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Keller and the “New Isolationism”

Bill Keller’s warning [1] 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 [2] 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” [3] 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.

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35 Comments To "Keller and the “New Isolationism”"

#1 Comment By Ray S. On September 9, 2013 @ 11:21 am

We often hear from people like Keller about how divided America is. The opposition to the Syria attack is an example of national unity. 71% of Americans oppose it(I think the margin is much higher,my guess is many black Obama supporters are supporting him and not the policy).

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On September 9, 2013 @ 11:29 am

For some people, whenever foreign adventures are in issue, it’s always 1938, and the history of that year gets conveniently rewritten.

Can we have a new corollary? Mention Munich and you’ve lost the argument.

#3 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On September 9, 2013 @ 11:39 am

Hawks’ definition of isolationism: Passing up a perfectly good opportunity to go to war. Didn’t you quote someone describing Eisenhower as a isolationist for passing up a perfectly good opportunity to intervene in Vietnam?

#4 Comment By SDS On September 9, 2013 @ 11:41 am

It may be small; and appear to have no effect; so there WILL be calls for more; and more; and more….
I dare say the families of those we kill won’t see it as “small”…..

#5 Comment By SteveM On September 9, 2013 @ 11:44 am

The one WWII reference I would fall back on is Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, and then asking the proponents of Syrian bombing if the Japanese had initiated a war against the United States with that episode.

Regarding Keller, he’s just a self-congratulatory mouthpiece for the arrogant Power Elites who believe that their intelligence, wisdom and insight are so elevated, it’s ludicrous to actually listen to the pedestrian vox populi.

Just turn some “brilliant” Harvard grads loose on businesses, banks, economies, governments, wars… I mean given the history of their massive screw ups, what could go wrong?

#6 Comment By cameyer On September 9, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

Keller was an astute reporter in Moscow during the changes brought about by Gorbechev in the 1980s. It’s been downhill from there.

Keller, like other neocon and liberal interventionst supporters of the Iraq War (and every other military action in the area over 12 years), are staring at their own demise. I don’t remember such uniform and vocal opposition to American military action ever in my lifetime as it is now against bombing Syria. People turned against Iraq faster than Vietnam. The public split over Libya. But they absorbed an object lesson over the past 12 years (if not beyond): The ME is vastly less stable than before 9/11, unnamed terrorists pop up all over the place, and the US is economically sapped.

It’s only a few steps to questioning why American FP never seems to work.

#7 Comment By Ray S. On September 9, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

Keller probably,had he been around then,pushed the US to get involved in WW2 right after Hitler double crossed Stalin.

#8 Comment By Michael N Moore On September 9, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

I read Keller this morning and one thought came to my mind: AIPAC has gone to work.

#9 Comment By Boris On September 9, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

This is a bit off topic, but it has been bothering me as I have read your otherwise excellent posts on this war so I will make the point anyway. I agree with you on the issue of intervention in Syria, but I find your repeated references to public opposition to this war as an important argument against the war to be quite cynical. You (and almost every other writer on this site) strongly oppose immigration reform, and that law is supported by an even wider margin than the margin opposing the proposed bombing of Syria. It is almost as if public opinion is only relevant when it comports with your views.

#10 Comment By tbraton On September 9, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

Daniel, back on June 4, you had a blog on Richard Cohen entitled “Pernicious Liberal Hawkishness and Syria,” and I posted the following comment which involved Bill Keller:

tbraton says:
June 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm

This is reminiscent of Bill Keller’s recent piece in the NY Times, in which he advocated U.S. involvement in the civil war in Syria. [4] Keller, a former columnist who became executive editor of the Times, noted that “at the outset of the Iraq invasion [when Keller was a columnist] I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy. ” Nevertheless, he had concluded that “whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.” (At the time of our intervention in Libya, Keller was executive editor, and the Times endorsed Obama’s war against Libya.)

For a devastating analysis of Keller’s piece advocating U.S. war against Syria, see [5] The author notes in his article that “yet much of the recent pressure for another American intervention is coming from liberals.” The author also makes a point that I made recently about Obama’s inability to draw black lines:
“The Obama administration has been strangely tentative in justifying its choice not to arm Syrian rebels: a policy that would need little defense if the president could bring himself to speak it plainly.”

