Mar 11, 2014
Always and Everywhere
Posted on Oct 25, 2013
By Andrew J. Bacevich, TomDispatch
Americans needed to fortify themselves by heeding the message of the Gospels: “Let the spirit of the Galilean enter our worldly and power-obsessed hearts.” In other words, the senator’s prescription for American statecraft was an early version of What Would Jesus Do? Was Jesus Christ an advocate of American global leadership? Senator Douglas apparently thought so.
Then came Vietnam. By May 1970, even Times-men were showing a little of that fatigue. That month, star columnist James Reston pointed (yet again) to the “new isolationism.” Yet in contrast to the paper’s scribblings on the subject over the previous three decades, Reston didn’t decry it as entirely irrational. The war had proven to be a bummer and “the longer it goes on,” he wrote, “the harder it will be to get public support for American intervention.” Washington, in other words, needed to end its misguided war if it had any hopes of repositioning itself to start the next one.
A Concept Growing Long in the Tooth
By 1980, the Times showed signs of recovering from its brief Vietnam funk. In a review of Norman Podhoretz’s The Present Danger, for example, the noted critic Anatole Broyard extolled the author’s argument as “dispassionate,” “temperate,” and “almost commonsensical.”
Fast forward a decade, and—less than three months after U.S. troops invaded Panama—Times columnist Flora Lewis sensed a resurgence of you-know-what. In a February 1990 column, she described “a convergence of right and left” with both sides “arguing with increasing intensity that it’s time for the U.S. to get off the world.” Right-wingers saw that world as too nasty to save; left-wingers, the United States as too nasty to save it. “Both,” she concluded (of course), were “moving toward a new isolationism.”
Five months later, Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait. Instead of getting off the world, President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. combat forces to defend Saudi Arabia. For Joshua Muravchik, however, merely defending that oil-rich kingdom wasn’t nearly good enough. Indeed, here was a prime example of the “New Isolationism, Same Old Mistake,” as his Times op-ed was entitled.
The mistake was to flinch from instantly ejecting Saddam’s forces. Although opponents of a war against Iraq did not “see themselves as isolationists, but as realists,” he considered this a distinction without a difference. Muravchik, who made his living churning out foreign policy analysis for various Washington think tanks, favored “the principle of investing America’s power in the effort to fashion an environment congenial to our long-term safety.” War, he firmly believed, offered the means to fashion that congenial environment. Should America fail to act, he warned, “our abdication will encourage such threats to grow.”
Of course, the United States did act and the threats grew anyway. In and around the Middle East, the environment continued to be thoroughly uncongenial. Still, in Times-world, the American penchant for doing too little rather than too much remained the eternal problem, eternally “new.” An op-ed by up-and-coming journalist James Traub appearing in the Times in December 1991, just months after a half-million U.S. troops had liberated Kuwait, was typical. Assessing the contemporary political scene, Traub detected “a new wave of isolationism gathering force.” Traub was undoubtedly establishing his bona fides. (Soon after, he landed a job working for the paper.)
This time, according to Traub, the problem was the Democrats. No longer “the party of Wilson or of John F. Kennedy,” Democrats, he lamented, “aspire[d] to be the party of middle-class frustrations—and if that entails turning your back on the world, so be it.” The following year Democrats nominated as their presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who insisted that he would never under any circumstances turn his back on the world. Even so, no sooner did Clinton win than Times columnist Leslie Gelb was predicting that the new president would “fall into the trap of isolationism and policy passivity.”
Get Me Rewrite!
Arthur Schlesinger defined the problem in broader terms. The famous historian and Democratic Party insider had weighed in early on the matter with a much-noted essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1952. He called it – you guessed it—“The New Isolationism.”
In June 1994, more than 40 years later, with the Cold War now finally won, Schlesinger was back for more with a Times op-ed that sounded the usual alarm. “The Cold War produced the illusion that traditional isolationism was dead and buried,” he wrote, but of course—this is, after all, the Times—it was actually alive and kicking. The passing of the Cold War had “weakened the incentives to internationalism” and was giving isolationists a new opening, even though in “a world of law requiring enforcement,” it was incumbent upon the United States to be the lead enforcer.
The warning resonated. Although the Times does not normally give commencement addresses much attention, it made an exception for Madeleine Albright’s remarks to graduating seniors at Barnard College in May 1995. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had detected what she called “a trend toward isolationism that is running stronger in America than at any time since the period between the two world wars,” and the American people were giving in to the temptation “to pull the covers up over our heads and pretend we do not notice, do not care, and are unaffected by events overseas.” In other circumstances in another place, it might have seemed an odd claim, given that the United States had just wrapped up armed interventions in Somalia and Haiti and was on the verge of initiating a bombing campaign in the Balkans.
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