It's Time for a New Look at Isolationism





Mr. Nichols is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is an American historian currently completing a study of isolationism and internationalism in the United States during the Progressive Era. He can be contacted at: cnichols@virginia.edu.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned Americans at the nation’s birth to “steer clear of foreign entanglements.” It’s a warning we scoff at today – at our peril. We need a new approach, a new isolationism.

Time and again, Americans rightly return to see the merits of isolation during moments of perilous engagement abroad. One example of this from the recent past came during America’s involvement in Vietnam. As early as January 1965, Sen. Richard Russell Jr., a Georgian with aggressive views on American international policy, reluctantly admitted to the public, "We made a terrible mistake getting involved in Viet Nam." As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, he remarked, "I don't know just how we can get out now, but the time is about at hand when we must re-evaluate our position." Talking to Russell in a private conversation, President Johnson expressed deep doubts but saw no way out. “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing and I don’t see any way of winning,” said LBJ. Journalist and pundit Walter Lippmann agreed. “If it is said that this is isolationism," he wrote, "I would say yes. It is isolationism if the study of our own vital interests and a realization of the limitations of our power is isolationism."

The less-than-hoped-for success of the "surge" in Iraq has led to similarly heartbreaking conclusions about the limits of U.S. military power. Modest security gains do not seem to be able to propel significant political change or overcome four years of unsuccessful efforts in Iraq to draw democracy out of chaos. Recent polls indicate that more than half of Americans are convinced that their leaders failed to calculate the consequences of the nation's intervention and underestimated its long-term implications. Despite enormous sacrifices, the U.S. is still far from accomplishing a nation-building mission in Iraq.

In making new choices, the nation can learn from Washington and Jefferson. And we should look to the more recent lessons provided by the words of Johnson, Russell, and Lippmann. It is time to chart a middle path – avoid the extremes of heartless realism and brainless idealism – and blend cautious isolationism with active internationalism.

So how would this new isolationism look? Its core aim would be to avoid military conflicts. Isolationist principles would discourage an interventionist or preemptive foreign policy, but would not preclude self-defense. It would promote diplomatic strategies, rather than military approaches. History has shown that interventions often have unintended, unforeseen consequences, and getting out is hard to do.

The best course now in Iraq is not total disengagement, but redeployment. Overall, the U.S. should renew the "soft power" essential to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. That is, America should do what it does best -- making the world a better place through education, science, development, culture, and free global trade. Lead by positive example.

Other foreign policy aims should be to boost U.S. prosperity with global economic growth while reducing anti-Americanism abroad. Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, called this an "international consciousness." A new isolationism would cultivate a comparable "consciousness" by strengthening transnational cultural ties in education and the arts, and increasing aid to the developing world. Hallmarks of this process should include an imaginative commitment to opportunities for national service, such as Peace Corps, VISTA, and Teach for America. And let’s revive efforts to provide the world with accurate information about America, such as through the U.S. Information Agency, and by expanding efforts to assist refugees and developing countries, such as through a revitalized U.S. Agency for International Development.

A policy of new isolationism also would mean a thoughtful effort to seize important challenges at home. Once a model for the world, much in America cries out for fixing. Let us take three symbolic examples that demand an inward focus: the dilapidated state of the nation's bridges and transportation infrastructure, the threadbare capacity for public health and preparedness for pandemics, and the nine million uninsured poor children under age 18. Given sufficient means and commitment, these (and other) vital domestic national interests can be solved.

Unless we muster the wisdom of prudent isolationism and elect a leader bold enough to advocate it, the conflict in Iraq will match that of Vietnam. So, fellow citizens, let us heed the powerful injunction to steer clear of foreign entanglements and prolonged interventions abroad. Take a new look at the benefits of isolationism.


This piece was first distributed through the Knight-Ridder Newswire.


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Tim Matthewson - 11/27/2007

In Sunday's New York Times U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was quoted as saying Iraq is "going to be a long, hard slog." Sound familiar? It should, because here was then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- four years and one month ago: "It will be a long, hard slog." This thing has been going on for so long, the administration is reusing excuses. The Times also reports "the Bush administration has lowered its expectation of quickly achieving major steps toward unifying the country." Really? I'd say the "quickly" ship sailed four years ago. At this point, it's no longer about quick or not-so-quick, it's about ever or never, as in: will we ever leave Iraq?
This past weekend I heard Georg Will saying that the American public would be willing to accept a lengthy American occupation of Iraq with about 100,000 US troops costing billions of dollars each year. He thought that the expense and loss of American lives would be accepted by the American people. But it's also interesting to note that he also thought that the public would not accept the cost of Social Security and universal health care. Such are Will's priorities and I suspect that they are also the priorities of Republicans.


Tim Matthewson - 11/26/2007

The two American wars in Iraq and Vietnam are playing out much like one another. They both were badly botch by the Pentagon in their early years, but the threat of defeat was staved off for more years by a change in strategy, tactics, and leadership. The leadership of Westmorland gave way to Elliot Abrams and to the policy of Vietnamization of the war, meaning pulling out American troops in anticipation of the presidential election. Now in Iraq, the leadership of the Pentagon has given way to General Patreaus, a reduction of the violence, and to clear signs that the number of troops will be reduced, Iraqization.
The supporters of the war in Iraq sound so optimistic today that it sounds like they are proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Does the reduction of the violent mean that Iraqis have decided on accepting the permanent U.S. occupation of their country? Does the reduction in violence mean that Iraqis have suddenly decided to accept democracy? Or does the reduction in violence mean that American leaders are putting on a concerted campaign to prepare the American people for the '08 elections and that the Republicans are desperate, much like President Nixon in the 1970s,and prepared to do anything to win the presidency and control of the house and senate?
Now we hear the analysis from commentators saying that the US should not have gotten involved in Iraq; it was a mistake, but said commentator also add that they do not know how we can get out. This too is exactly what the supporters of the Vietnam war were saying, and it gives rise to John Kerry's question: How can we ask American soldiers to die for a mistake? How many soldiers should we ask to die to salvage the reputation of George Bush?


Tim Matthewson - 11/26/2007

The two American wars in Iraq and Vietnam are playing out much like one another. They both were badly botch by the Pentagon in their early years, but the threat of defeat was staved off for more years by a change in strategy, tactics, and leadership. The leadership of Westmorland gave way to Elliot Abrams and to the policy of Vietnamization of the war, meaning pulling out American troops in anticipation of the presidential election. Now in Iraq, the leadership of the Pentagon has given way to General Patreaus, a reduction of the violence, and to clear signs that the number of troops will be reduced, Iraqization.
The supporters of the war in Iraq sound so optimistic today that it sounds like they are proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Does the reduction of the violent mean that Iraqis have decided on accepting the permanent U.S. occupation of their country? Does the reduction in violence mean that Iraqis have suddenly decided to accept democracy? Or does the reduction in violence mean that American leaders are putting on a concerted campaign to prepare the American people for the '08 elections and that the Republicans are desperate, much like President Nixon in the 1970s,and prepared to do anything to win the presidency and control of the house and senate?
Now we hear the analysis from commentators saying that the US should not have gotten involved in Iraq; it was a mistake, but said commentator also add that they do not know how we can get out. This too is exactly what the supporters of the Vietnam war were saying, and it gives rise to John Kerry's question: How can we ask American soldiers to die for a mistake? How many soldiers should we ask to die to salvage the reputation of George Bush?