When Doves Cry: The Decline and Fall of the New Isolationists

 

shutterstock_259520312Like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, American foreign policy isolationists have tinkered with a number of name changes over the years. Prince tried calling himself TAFKAP, The Artist, and “unpronounceable Love Symbol,” before finally resettling on “Prince.” Foreign policy isolationists – that is to say, those who favor dismantling U.S. strategic commitments worldwide – have tried calling themselves non-interventionist, anti-interventionist, and now, most improbably, “realist.” But none of it seems to be working.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Following years of U.S. warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, some leading venues on the right — including the Cato Institute, The American Conservative, and Reason magazine — made the case for a new U.S. policy of strict military disengagement overseas. As popular opposition to those wars grew, the argument seemed superficially plausible. Most Americans came to view the war in Iraq as a mistake. But this was never the sum of the New Isolationist position.

What many of the New Isolationists argued, quite explicitly, was not only that George W. Bush had erred in Iraq, but that the whole edifice of international U.S. alliance commitments built up since the 1940s needed to be brought down. (See for example the 2008/09 Cato Handbook for Policymakers, pages 201, 507, and 561.)

This might be described as the Ultimate Foreign Policy Non-Sequitur: “So you didn’t like the war in Iraq? Then let’s tear down America’s global role since World War Two!”

This was never how most Republicans, most conservatives, or even most Tea Party supporters felt about America’s place in the world. Indeed, one of the central weaknesses of the New Isolationist position was a serious misreading of grassroots conservative sentiment regarding the exercise of U.S. military power overseas. Tea Party supporters are actually more supportive than the average American of U.S. military commitments abroad. They just don’t like Obama’s handling of it – and understandably so.

As I record in my new book, The Obama Doctrine, for the past six or more years President Obama has run a kind of international experiment to see whether spasmodic American disengagement, autobiographical references, and attempted accommodation of U.S. adversaries might make the world a safer place.

The results are in. It hasn’t worked.

Russia has expanded its influence in ways deeply unfriendly to the United States. So has China. Jihadist terrorists have increased, not contracted in scope. ISIS — a truly diabolical force — has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. And the Islamic Republic of Iran seems about to secure U.S. approval and economic relief for a nascent nuclear weapons program.

But notice what the response of the New Isolationists is to these developments: that Obama has not disengaged far enough.

Traditionally, foreign policy realism has meant an understanding that force must support diplomacy, a skepticism toward legalistic solutions, and a determination to pursue the national interest within an internationally competitive environment. Certainly, realists have always urged an avoidance of ideological overkill. But that also includes avoiding the typical liberal assumption that international challenges can be met primarily through words. For this very reason, classical foreign policy realists — from Reinhold Niebuhr and Nicholas Spykman to Henry Kissinger — argued for a baseline of material U.S. commitments overseas to support international balances of power. Today’s New Isolationists argue for the abolition of those commitments. This is not “realism.” It is endless retreat.

In making their case for this worldwide retreat, the New Isolationists were once optimistic that the wind was at their back. But something has shifted over the last year or so. Even many voters skeptical of greater U.S. involvement in cases like Syria and Ukraine have been deeply disturbed by Obama’s indecisive handling of these crises. There is now a powerful majority impression in this country that the President is a rather weak foreign policy leader, incapable of handling numerous international security threats.

Last fall, many congressional Republicans ran and won on a platform calling for more robust action — not less — against ISIS. Exit polls from those elections confirmed that terrorism and national security are now prominent issues, and that they disadvantage the Democrats. All of this is a sharp reversal from only two years earlier, when Obama ran for reelection with an incumbent edge on international issues. So, the American public is increasingly disturbed by Obama’s weak foreign policy leadership, and open to Republican arguments.

Yet what is the New Isolationist response? That Republicans should try to outflank the Democrats by becoming much more dovish on national security than Obama has been. If adopted by the 2016 GOP nominee, this advice would have the practical effect of making Hillary Clinton look as tough as Charles Bronson by comparison. Good luck with that.

There are, of course, some serious scholars who advocate a kind of paradigm shift toward U.S. strategic disengagement. Even when they fail to persuade, they write with intellectual integrity. A short list would include Andrew Bacevich, Chris Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Barry Posen. They may or may not be conservative and Republican, and it doesn’t matter either way. But what’s most depressing about the dumbed-down version of the New Isolationism — in contrast to the work of the authors just mentioned — is that it’s so often made by pundits who sound as dogmatic, tedious, and impervious to contrary evidence as an Old Bolshevik.

