The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.
This is very politely put, but as I’m sure Heilbrunn knows Stephens’ references to “isolationism” are intended to be misleading. Since there are no isolationists today, and the label is mainly a pejorative term of abuse, there is almost no way that it can’t be misleading. Shouting fascist or socialist at political opponents in domestic debate is intended to vilify the other side and mobilize one’s own. Similarly, flinging the “isolationist” label at others is designed to create confusion among the audience and to erase important distinctions so that hard-liners can keep pretending that they are the last and only real inheritors of American internationalism. This also polices the debate and limits what can be included in it. If opposition to starting a Syrian war can be misidentified as “isolationist,” almost anything can be, which makes it easier for hard-line policy ideas to be circulated and accepted. Misleading the audience is the point of deploying the “isolationist” term in debate. As for being unhelpful, these claims are unhelpful if the purpose of the exercise is to convey accurate information to the public, explain current events correctly, or present a credible argument for a different set of policies. Stephens isn’t trying to do any of these things. He intends to misinform, and he wants to describe current policy incorrectly.