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Keller and the “New Isolationism”

Bill Keller’s warning about the “new American isolationism” in connection with the Syria debate is just as absurd as it sounds:

But can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism and conduct a serious discussion of our interests and our alternatives in Syria and the tumultuous region around it?

Keller’s column is interesting only as a barometer of the panic that opposition to attacking Syria has caused among Americans reflexively inclined to support military interventions overseas. Keller is horrified by the dangers of a phantom phenomenon (“new isolationism”), and the reason for his horror is the mere possibility that Congress will refuse to authorize an attack that the overwhelming majority of the public opposes. As it has so often been before, the “isolationist” label refers to those Americans that are wary of having their government take the U.S. into a foreign conflict for the sake of dubious or unrealistic goals. Americans are understandably averse to exposing the U.S. to unnecessary risks, including retaliation from the government that the U.S. is attacking, and they are also correctly reluctant to endorse the killing of people in another country when it seems to serve no discernible purpose. This isn’t “isolationism,” but rather the most minimal sanity after twelve years of ongoing warfare.

Even more odd than the “isolationist” slur is the use of the word defeatist here. How can it be defeatist to oppose openly joining a foreign conflict? Defeatist is usually the word that hawks reserve for advocates of withdrawing from a prolonged, futile war, but here Keller uses it as a term to criticize those that don’t want to join an ugly, seemingly intractable conflict. Keller urges us to have a “serious” discussion, but the entire framing of his argument proves that he has no interest in discussion at all. Flinging epithets and falling back on stale WWII references are not things one does when one wants to have a serious discussion of the relevant issues. It is what one does when trying to bludgeon and intimidate skeptics into conforming to a preferred policy. The odd thing is that there has been a more or less serious discussion going on about Syria for some time, and interventionists have consistently failed to sway public opinion. There are many reasons for this, but one important reason for the failure of interventionist arguments on Syria is that they tend to fall apart the moment that anyone questions them.

The truth is that America’s role in the world will not be significantly altered by refusing to attack Syria, and its truly vital interests will not be harmed. It is possible that the attack on Syria could end up being just as “unbelievably small” as John Kerry says it will be, but if there’s one thing Americans ought to have learned over the last decade it is that official promises that military action will be “limited” and of “short duration” are unreliable. This is partly because administration officials consistently underestimate the difficulty and risk of what they propose to do, and partly because launching attacks on other countries inevitably has effects and consequences that they fail to foresee. Instead of reassuring the public of their limited goals, administration efforts to downplay the significance of the attack they are proposing tells us that they may be oblivious to the risks of military action.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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