#11 Comment By tbraton On September 9, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

“Didn’t you quote someone describing Eisenhower as a isolationist for passing up a perfectly good opportunity to intervene in Vietnam?”

As I recall from my reading, despite the public perception cultivated by the press, Eisenhower was a very hard working chief executive who was in constant contact with Capitol Hill. He knew there was strong opposition among law makers to any involvement in Vietnam at the time. But he was strongly pressed by SOS Dulles and Nixon to go to the aid of the French. Very cleverly, Eisenhower sent them both to Capitol Hill to seek support for their mission, knowing full well the negative reception they would receive. When Dulles and Nixon returned empty handed, Eisenhower “decided” not to go to the aid of the French in Vietnam, which was his intention all along. If only we had such a lazy, golf playing executive in the White House today—-at least one with extensive experience in war and a background of making tough decisions before he was elected President, like Eisenhower.

#12 Comment By TANSTAAFL On September 9, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

AS always, DL hits the nail on the head. He also points out the article’s dubious claim to want a serious discussion.

A call for a serious discussion is much the claim that “I am gonna be honest with you” or “I want to avoid a strawman argument”. They are almost assuredly the introduction of just the opposite.

#13 Comment By Liam On September 9, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

But. Eisenhower became less wise when it came to counseling LBJ on escalation in Vietnam. Eisenhower became captive to deep state in his post-presidential career.

#14 Comment By Gordon Hanson On September 9, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

About the only good thing that comes from the subpar scribblings of the interventionists are the eloquent posts we get from Daniel Larison refuting their weak reasoning.

Excellent comment on President Eisenhower, tbraton.

#15 Comment By collin On September 9, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

The US isolationist? I can have an on-line conversation with a Chinese citizen if Jon Stewart is one of great comedians for free speech with his influence on an Egyptian Bassem Youssef. (My short answer was no as JS is following the trail of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.) That hardly hits me as isolationism.

#16 Comment By tbraton On September 9, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

“I agree with you on the issue of intervention in Syria, but I find your repeated references to public opposition to this war as an important argument against the war to be quite cynical.”

I’ll let Daniel speak for himself, but here’s my take. The American public supported the Iraq war in 2003 by a large margin, but I was opposed to it from the time I heard George W.’s “Axis of Evil” SOTU speech in early 2002, more than a year before we attacked Iraq. (I voted for George W. in 2000 but not in 2004 because of the Iraq war.) Just because a large part of the public favors a war (as was the case initially in Vietnam) does not make the decision to go to war is a wise one, as we found out with Vietnam and later with Iraq. The public can be excused somewhat because in both cases they were terribly misled by lying government officials (the Gulf of Tonkin incident with respect to Vietnam, WMDs with respect to Iraq). However, if you go to war, you certainly want the public overwhelmingly supporting your decision. In fact, the famous (Weinberger)-Powell Doctrine cites domestic support as one of the factors governing the decision to go to war. In the case of Syria, the American public is overwhelmingly against our getting involved there in any manner. That alone, under the Powell Doctrine, would militate against attacking Syria, even though there are many other reasons under the Powell Doctrine for not going to war with Syria. In short, strong public support is essential for going to war, but that alone does not make going to war a wise choice. Strong public opposition alone constitutes a good reason for not going to war.

#17 Comment By John On September 9, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

Speaking as a New Isolationist, I would love this “serious discussion of our interests” which at some point will clarify why we must intervene in a foreign civil war without any support from the rest of the world for the principle of never using poisonous gases or liquids in combat.

#18 Comment By Ray S. On September 9, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

Hopefully Russia and the US agree to Putin’s new offer.

#19 Comment By brad908 On September 9, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

But we should have helped the French especially at Dien Bien Phu if only because then most likely it would have remained France’s problem. And then to top it off be claiming that some how Eisenhower’s change of mind was somehow illegimate. Who “captured” him. you said yourself congress was very opposed to intervention which means there were certainty large pools of Washington D.c. in which Eisenhower could have maintained his free from “capture” thoughts.

