By Nicholas Wapshott There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad's ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn't been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.
The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries' affairs in Washington and Jefferson's warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson's attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler's war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.
Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.
Lindbergh's father, a Republican House member from Minnesota who inspired his more famous aviator son's isolationism, wrote two tracts that still find a ready audience, Banking and Currency and the Money Trust, an assault on usurers in the banks and the dirty tricks of big businessmen, and, when General Pershing's expeditionary force set off to break the deadlock in World War One, Why is Your Country at War?. Many of the same ideas can be heard in the mouths of libertarians and Tea Party supporters today.
Here is Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate who became a Republican House member for Texas: "What was the advice of the founders? They said, stay out of the entangling alliances of all nations." "Our foreign policy is destined to keep us involved in many wars that we have no business being in. National bankruptcy and a greater threat to our national security will result." "There's nobody in this world that could possibly attack us today. We could defend this country with a few good submarines." "The neoconservative belief that we have a moral obligation to spread American values worldwide through force justifies the conditions of war in order to rally support at home for the heavy hand of government." By any definition, Ron Paul is an isolationist.
But how about this? "It would be interesting to know how many Americans believe we should continue borrowing money and saddling future generations with debt to pay for our current actions in Libya, or anywhere else a new military adventure is taken up." "I'm not sending my son, your son, or anybody else's son to fight for stalemate." "I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened. I don't see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war."
They are from Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky and devoted son of Ron Paul, who is more practical in his presidential ambitions than his guileless father, with whom he shares near-identical views. Is he an isolationist? Or a non-interventionist? It is hard to tell. Non-interventionists argue the risks involved in punishing Assad are too great right now for American action. Paul's suggestion that the national interest is not involved in Syria — even though a failure to act could green light the quotidian use of weapons of mass destruction by Assad and other tyrants — suggest he is more isolationist than non-interventionist.
The younger Paul needs to make up his mind which he is, because hot on his heels in courting Tea Party support in the 2016 GOP primaries are Ted Cruz, Senator from Texas, who believes "The United States armed forces doesn't exist to be a policeman of the world;" Justin Amash, a Congressman from Michigan whose strange definition of isolation is, "When you decide how to deal with countries that are threats and you put sanctions on them and isolate them, that's isolationist," and a number of lesser lights who see halting the Syrian attack and condemning American intervention in general a sure means of breaking from the rest of the pack. From a strictly political calculation they must all tread a fine line between isolationism and non-intervention.
Isolationism was never merely a conservative policy. It has attracted pacifists and socialists, too. The anti-war movement at the time of Vietnam was largely made up of progressive liberal isolationists who questioned the morality of America tampering in the affairs of another country. The bipartisanship of isolationism is clearly evident in recent polls that show as many Democrats opposed to strikes against Assad as Republicans. The number of isolationists from all parties suggested by the polls shows that the first candidate to unequivocally declare himself their leader can expect substantial and broad support.
Isolationism feeds into the libertarian distrust of government and offers an Austrian economics solution for to how to free spending for tax cuts while reducing the size of government. If Republican presidential candidates are serious about shrinking government they will need to address the big ticket items: Social Security ($860 billion), Medicare ($524 billion), Medicaid ($304 billion), other mandatory programs for the less fortunate ($621 billion), and Defense ($618 billion). Everything else is chump change by comparison. Unless the old and poor are to have their entitlements sharply cut, with all the political fallout that would entail, cuts must be made in defense. Ron Paul and Grover Norquist lead the libertarians demanding defense cuts now. Conservatives, too, offer plenty of ideas of how it could be achieved.
Yet Republicans flirting with isolationism should beware. There is little difference between party supporters on the proposed Syrian action, with Republicans noticeably more hawkish than Democrats or Independents. To claim to be the isolationist standard bearer would be popular among the absolutists of the Tea Party, who are the most avid primary voters and have a disproportionate influence on who is picked as the GOP's next presidential candidate. But Republicans in general remain devoted to George W. Bush's neo-conservatism, which took us to war in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice).
Rand Paul believes the Senate will give the president consent to degrade Assad's ability to use gas again but that the House will be evenly split. That will be true if enough Tea Party House members, who believe they have a mandate to hamper the president at every turn, withhold their consent. Part of the president's calculation is that Republicans will not want to be held responsible for watching Assad, in the wake of American inaction, gassing thousands more women and children. Nor does he think they will they want to be responsible for allowing Iran to conclude its nuclear weapons program and fire at Israel, nor North Korea to continue its reckless nuclear testing.
Republican neo-isolationists are in a bind. If they are true to their beliefs they will articulate clearly that keeping the rest of the world safe from weapons of mass destruction has nothing to do with us anymore. Iraq and Afghanistan were terrible, costly mistakes and we cannot afford another. They will find a great number agree with them. But taking that purist line will split the GOP and leave moderate Republicans reeling. Much easier would be to hide their isolationism behind non-interventionism and hope Congress grants the president the powers he needs.
Nicholas Wapshott's next book, to be published in 2014 by W.W. Norton, is about isolationism. He is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.