So Many Isolationists: Does Opposing War With Syria Mean Withdrawing From the World?

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Sep 11, 2013 12:01 AM
So Many Isolationists: Does Opposing War With Syria Mean Withdrawing From the World?

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."

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who used to write speeches for George W. Bush, warns that failing to attack Syria would represent a victory for "the rising isolationists of the right." New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, who believes "the isolationists in the Republican Party are a direct result of the Bush foreign policy," under which "the world was conned into an awful conflict" (i.e., the eight-year war in Iraq), nevertheless agrees with Gerson that a) opposing intervention in Syria is isolationism and b) isolationism is bad.

Politicians who fail to automatically support military action based on "spontaneous revulsion" at the Syrian regime's crimes, says Daily Beast writer Tunku Varadarajan, "are like those hideous baby voles in wildlife documentaries: naked, blind, and shrinking from the light, trapped in burrows that appear to lead nowhere but deeper into darkness." He singles out one baby vole in particular: Rand Paul, "a hideous isolationist" who "will not do the right thing by innocent Syrians," which apparently involves dropping bombs on them.

What makes isolationists so hideous? According to Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, "the isolationist vision" includes opposition to the National Security Agency's domestic snooping. But according to New York Times columnist Bill Keller, "the isolationist temper ... helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state."

In short, isolationists are against whatever you're for and for whatever you're against. It is not clear where that leaves actual opponents of war with Syria, who represent a wide range of foreign policy views, let alone the libertarians among them, who favor free trade and a more liberal immigration policy along with greater restraint in the use of military power.

For those who conflate resistance to military intervention with isolationism, peaceful interactions do not count. What does it say about the interventionists that killing people is their litmus test for openness to the world? Nothing good. Maybe even something hideous.