In other words exactly like the poster above said this is pure cynicism: for Mr. Larison polls don’t matter until they back him and for you Eisenhower is wise until he disagrees with you. That’s an untenable postion.

#20 Comment By tbraton On September 10, 2013 @ 12:18 am

brad098, I have absolutely no idea what point you are trying to make and what you are trying to say. I think Eisenhower deserves high marks as President. He succeeded in ending the unpopular Korean war, he opposed the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, and he refused to go to the aid of the French in Vietnam. Are you suggesting that we should have helped France retain Vietnam as a colony just so they would continue to have problems there? Does that make any sense to you? Should we also have gone to the assistance of France in Algeria, another French colony that was fighting for its independence? How many American lives and American dollars should we have sacrificed helping to preserve the French and British Empires and why would that have been in the national interests of the U.S.? If I were to fault Eisenhower for anything in foreign affairs, it was sending the Marines to Lebanon in 1958.

#21 Comment By Ken_L On September 10, 2013 @ 12:21 am

You know someone is in trouble when their argument relies on World War 2 analogies, and when the analogies are as ridiculous as Keller’s, you know his argument is not even worth reading. It is not even worth fisking – there is not a single significant aspect of the current situation in the Middle East that is remotely like Europe in 1939-41. Hoping to find guidance from history is all well and good but some insight into history is an essential prerequisite.

#22 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 10, 2013 @ 1:11 am

Keller’s own background explains his reportorial failures, which resulted in
the NYT repeating propaganda instead of reporting news in its Iraq war promotion, as it explains his plumping for war in Syria and eventually in Iran.

Keller is a bonafide member of the donorist elites, his father having been CEO of both Standard Oil and Chevron. His father was involved with Mideast oil satrapies from the 1930s on and influencing government policy to promote oil company objectives.

#23 Comment By Puller58 On September 10, 2013 @ 6:36 am

Keller and the rest of his ilk would never be able to come up with a convincing rationale for attacking a country like Syria. If there are any tangible US interests at stake, I’ve yet to see them articulated.

#24 Comment By tbraton On September 10, 2013 @ 8:13 am

“Keller’s own background explains his reportorial failures, which resulted in
the NYT repeating propaganda instead of reporting news in its Iraq war promotion, as it explains his plumping for war in Syria and eventually in Iran.”

Fran Macadam, I hold Keller’s views on Iraq, Syria and Iran in as much contempt as you, but let’s be fair. During the Iraq war, Keller was a strong supporter, but he was a columnist, not the executive editor he eventually became. I don’t think he was responsible for the distorted coverage on Iraq (Judith Miller, et al.) on the front pages of the New York Times. I believe Howell Raines was executive editor during the Iraq war.

#25 Comment By Geschrei On September 10, 2013 @ 9:15 am

“You (and almost every other writer on this site) strongly oppose immigration reform, and that law is supported by an even wider margin than the margin opposing the proposed bombing of Syria. It is almost as if public opinion is only relevant when it comports with your views.”

I am compelled to respond to Boris’ off-topic criticism to point out it’s obvious fallacy: the assumption that poll results automatically define ‘public opinion’. Any prudent observer of US media should be quite aware of the ability to manipulate poll results by using loaded questions. I would not be surprised to hear that a majority of the American public is in favour of “giving people a chance to come to the US to pursue a better life” or similar vaguely worded emotional appeals. However, if one were to ask a cross-section of our citizens if they were in favor of instant legalized status for every person currently on our soil, the suspension of all existing laws against employing those who crossed the borders illegally (be it 20 years ago or 20 weeks from now), and for increasing the number of future foreign job-seekers by 300% in a period of persistent long-term unemployment, I think you would find the percentages supporting ‘immigration reform’ significantly in the minority.

Which is why you continue to see the supporters of Syrian intervention attempting to sway the public on emotional grounds. Its working pretty well on the immigration issue.