Take the case of Daniel Larison, who blogs as senior editor for The American Conservative. That magazine, you will recall, was the one that couldn’t make up its mind in 2012 whether to endorse, oppose, or ignore Barack Obama’s reelection as undoubtedly the most liberal president in American history. On which point, guys, the correct answer that year for an “American conservative” was: vote Republican. Do not vote for Obama.

In any case, The American Conservative claims that one of its purposes is to raise the level of political debate. Larison in particular complains about the low quality of Beltway foreign policy discourse, then proceeds to lower it by offering Beltway-style hit pieces several times a day that run exactly counter to his own magazine’s stated purpose.

In this B-movie version of the New Isolationism, there seems to be no such thing as an honest or principled disagreement with those on the right who happen to believe in a strong foreign policy (which is to say, most Republicans). All such people are dismissed as either wicked or stupid. There is rarely any appreciation of the fact that the United States faces actual authoritarian adversaries abroad who look to frustrate and undermine it. Nor is there any true appreciation for the overwhelmingly benign, pacifying, and stabilizing role the United States has played in the world over the past 70 years. Instead, within the parallel universe of the worst New Isolationists, when something goes wrong overseas it is always the U.S. that is somehow to blame. And they call this “conservative.” Altogether, in both tone and substance, it actually resembles nothing so much as the 1960s New Left on issues of national security.

Of course, the New Isolationists have their preferred presidential candidate in Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He seems sincere. On first running for and entering the Senate, Paul made his foreign policy convictions very clear: he looked for deep American retrenchment overseas, whether in terms of U.S. base presence, military spending, intelligence capabilities, foreign aid, or international commitments of various kinds. A series of friendly profiles during those years, based upon interviews with family and friends, all made the same point: that while Senator Paul is more politically pragmatic than his father, the two men share the same basic policy beliefs.

Over the last year, however, observing the hawkish turn in GOP foreign policy feeling, Paul has backtracked on some of this — for example, over Israel, defense spending, and ISIS. This may demoralize some purists, but for the most part the New Isolationists understand that Paul shares their core convictions, and consequently they will support him regardless. His problem is that the rest of us understand this as well.

So, the New Isolationist game-plan for 2016 can be reduced to the following propositions:

1. Continue to make old isolationist arguments.

2. Get terribly upset when described as isolationist.

3. Hope like hell that Rand Paul wins the Republican nomination.

The most likely outcome of all this is that Paul will be one of the last candidates standing next year — but will fail to win the nomination. The reason for both halves of that sentence is the same. Paul’s relative dovishness is an exciting fit for the minority of GOP primary voters who share New Isolationist views, but not for the greater majority who reject them. It isn’t that there’s no leading American political party open to arguments these days for reduced defense spending, scaled-back counterterrorism, and diplomatic accommodation of Iran. There certainly is. It’s just that that party is the Democrats.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince finally changed his name back to the original version, and found some clarity in doing so. He seems happy enough.

The New Isolationists might consider doing the same thing.

Members have made 17 comments.

  1. Profile photo of Manny Member

    I hope this is true. But I have to say, despite the momentary blips coming because of ISIS and Putin, my perception is that we’re becoming more isolationist. Even on the right I bet the majority of conservatives, probably due to the increased strength of the Libertarians in the party, do not want to re-enter Iraq. Yes, no one wants to admit they are isolationists, but hardly anyone advocates the hard military options that are required. Other than John McCain and Lindsey Graham, how many voices out there are really for a muscular response to these critical issues?

    But this is my perception and I could be wrong.

    • #1
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:27 am
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  2. Profile photo of DocJay Member

    I’m sure a massive war with Trillions in treasure and tens of thousands of US casualties fighting archaic rules of engagement, versus an enemy we aren’t allowed to name, is just what we need. Let’s just make sure it has a catchy name like Operation Everlasting Liberty or Operation Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.

    • #2
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:35 am
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  3. Profile photo of Larry Koler Member

    The thing about Obama is that he has tried out all the old saws that he learned from the hard left with vigor and time enough that, if they were really effective, things surely should have improved by now. And they shouldn’t have slowly descended into the abyss.
    This is much like the left’s control of our inner cities and I don’t see Obama being able to stop with his theories until America becomes as “successful” as Detroit. Even then, and with the help of our media, they blame the Republicans — so how can they stop their destructive reign? How?
    This is truly invincible ignorance.

    • #3
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:37 am
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  4. Profile photo of Jackal Inactive

    Fighting straw men with straw men is cheaper than engaging in either war or argument.

    • #4
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:40 am
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  5. Profile photo of Adam Koslin Member

    Is it “isolationist” to think that propping up very weak and sometimes bordering on non-functional proxy groups in the Middle East and Africa is a strategy whose benefits don’t necessarily cover the costs?

