Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beinart on US Isolationism

Peter Beinart on the myth of American Isolationism in The National Journal.

Given the overwhelming evidence, both from politicians and the public, that isolationism in America today is virtually nonexistent, why do so many high-profile commentators and politicians depict it as a grave threat? One clue lies in a word that these Cassandras use as a virtual synonym for isolationism: “retreat.” If the subtitle of Bret Stephens’s forthcoming book is The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, its title is America in Retreat. In their op-ed warning of a new “cycle of American isolationism,” (Senator Joe) Lieberman and ((Senator Jon) Kyl employ variations of “retreat” or “retrench” six times.

But “isolationism” and “retreat” are entirely different things. Isolationism has a fixed meaning: avoiding contact with other nations. Retreat, by contrast, only gains meaning relatively. The mere fact that a country is retreating tells you nothing about the extent of its interactions overseas. You need to know the position it is retreating from.

Herein lies the rub. In general, the isolationism-slayers are far more comfortable bemoaning American retreat than defending the military frontiers from which America is retreating. That’s because those frontiers, which reached their apex under George W. Bush, were both historically unprecedented and historically calamitous.

To realize how historically unprecedented they were, it’s worth remembering how much more circumscribed America’s military ambitions were under Ronald Reagan. He could not have imagined sending ground troops to invade Afghanistan or Iraq. For one thing, both countries were clients of the Soviet Union. For another, the bitter legacy of Vietnam made sending hundreds of thousands of troops to overthrow a government half a world away inconceivable. During his eight years in office, Reagan invaded only one foreign country: Grenada, whose army boasted 600 troops. In his final year in the White House, when some administration hawks suggested he invade Panama, Reagan adamantly refused. The idea struck him as far too risky.

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