#26 Comment By Mark N. On September 10, 2013 @ 10:17 am

I propose we start using a new phrase to describe the pole opposite to so-called “isolationism”. It’s called “alienationism”. See more here: [6]

#27 Comment By tbraton On September 10, 2013 @ 10:23 am

For a good account of the Judith Miller/NY Times handling of the Iraq war propaganda, you should read this article in New York magazine that appeared back in 2004:


Bill Keller was named as executive editor, replacing Howell Raines in September 2003.

#28 Comment By brad908 On September 10, 2013 @ 10:44 am

I’m sorry that you don’t read well tbarton. Or for that matter know much about the events surrounding Dien bien Phu. A plan was designed in which American bombers would pound the artillery entrenchments around DBP. Most likely this would have been enough to lift the siege and allow the French to evacuate or even hold the fortress. There was never any talk of ground troops as long as French troops were present. We know where Ike’s policy of non involvement led ulimately and as Liam points out (in a comment I mistakenly thought you had posted which is why I mistakenly labeled you Ike support as cynical) Ike himself ultimately backed actual ground troops. So in reality it’s your position that is de facto pro-intervention and mine which would have very likely limited our casualties.

Moreover, you are the one bringing up Algeria, but for the record we did get involve repeatedly with especially President Kennedy mouthing off about how he supported the rebels.

#29 Comment By Henri James On September 10, 2013 @ 11:49 am

As much as I’m opposed to military invention by the US I do think we need to be careful about standing back and saying ‘Whoa, not our problem’. It’s true that Syria certainly isn’t the epicenter of American interests, but the states has allies in the region and the uglier this gets the more those allies will suffer the externalities of a Syria civil war.

Also, chemical weapons are worth frowning upon.

So while we should be against intervention, especially the kind of solo intervention where the states has to go it alone which is exactly what this engagement would be, I think we need to be careful to not stop working towards a better resolution to this situation.
Russia’s proposed solution, if its in good faith, could certainly be that.

Even if an International force only secures half of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, thats still pretty good progress.

#30 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 10, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

“…Keller was a strong supporter, but he was a columnist, not the executive editor he eventually became. I don’t think he was responsible for the distorted coverage…”

Agreed, he wasn’t the only one. But if while a reporter or columnist, he hadn’t been echoing propaganda, he would either have had to leave, or he wouldn’t have been part of the problem, perhaps, even prevented the war instead of enabling it – nor, eventually to become editor.

He is responsible for the distortions and propaganda lies that appeared under his own byline, at a minimum.

#31 Comment By TANSTAAFL On September 10, 2013 @ 12:35 pm


My retort to you is. “To what end?”

To what end, was our involvement in Vietnam (at DBP or later) justified?

You arent seriously still supporting the Domino Theory? Not even the Hawks who proposed it as a reason at the time still believe it.

Vietnam is a perfect example of overstating our purported “interests” and willfully ignoring the costs of a military intervention. Only that could justify A Syria Intervention.

#32 Comment By Sean On September 10, 2013 @ 12:35 pm



#33 Comment By John On September 10, 2013 @ 2:09 pm


We did assist at Dien Bien Phu. We gave the French two squadrons of B-26s to perform close air support. We also had about 50 CIA pilots flying 700 sorties to resupply the defenders over the course of about five weeks. But the Viet Minh had about a 4:1 numerical superiority, commanded almost all of the hills surrounding the encampments, and could fire artillery pieces from inside tunnels dug through the hills (that were extremely hard to target either from the French batteries or from the air). We turned a 2-week siege into an 8-week siege, which is one sense a victory, but let’s not kid ourselves – the French lost in spite of our help.

#34 Comment By Tom Skene On September 10, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

The fact that only the Israeli Lobby and it’s pro-zionist hangers on really support the attack on Syria says it all

The national interests of the USA are of no interest to these people
They only ask “is it good for Israel”

#35 Comment By tbraton On September 11, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

With regard to Eisenhower and Vietnam, I had half-forgotten that I had posted in greater detail back in March on this topic:

tbraton says:
March 25, 2013 at 1:40 pm

“Yet there may have been a few opportunities to reverse U.S. policy and change history, according to Logevall. Rejecting French requests for support in the First Indochina War would have been one alternate scenario. (As it happened, however, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were eager to help the French and draw the U.S. directly into the war. “Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States directly into the war and sought a blank check from Congress to free his hands,” Logevall notes.)”