    Is it “isolationist” to realize that regional powers like Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are better placed to understand the peculiar complexities of highly-fluid conflicts over tribe, ethnicity, and religion than we are?

    Is it “isolationist” to take the long view and realize that by 2025 Russia won’t have enough young men to staff the army properly, to say nothing of their shortfall in trained engineers?

    Not to get all huffy here, but sometimes it seems as though any foreign posture short of maximalist intervention at all times is branded as “isolationist.” It’s not pleasant that ISIS is rampaging around the region and that Russia is flexing its muscles, but the views presented in the article are awfully simplistic. We have to exercise our power intelligently. Remember that while ISIS is awful, they hate Iran even worse than Israel does. Remember that while Russia’s expansionism is dangerous, it is shoring up the strength of and pro-western feeling in Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic nations. China is rising, but Japan is re-militarizing with our support, and the Aussies have always been staunch friends. Alliances and long-term strategic thinking should not be tarred as “isolationist.”

    • #5
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:43 am
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  6. Profile photo of Joseph Eagar Member

    I’ve come to agree that a strong American presence is vital for global security, but I’m not sure I agree that right-leaning isolationists having nothing to offer intellectually.

    • #6
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:57 am
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  7. Profile photo of Franco1 Inactive

    “As I record in my new book, The Obama Doctrine, …President Obama has run a kind of international experiment to see whether spasmodic American disengagement, autobiographical references, and attempted accommodation of U.S. adversaries might make the world a safer place.”

    Is that what he’s doing? I think he’s deliberately making America weaker, he’s not trying to make the world ‘safer’ in any way. He’s not experimenting either, he’s just doing damage like a vandal would.

    How did this man get elected? George W. Bush and his policies. His policies weren’t especially bad, as Jeb has said recently we all make mistakes, but compounding the mistakes was the inability to articulate reasons and consequenses, and the Bush administrations refusal to defend itself from spurious and outrageous charges, which allowed the left-wing of the Democrat party to trump Hillary and the quasi-realists.

    Misdiagnosing Obamas intentions is my first clue that the author is missing the mark.

    Second clue is the strange need to use a Prince song with the word “dove” in it and his name change, which was actually borne from a contract dispute with his record company, nothing more, to try to impugn Rand Paul as a ‘dove’ and if I’m reading the post right, equivalent to any Democrat.

    There is not one quote in this lengthy essay that back up the claims made.

    This whole post could be summarized : Rand Paul is just like his father. Got it.

    • #7
    • May 18, 2015 at 10:33 am
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  8. Profile photo of DocJay Member

    Dig if you will a picture

    Of America engaged in a war

    The stink of our dead cover me

    Can you my darling

    Can you picture this?

    Dream if you can a world war

    An ocean of violence in bloom

    World powers strike curious poses

    They feel the heat

    The need to unleash a mushroom

    How can Rand just leave us standing?

    Alone in world that’s so cold?

    Maybe Rand’s just too demanding

    Maybe he’s just like his father too bold.

    • #8
    • May 18, 2015 at 10:39 am
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  9. Profile photo of Larry Koler Member

    Franco, I like what you are saying except for one thing: It is axiomatic for the left that world will get safer if we get weaker. Obama sees no conflict here. He might just be a wrecker (how can a person tell — it sure looks that way) but he might actually be enough of an ineducable leftist to think the world will get safer, too.

    • #9
    • May 18, 2015 at 10:39 am
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  10. Profile photo of Franco1 Inactive

    Interesting that the post is all about changing of names, yet the author has chosen a name for his adversaries and uses it endlessly in the post “New Isolationists” capitalized as though it is a political party or something. He has defined isolationism as “those who want to dismantle US strategic commitments worldwide” a huge exaggeration and mischaraterization of Rand Paul’s position, and claims none of the names they use for themselves is working because …he doesn’t agree.

    “So, the New Isolationist game-plan for 2016 can be reduced to the following propositions:

    1. Continue to make old isolationist arguments.

    2. Get terribly upset when described as isolationist.”

    If Mr. Dueck was working for Democrats instead of Neo-Con Republicans (yes I can use labels too) he would tell us that someone proposing a 3% reduction in welfare benefits and a re-ordering of priorities and re-assesment of entrenched beauracracies and policies, are cold hearted greedy fat-cats who want single mothers thrown out onto the street. Perhaps he would come up with a capitalized label for these folks.

