’t engaged. Iran will have the run of the place. Assad will butcher tens of thousands more people. Hezbollah will control Lebanon and arm itself to the teeth for the next war with Israel. Put humanitarian concerns—for example, that we should step in to stop the slaughter of innocents—completely to the side. There’s a hard-headed argument against isolationism, and it’s precisely this: A world without the United States military and United Nations peacekeepers would in fact be an operatically more violent and ruthless world than the one we have, and one in which blowback would be much more likely to hit us where we live one day.

I shuddered at the thought of a President McCain, who wanted to acquire wars like new suits. But the idea of a President Rand Paul is just as bad in the other direction. We’re deep in the world, like it or not. Think about the people who’d like to see the United States retreat into isolationism. Not a pretty group. So while the Republican hypocrites deserve our scorn for flip-flopping and being against something just because Obama supports it, the isolationist Republicans deserve a different and more compelling kind of scorn. At least the hypocrites are merely opportunists. The isolationists would plunge the world into chaos as a matter of “principle.”