Supplementing the skeptical comments of james canning and glover above, I too question how eager Eisenhower was to help the French. According to Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A History” (1983), Admiral Radford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under Eisenhower, was strongly in favor of sending a fleet of B-29′s to relieve the pressure on the French at Dienbienphu, but the army brass were strongly opposed to any involvement in Vietnam and thought “that the Indochina conflict was the wrong war in the wong place.” (p.197) (That called to mind one of the few things my older brother, a career officer, said about his two tours of duty in Vietnam: “Of all the places in the world, why did we choose to fight a war in Vietnam?”) Karnow goes on to state of the army brass, “As they stated shortly afterward, ‘Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives’ and involvement there ‘would be a serious diversion of limited U.S. capabilities.’

According to Karnow, the French “were further discouraged by Eisenhower’s insistence that he would not even ponder Radford’s project without an approval by Congress as well as by America’s allies, especially Britain. Radford, backed by Dulles and Vice-President Nixon, tried to get legislative authorization for the president to employ air power at his discretion, but the request was rejected by several influential senators and representatives—among them Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas.” I remember reading years ago that the sly old fox Eisenhower was, contrary to public myth during his time in office, a very hard working executive who was in constant telephonic communication with the leading players in the Senate and the House. Eisenhower knew very well when he sent Dulles and Nixon to Capitol Hill to seek Congressional authorization for Vietnam that there was no chance in Hell they would get it. It should also be kept in mind that, while Eisenhower did authorize the deployment of military advisers to South Vietnam, there were fewer than 1000 advisers there at the time he left office in 1961. Kennedy expanded that number to more than 16,000 by the time he was assassinated. It should also be kept in mind that Eisenhower turned his back on both Britain and France in the Suez crisis of 1956, two years after the fall of Dienbienphu


tbraton says:
March 27, 2013 at 10:49 am

“Some of us think it would have been better had Nasser been overthrown.”

Ah, there’s the dilemma. Some think it is better that Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi were removed from power. The world has no shortage of tyrants who “should be overthrown.” Once you go down that path, there is no avoiding the very likely outcome that you will have a world constantly at war.

With respect to your earlier comment that “Eisenhower could see that committing a large US land army to Vietnam would be a blunder,” I totally agree. Stephen Ambrose, a biographer of Eisenhower, had a review in Foreign Affairs back in 1993 of a book entitled “EisenhowerAdministration and Vietnam, 1953-1961″ by Prof. David Anderson in which he said:
“According to Anderson, “Eisenhower charted the course that President Lyndon Johnson followed to the fateful decisions of 1964 and 1965 to drop the bombs and land the Marines.” Eisenhower “oversimplified and overcommitted” because he was “more skilled in tactics than in strategy.” Anderson praises Eisenhower for resisting the pressure to intervene in 1954 to save the French at Dien Bien Phu, but criticizes him for supporting Ngo Dinh Diem from 1955 to 1961. “Prepared neither to retreat nor fight, the Eisenhower administration turned to nation building.” What Anderson wishes Eisenhower had done he does not say. The only real alternative was to abandon Vietnam and all of Indochina in 1954, which was a political impossibility for a Republican president elected, in part, by drumming on the question, “Who lost China?” In short, this is a first-rate account of policy-making in Vietnam, 1955-61, weakened by an academic desire to criticize and stretch the evidence to blame Ike for the mistakes of Kennedy and Johnson.” [9]

My skepticism regarding Eisenhower’s willingness to get deeply involved in Vietnam is supported by his reluctance to rush to the aid of the French at Dien Bien Phu, his pulling the plug on Britain and France in the 1956 Suez affair, his commitment of less than 1000 military advisers to South Vietnam between 1955 and 1961. I have much more confidence that, had he continued as President, Eisenhower would have been much more willing to pull the plug on South Vietnam than I am about Kennedy, who vastly expanded the military advisers to more than 16,000 before he was assassinated. Kennedy, after all, was surrounded by the same advisors he had appointed who continued under LBJ and urged expansion of the war in Vietnam (Rush, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, etc.).