There’s a dangerous idea that’s taken hold of mainstream politicians, media and even voters today that if you don’t support invading other countries and reshaping them to the will of the U.S. government, you’re an “isolationist.”
During a recent GOP presidential debate, Newt Gingrich attacked Ron Paul as an isolationist. Since Gingrich has been employed as a college history professor, you’d think he would have some idea about how dishonest he’s being to score political points. Sometimes it’s hard to say whether people such as Gingrich are ignorant or just dishonest. I suspect it’s dishonesty.
Just because someone doesn’t want to invade other countries, it’s not reasonable to call him an “isolationist.” Reasonably — and more neutrally — he’s a “non-interventionist.” If you’d like to see Paul give an explanation of the difference between isolationism and non-interventionism, check out this five-minute video from four years ago.
If I don’t have any intention of using violence to go into my neighbors’ homes to enforce my will, it doesn’t mean I’m an isolationist. I might want to have good, mutually beneficial relationships with them — for friendship, trade or other things. Declining to attack others who have not attacked you is not “isolationism.”
The fears over so-called isolationism stem from politics before World War II. Some Americans — such as Franklin Roosevelt — wanted to enter the war against Germany, but majority sentiment was strongly against getting involved in Europe’s problems again. Even though Roosevelt couldn’t get enough support to go to war, he did everything in his power to help Britain and other countries fighting Germany, culminating in the Lend-Lease program that started not long before the U.S. entry into the war. The Germans didn’t want to fight the United States, but it was clear which side the U.S. government was on. It was far from neutral.
At the same time, the U.S. government was making itself an enemy of Japan. First, the United States was providing military assistance to the countries Japan was attacking, most notably China. Then in August of 1941, the United States joined in an embargo of oil and steel flowing to Japan. For the Japanese, this was very close to being seen as joining the opposition — joining the war against them. Four months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was drawn fully into the war.
Today, the people who like to attack other countries — neo-conservatives, mostly — like to tell you that it was a U.S. policy of isolationism that drew us into World War II. This is a lie. The U.S. entry into the war was caused by the U.S. government trying to meddle. The interventionists have it exactly backwards. We were drawn into the war because we didn’t remain completely neutral.
It’s not popular to point this out. Since the United States did end up in the war and Japan and Germany came to be considered evil enemies, any pretense of honesty or logic about why the war happened went out the window. People came to consider the war a “good war,” so those who were opposed to it beforehand were criticized.
The people who opposed the war — who demanded strict neutrality — were right. The problem isn’t that we followed their advice. The problem is that the government ignored them and got involved in other countries’ business.
When Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as president, he called for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” (The phrase is frequently misattributed to George Washington.) We have plenty of evidence that entangling ourselves with other countries draws us into wars. It’s time to honestly try Jefferson’s call for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations.”
If two countries are having a dispute, it’s not the job of the U.S. government (or the U.S. taxpayer) to intervene. If you want to go fight on one side or the other, go ahead. You’re on your own. But don’t pretend that you have the right to drag the rest of us into it.
We’re not isolationists. We want interaction with the rest of the world. We just don’t want to attack anybody who hasn’t attacked us. We’re non-interventionists.
Note: This Forbes article does a good job of explaining why interventionism isn’t a conservative position. It’s a good read, even though I disagree with the writer about many of his policy conclusions.