A reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or to bomb or invade North Korea does not make you an “isolationist.” More on that below.
Time Magazine commissioned short pieces for the current issue from John McCain and Zbigniew Brzezinski making the case for and against U.S. military intervention in Syria.
The little whiff of reformism that Syrian President Bashar Assad briefly aspired to represent when he first inherited the job from his monstrous dictator father has long since disappeared. Turns out the son is also a hideous butcher willing to spill unlimited quantities of innocent blood to perpetuate the rule of his minority tribe. Tragically, cases like these are all too common. The question is whether this is a case that justifies U.S. military intervention.
McCain’s piece is almost humorously circular. He says the U.S. vital interests and values are on the table. What interests? What values? Writes McCain: “For America, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests. “
He mentions that the fighting is causing significant suffering, that U.S.-hating terrorist groups are active in Syria, that several U.S. allies are nearby and some (Jordan and Turkey) have already been drawn in by their willingness to accept refugees from the fighting, that the Syrian instability could destabilize the neighborhood and that chemical weapons are in the picture. All true. But these factors are at play in most of the world’s trouble spots and certainly apply to any unrest in the Middle East.
McCain’s enthusiasm for intervention has become sadly predictable over his long public career. A great many of the wars he recommended, certainly including most recently in Iraq, have not turned out as well as he hoped, but he has never acquired the knack of seriously considering whether this might also be true of the next one. He shows little concern about that track record as he advocates using the U.S. military to shape the outcome in Syria — short of “boots on the ground” for now.
In rebuttal, Brzezinski warns bluntly that “the Syrian conflict is a sectarian war in a volatile region whose potential to spread and directly threaten American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention.”
Especially now that Israel has already intervened by bombing weapons sites in Syria, Brzezinski worries that any U.S. military role will reinforce the overall anti-American recruiting argument about America and Israel combining against Arabs. He also mocks the idea of a “tiddlywinks intervention” in which the U.S. could advance its interests without getting fully engaged. He writes:
“To minimize these potential consequences, U.S. military intervention would have to achieve a decisive outcome relatively quickly through the application of overwhelming force. That would require direct Turkish involvement, which seems unlikely given Turkey’s internal difficulties, particularly its tenuous relations with its substantial Kurdish minority.
The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict—no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth—would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario. The only solution is to seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be “persuaded” not to participate.”
Those of us old enough to remember his days as national security advisor don’t think of Brzezinski as any kind of dove. I associate him with mind-numbingly complicated calculations of how everything that might be done influenced the ultimate outcome of the Cold War.
Personally, I appreciate President Obama’s patient, fairly mysterious attitude. My gut feeling is that he wants to be remembered for successfully extracting us from the two wars he inherited and not for getting us involved in a new one unless the reasons are extremely compelling.
I hope the president won’t be guided by polls, but for now, the U.S. public seems to be in sync with his instinct to try to avoid another war. A Rasmussen Poll out yesterday found that 73 percent of Americans hope the U.S. will not get involved in the Syrian civil war.
Last week, a New York Times/CBS poll also investigated how the public was feeling about U.S. military involvement in Syria or North Korea, over its nuclear program. The answer was that big majorities in both cases hope it can be avoided. But what set off my long-ago first sentence about “isolationism” is the way the poll results were characterized by the Times and also in the Strib.
The Strib’s headline on the Times poll read: “Americans feeling isolationist.” The first sentence of the story in the Times “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to U.S. intervention in North Korea or Syria.”
Louis Brown, 50, a poll respondent from Ohio, was held up as the poster child of this isolationism because he “described Syria and North Korea in a follow-up interview as ‘political hotbeds.’ In his view, ‘we don’t need additional loss of American lives right now.’” Apparently, according to the way the Times throws the word around, that makes him an isolationist. Really?
The two poll questions that measured the new “isolationism” went as follows:
“Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn’t the United States have this responsibility?”
Sixty-two percent said that the U.S. does not have this “responsibility,” which is a far cry from saying that the United States should not get involved in helpful ways short of putting U.S. troops’ lives at risk and at a reasonable cost.
On North Korea, the pollsters asked respondents to embrace one of these three attitudes:
1. North Korea is a threat to the United States that requires military action now. (15 percent chose this answer.)
2. North Korea is a threat that can be contained for now. (56 percent said this.)
3. North Korea is not a threat to the United States at this time. (21 percent chose this.)
None of these responses reflects any hint of isolationism in the real meaning of that term.
“Isolationism” actually meant something fairly concrete before World War II. It meant a U.S. policy of having as little as possible to do with the rest of the world, especially “old world” outside of the Americas.
George Washington, who managed to get through his two-terms as president without starting or joining in any international wars and who warned in his farewell address against “entangling alliances,” could be said to have been advocating a policy of “isolationism,” although Washington certainly intended for the United States to have diplomatic relationships with foreign nations.
The deep and powerful resistance to U.S. entry into World War I reflected an element of isolationism. The senators who successfully kept the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I (even though the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, had been the leading figure in the creation of the League) could accurately be described as isolationists and would not have shrunk from the term. The last gasp of a real, serious, widespread isolationist streak in mainstream U.S. policy was represented by the deep reluctance to get the U.S. into World War II until Japan foolishly attacked Pearl Harbor. (Even most isolationists understood that a military attack on U.S. territory could not be ignored.)
If you look up “isolationism” in dictionaries, including modern ones, you will still find the word denoted accurately as, for example “A national policy of abstaining from political or economic relations with other countries,” or “a policy of nonparticipation in or withdrawal from international affairs” or even “a policy of national isolation by abstention from alliances and other international political and economic relations.”
A real isolationist would advocate U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and NATO (either of which could require member states to get involved in joint military actions), and the many bilateral relationships that include a presumption of U.S. military action in the event of an attack on an ally. A properly isolationist nation would avoid such relationships.
A real isolationist would presumably advocate shuttering the dozens of permanent U.S. military installations around the world. A hard-core isolationist would also be discommoded by the many bi- and multi-lateral economic (and perhaps cultural and perhaps environmental) organizations to which the U.S. belongs that presumably also limit its freedom of action.
There may be a few Americans who have that view, but certainly not enough to register much in any poll.