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Why The “Isolationist” Slur Survives

Jim Antle calls [1] for banishing “isolationism” from foreign policy debate:

By now it is clear that the “i-word” does more to distort the foreign-policy debate than to accurately describe anyone’s substantive views.

Antle is right that this should happen, but “isolationist” is far too useful to hawks as a slur and as a means for defining the terms of debate for them to give it up. The slur is still in circulation today because it is misleading and inaccurate. Hawks continue to use it because it distorts the debate in the way that hawks need it to be distorted. Advocates of foreign policy restraint have to keep demonstrating the inaccuracy and absurdity of the slur, but that isn’t going to make the slur any less useful to the people that use it on a regular basis. Like any meme, the “isolationist” label survives and thrives not because it is true, but because it fills some need for the people that reproduce it. In this case, hawks need to see themselves as the only real internationalists that are continuing the long struggle against Americans’ instinctive “isolationism,” and they can’t very well do that unless they falsely accuse their opponents of being something that they clearly aren’t. “Isolationist” keeps being used for much the same reason that hawks keep resorting to the same 1930s references as crutches for their awful policy arguments. Hawkish arguments in favor of any particular intervention are typically weak, so they have to fling accusations of “appeasement” and “isolationism” to distract attention from the fact that their arguments usually make no sense. Charging someone with “isolationism” is intended to shut down an argument that the hawks would frequently lose if their claims were judged solely on the merits.

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10 Comments To "Why The “Isolationist” Slur Survives"

#1 Comment By CharleyCarp On December 29, 2014 @ 11:11 am

Isn’t this like the people who call the President a “socialist”? At a certain point, one has to just draw an inference about the people who engage in silly (and obviously incorrect) name-calling.

#2 Comment By Tim On December 29, 2014 @ 11:38 am

“The slur is still in circulation today…”

This implies that isolationism was a slur in the 1930s. Are you suggesting it wasn’t fair to call a guy like Robert McCormick, or an organization like America First, isolationist? This is an honest question.

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 29, 2014 @ 11:47 am

It was a slur in the 1930s, just as it had been before that. Insisting on U.S. neutrality in foreign wars and arguing against taking part in foreign wars are not the same as advocating “isolation” from the rest of the world.

#4 Comment By tbraton On December 29, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

I have speculated elsewhere about Leo Strauss being an intellectual source of “neoconservatism.” Since “isolationism” is one of their favorite words to bandy about, it appears that Humpty Dumpty may be a formative influence as well:

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.'”

#5 Comment By collin On December 29, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

I think we need to turn the isolationist slur around. How can you call the US isolationist with all the trade and daily global transactions? I have had numerous phone calls with people in Canada, Europe, India and Mexico so it is hard to call the nation isolationist at this point. Just because we don’t interfere with (limited) foreign wars does not make us Isolationist.

I do agree with Rand Paul the most Isolationist nation in the Western Hemisphere is Cuba. So Obama is trying to end isolationist policies in my view.

#6 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 29, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

If you don’t agree with invading and occupying every nation on earth that may be a future “threat” to the US or Israel, then you are an “Isolationist.” Every two-bit dictator in every crappy little nation is the next Hitler, and if you don’t want to use American military force to “solve every ethnic, religious or political problem, then you are the second coming of Neville Chamberlain.

#7 Comment By Icarusr On December 30, 2014 @ 10:23 am

I agree that no effort should be spared to kill this slur dead, stake and silver bullet and garlands of garlic and whatever else comes in handy. The noxious influence of the neocon slur is finding its way into Canada – as these things always do, from the left and the right, inevitably. Headline on the National Post: “Isolationist path: How Justin Trudeau would change the focus of Canada’s military policy”.

Now mind, talking about “Canada’s military policy” is about as oxymoronic – in fact, outright moronic – as one could get. Of course we did our share – far larger than our share – in Afghanistan while the US was busy pursing WMDs in Iraq, but still. To call the arch-internationalist Trudeau “isolationist” beggars belief. And why “isolationist”? Because Trudeau continues to believe that Canada’s – that is, Canada, not the US, but Canada – strength is not in offensive military action, but in multilateralism and peace-keeping. It bears repeating: Canada’s Liberal Party – responsible for inventing peace-keeping and keeping peace-keeping troops in forty countries (three decades in Cyprus alone) – is being called “isolationist” because its leader does not think that our eight CF-18s are that useful in the war against ISIS.

Not even Humpty Dumpty would drain words of meaning to such an extent.

#8 Comment By Philo Vaihinger On December 30, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

Personally, I like the term “isolationist.”

An isolationist is a realist who has a modest view of both our national power and our national interest.

Our power is too modest or our interests at risk too slight to justify continued participation in NATO or persisting in commitments to defend anybody or anything outside the western hemisphere.

And even here the same is true south of the equator.

In fact, in many cases our participation in such entangling alliances does nothing but increase the danger to ourselves and out overseas interests.

For example, I, for one, am not pleased to hear Krauthammer demand the right of his relatives in Tel Aviv to hide behind the nuclear skirts of my granddaughters in Maryland.

Let them eat blintzes.

#9 Comment By Ice Station On December 31, 2014 @ 3:15 am

I would very much like to be isolated from the Middle East, and I know many former and serving military who agree with me.

The countries we most urgently must deal with – Mexico and points south, the Caribbean, Canada – are virtually ignored by those who villify this non-existent “isolationism”, even as they cheer on the wreckage and botches of interventionists halfway around the world in the Middle East.

#10 Comment By Bangle On January 2, 2015 @ 6:03 am

The reason Neoconservatives and chicken-hawks continue to use the term isolationist in order to define the foreign policy debate is because they know it works and it puts people on the defensive and it shuts down rational debate about the merits of any situation. It is sort of like liberals who sling around the term racist, bigot, homophobic, etc. The reason liberals do it is because the terms intimidate those they engage in discussion. The best consideration in relation to those tactics is what one wit once said — To a liberal a racist is anyone that is winning an argument with them. The same thing can be said about the term isolationist when it is used by a Neocon or a chicken-hawk about someone they are engaging in a foreign policy debate.