Jacob Sullum

According to a recent New York Times poll, just 30 percent of Americans think the United States should launch air strikes against Syria to punish its government's use of chemical weapons, while twice as many oppose the idea. Evidently, America is overrun with isolationists.

Or so the politicians and pundits agitating for an attack on Syria claim, aided by the supposedly evenhanded reporting of major news outlets. If you oppose this particular intervention, they say, that means you want to withdraw from the world -- a plainly crazy position that shows how wrong you are.

"This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Which raises the question: When (SET ITAL) is (END ITAL) the time for armchair isolationism? Perhaps it is appropriate when you are furnishing a spartan living room.

Kerry's point, of course, was that only someone utterly detached from reality could possibly think the U.S. should stay out of Syria's civil war. If, by contrast, you think the U.S. government can intervene surgically in this complicated sectarian conflict 6,000 miles away, achieving precisely the results it wants without any unintended consequences, you are a practical-minded person steeped in knowledge of how the world actually works.

That explains the "armchair" part. But "isolationism" is where the real inaction is.

The Washington Post reports that President Obama, in seeking congressional approval for an attack on Syria, must contend with "the growing bloc of Republican isolationists." Interviewing Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., about his opposition to the proposed missile assault, The New York Times asks, "How big is the isolationist wing within the Republican Party? Are you part of it?"

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens says the Syria debate has exposed "the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple." As evidence, he quotes Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who argues that "the war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States," and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who says that "the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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