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‘Isolationism’ Has Lost All Meaning

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

When Rand Paul tweaked [1] Marco Rubio’s support for U.S. isolation of Cuba by calling him an “isolationist,” the self-appointed isolationist-watchers were not amused [2].

That’s not what that word means! Pot, meet kettle [3]! This just goes to show how truly dangerous Rand Paul’s foreign policy is!

Dick Cheney [4], Bill Kristol [5], Rick Perry [6], Rick Santorum [7], and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin [8] are but a few people who have called Paul an isolationist. The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens [9] 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 [10] 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 [11], 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 [12] 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? [13]

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "‘Isolationism’ Has Lost All Meaning"

#1 Comment By tbraton On December 29, 2014 @ 2:37 am

“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.”

I am in total agreement about banning the “i-word” “isolationist” from foreign-policy debate as long as we can still use another “i-word” to describe Obama’s foreign policy: “idiotic” or “incoherent.”

#2 Comment By Maharashtra On December 29, 2014 @ 4:29 am

A bit late to the party on this one, I’m afraid. Like “fascist” and “anti-semite”, “isolationist” has been virtually meaningless for quite some time.

#3 Comment By Tyler Brown On December 29, 2014 @ 6:41 am

Perhaps, rather than engage in this mutual name-calling, Paul should readily object to the use of the term and demonstrate its meaninglessness and incoherence in print and on cable news. For him, acting as the unamused teacher might be a better tactic than leaping into pointless schoolyard fights.

#4 Comment By Tom On December 29, 2014 @ 11:15 am

If what we have now is an example of “globalism”, American needs some “isolationism” and fast.

#5 Comment By tbraton On December 30, 2014 @ 2:03 am

While reading comments at another site, I came across this link to a disturbing article in U.S. News, which indicates that our current squabbles over the proper approach to Cuba may soon take a back seat in foreign policy debates.
[14] I wonder how renewed war in Iraq with boots on the ground fits in with charges of “isolationism.” If opposition to such a war means that you are an “isolationist,” then I will plead guilty to the charge before the action begins. I suspect that disputes over Cuba will be relegated to the back pages if they don’t disappear entirely.

#6 Comment By Brian Allan Cobb On December 30, 2014 @ 2:44 am

Lindbergh was right, and we should have stayed isolationist 1940-1941.

#7 Comment By Clint On December 30, 2014 @ 8:57 am

“Nonintervention is distinct from, and often confused with isolationism, the latter featuring economic nationalism (protectionism) and restrictive immigration. Proponents of non-interventionism distinguish their policies from isolationism through their advocacy of more open national relations, to include diplomacy and free trade.”

“Historical examples of supporters of non-interventionism are US Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both favored nonintervention in European Wars while maintaining free trade. Other proponents include United States Senator Robert A. Taft and United States Congressman Ron Paul.”

#8 Comment By tbraton On December 30, 2014 @ 9:14 am

We can at least take some comfort that the Pentagon is keeping its usual sharp eagle-eye on spending our money. According to the U.S. News article I cited above:

“The U.S. originally had planned to destroy, sell or give away as much as $7 billion worth of equipment it had in Afghanistan supporting the war effort there. . .Some of the scrap is sold to Afghans to recoup costs. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a congressionally created watchdog, has raised concerns about what it believes at times has been wasteful destruction of military equipment.

The military also conducts de facto yard sales to sell to Afghans some of its excess “white goods,” like power tools, air conditioning units, tractors, construction machinery, or mobile shower and bath units.

Those sales have brought in $2 million so far.”

#9 Comment By Instead of Politics On December 30, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

“Isolationism”: Wanting to isolate.

* Isolate via economic and political sanctions
* Isolate via war and entangling alliances

opposite = free trade

#10 Comment By Russell Seitz On January 2, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

There is some irony in The American Conservative publishing a revised view of isolationism the publisher of The Nation might approbate , because the present publisher of The Nation
is Hamilton Fish’s eponymous grandson!

#11 Comment By BobPolicy On January 2, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

The question is not isolationism, any more than some policy fulfills a “vital interest,”whatever that might be.

It is whether foreign policy is careful or reckless.

As for Cuba, the question is whether the president wants to move the regime toward change, or whether he wants to save the regime.

#12 Comment By Victor Tiffany On January 2, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

Instead of isolationism, a principle of self-governance needs to lead a more peaceful foreign policy than the interventionist one in place, more or less, since before Wilson asserted America’s right and intention to “make the world safe for democracy.”

National self-determination as a foreign policy would respect the people more than bombs, guns and missiles do. The “security” that America now provides would have to be replaced with regional balances of power and the remainder of NATO working as a European power. They could form the kernel of a World Peace Authority and/or a UN peacekeeping force.

National self-determination would allow policy makers to eliminate the U.S. Army, a force for protecting borders (not needed) or invasions. (We keep the other armed forces to protect national security and U.S. personal abroad. Any intervention would have to be authorized by both Congress and the UN Security Council to keep illegal wars from occuring.

This isn’t isolationism, but rather a synthesis of non-intervention (“isolationism”) and international policing of borders and protecting of people from genocide via UN or a European Peace Force. In the nuclear age, we want space, a separation of powers, between the U.S. and Russia. A European military force could offer that, reducing the risk of escalation.

We believe that degree of change in foreign policy to be revolutionary (from empire to republic) and requires a revolution to provide the will to reduce power and influence. The Soviet Union showed us how to disassemble an empire peacefully. We need to bring our men and equipment home and rebuild the U.S. into an economic powerhouse once again.

Propping up the American Empire will exhaust the treasury even more than Afghanistan and Iraq have.

What is often called “national security” is America the police, judge, jury, prison guard and executioner. What is called “homeland security” is genuine national security. U.S. interventions anger people and create enemies. The drone missiles are antagonizing more than they (we) are killing. This corporate-backed empire is insane, and we can’t afford it even if it were rational.

#13 Comment By JimBob On January 2, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

For some reason, no one ever seems to want to talk about the money. You hear “…Lindsey Graham wants Congress to pass an authorization of military force resolution while diplomacy is still ongoing.” Yes, but why? Could it be because his state — where his constituents, his voters, live — received $3.5 billion in defense contracts last year, $33+ billion since 2000? Does anyone think this is what is driving Mr. Graham and not some ideology about the best way to protect America from its “enemies”? I sure do. And it goes for most of Congress, esp. the Republican side. The military, whose primary raison d’etre stems from fear — the most powerful emotion — remains the one taxpayer-funded boondoggle no one can seem to vote against.

#14 Comment By David Smith On January 3, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

The word “isolationism” is simply a pejorative, designed to stop the conversation.

#15 Comment By Confused On January 4, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

If a neighbor went to a cliff and threw half (more) their wealth away just because some irresponsible folks suggested they do such; we would deem them nuts. This is exactly what the U.S. is doing on the advice of uncaring neocons who don’t give a darn for the well being of the U.S. We are much poorer as a result of this illogical compliance.

#16 Comment By RTD On January 20, 2015 @ 11:28 am

You are so wrong on this and the French attacks. Stop trying to misrepresent Libertarianism.