They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

When Rand Paul tweaked Marco Rubio’s support for U.S. isolation of Cuba by calling him an “isolationist,” the self-appointed isolationist-watchers were not amused.

That’s not what that word means! Pot, meet kettle! This just goes to show how truly dangerous Rand Paul’s foreign policy is!

Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin are but a few people who have called Paul an isolationist. The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens rounds out this abbreviated list, having published a book throwing around the term like an elementary student who just learned the f-word.


Rubio himself uses the word the way a child picks up that annoying toy gun he got for Christmas and pretends to vaporize everything in his path. His latest targets include Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have backed—indeed, launched—military interventions Rubio himself declined to support.

The word “isolationist” has lost all meaning. It calls to mind comedian George Carlin’s old quip about driving: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Anyone who opposes a war, aerial bombing campaign, drone strike or sanctions you support is an isolationist.

All Paul is saying with his anti-Rubio jibes is that if “isolationist” can be redefined in this fashion to include people who clearly believe the United States has vital interests outside the Western hemisphere, then it can be redefined in other ways.

Perhaps a more fitting definition is to label people whose policies would have the United States behave unilaterally in ways that literally isolate our country, in some cases even from our closest allies.

I’m not sure about the politics, but Paul’s redefinition is hardly more hyperbolic than Rubio’s.

A United States that had confined itself to fighting those directly tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and stayed out of Iraq would not have been isolationist. Neither is a country that seeks to resolve the Iranian nuclear question through means other than preventive war.

We would not have been isolationist if we had stayed out of Libya. We will not be isolationist if we decline to pursue regime change in Syria. Winning the Cold War without firing a shot did not make us more isolationist than if we had engaged Soviet troops in Afghanistan, just as losing Vietnam did not necessitate surrendering in the Cold War.

The United States is about as far from isolationism in foreign policy as it is from anarcho-capitalism in domestic policy, which is to say only in the imaginations of Kristol and Krugman. Our military footprint abroad and our government at home could both be much smaller without getting close.

That’s why isolationism is a red herring. The word is being misapplied to people who favored the Cold War and even U.S. entry into World War II, even if only after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is being misapplied today to people who supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan and believe there is an American military role in the struggle against ISIS.

In this telling, the only alternative is the foreign policy of John McCain, who by one count wanted to invade, bomb or destabilize upwards of a dozen countries as of September 2013. And according to Rubio, you can still qualify as a “veiled isolationist” even if you (like Hillary Clinton) have sided with McCain on more foreign conflicts than Rand Paul.

You can even qualify as an isolationist if you wish to exhaust a longer list of non-military options—in dealing with Iranian nukes, for instance—before considering war than a Rubio or a McCain. Lindsey Graham wants Congress to pass an authorization of military force resolution while diplomacy is still ongoing.

You can even be an isolationist for laying out virtually identical positions on, say, China or Russia with less combative rhetoric.

Isolationism, they explained.

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. And like liberals who characterize any changes to an existing government program as privatization, abolition or repeal, hawks who throw around the i-word bias the debate in favor of intervention.

At a time of New Year’s resolutions, let’s resolve to banish isolationism as an all-purpose foreign-policy epithet.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?