    So the New Warmongers 2016 game plan is

    1. Continue to make the same failed Warmongering arguments.

    2. Get upset at being labeled Warmongers

    3. Hope like hell Jeb gets the nomination.

    • #10
    • May 18, 2015 at 10:58 am
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  11. Profile photo of DocJay Member

    Franco:Interesting that the post is all about changing of names, yet the author has chosen a name for his adversaries and uses it endlessly in the post “New Isolationists” capitalized as though it is a political party or something. He has defined isolationism as “those who want to dismantle US strategic commitments worldwide” a huge exaggeration and mischaraterization of Rand Paul’s position, and claims none of the names they use for themselves is working because …he doesn’t agree.

    “So, the New Isolationist game-plan for 2016 can be reduced to the following propositions:

    1. Continue to make old isolationist arguments.

    2. Get terribly upset when described as isolationist.”

    So the New Warmongers 2016 game plan is

    1. Continue to make the same failed Warmongering arguments.

    2. Get upset at being labeled Warmongers

    3. Hope like hell Jeb gets the nomination.

    Nice!

    • #11
    • May 18, 2015 at 11:00 am
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  12. Profile photo of FloppyDisk90 Member

    You guys got it all wrong. Iraq is peaceful and prosperous or, err…, “was” until ISIS invaded. But don’t worry, that’s just a temporary hiccup. Be patient.

    • #12
    • May 18, 2015 at 1:13 pm
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  13. Profile photo of Nick Stuart Inactive

    DocJay:I’m sure a massive war with Trillions in treasure and tens of thousands of US casualties fighting archaic rules of engagement, versus an enemy we aren’t allowed to name, is just what we need. Let’s just make sure it has a catchy name like Operation Everlasting Liberty or Operation Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.

    I think I’m with DocJay on this, at least sort of.

    Until Americans are ready to face the bloody arithmetic (Casualties on our side and the other, and collateral damage), and see something through to the end, we should just stay home.

    Ultimately this will prove to be very shortsighted after China closes the Panama Canal; or the bright flash appears over New York, Los Angeles, or Washington (or as likely NY, LA, and DC); or the weaponized anthrax cloud blooms over Chicago, Atlanta; etc, etc.

    I just don’t want our troops sent off into some Dreckistani hellhole without the country really behind them for the full duration. We’re going to need them at home when the balloon goes up.

    • #13
    • May 18, 2015 at 4:09 pm
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  14. Profile photo of Fake John/Jane Galt Thatcher

    @Nick Stuart#13: I was against isolationism. Then I saw what a mess Obama made of everything and I started to rethink my position. Now you promise me that our most liberial cities will disappear in a flash of cleansing light. Well you sold me. I can really get behind that policy.

    • #14
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:49 pm
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  15. Profile photo of Michael Minnott Member

    Perhaps the U.S. still needs the capability to project power globally. That still doesn’t justify our garrisoning of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea on a massive scale (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women overseas). Those countries are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. We could then simply maintain “ports of call,” with minimal personnel co-located at allied bases for refueling and resupply of ships and aircraft. That should provide for our strategic needs with a vastly smaller overseas footprint.

    • #15
    • May 18, 2015 at 9:51 pm
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  16. Profile photo of Larry Koler Member

    Michael Minnott:Perhaps the U.S. still needs the capability to project power globally.That still doesn’t justify our garrisoning of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea on a massive scale (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women overseas).Those countries are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense.We could then simply maintain “ports of call,” with minimal personnel co-located at allied bases for refueling and resupply of ships and aircraft.That should provide for our strategic needs with a vastly smaller overseas footprint.

    Yes, this blows my mind, too. I mean South Korea and a small contingent in Japan to deal with N. Korea. Maybe — but large numbers in Europe? It’s just an income stream for the Germans. Can someone explain why this simple thing can’t be dealt with? We’ve been talking about this for years and years. Make your case — whoever it is who thinks we NEED it.

    • #16
    • May 18, 2015 at 11:15 pm
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  17. Profile photo of Ray Kujawa Thatcher

    DocJay:I’m sure a massive war with Trillions in treasure and tens of thousands of US casualties fighting archaic rules of engagement, versus an enemy we aren’t allowed to name, is just what we need. Let’s just make sure it has a catchy name like Operation Everlasting Liberty or Operation Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.

    Operation Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell:

    Don’t ask when and where we plan to hit ISIS (like in Syria).

    Don’t tell when and where those Delta guys’ boots actually touched ground.

    There actually are some of the lessons on the art of war applied here, a la Sun Tzu. Such as let your enemy see your strength as weakness. Don’t let them know anything about what you are planning. Practice the art of surprise. Then hit them with the hammer of Thor. We still have the hammer.

    • #17
    • May 19, 2015 at 12:19 pm
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