October 22, 1999


The national discourse is suddenly awash in the sound of a most peculiar word: "Isolationism." For opposing the blackmailing tactics of the United Nations, which is demanding that the US "pay up" its "dues" (a whopping 25 percent of the UN budget, the biggest single share of any country), our pouty President curls his lower lip and denounces the GOP as a bunch of "isolationists." For daring to cut the "foreign aid" budget, whereby Israel, Egypt – and a host of other countries with hugely powerful Washington lobbies – rip off the American taxpayers, the President complains that ''they are saying we don't need our friends or allies." Well, uh, no, not exactly – just because I don't agree to turn over my fortune to my good friend doesn't mean we aren't friends, it just means he needs to get a job – and, perhaps, a life.


Clinton's breathtaking redefinition of friendship as dependence is buttressed with plenty of rhetorical huffing and puffing: "They are betting our children's future on the reckless proposition that we can go it alone, that we should bury our heads in the sand behind a wall." The hysteria unleashed by the President's own personal humiliation in failing to get the CTBT through the Senate is reflected in the frothy-mouthed fulminations of his personal attack dogs: both Mad Madeleine Albright and Democratic strategist James Carville have lately taken to the airwaves with the dire warning that the Republicans have been taken over by – you guessed it – a cabal of evil "isolationists." The imprecision of the President's language – not to mention his unfortunate penchant for mixed metaphors: no one buries his "head in the sand behind a wall" – is matched only by the hysteria and confusion of the nation's talking heads, who are similarly unclear on the concept of "isolationism."


The confusion was encapsulated in a recent Chicago Tribune editorial [October 20, 1999] that asserted "there is no evidence that America has entered a period of isolationist withdrawal from the global arena – or that it could. This isn't the 1930s." Americans, the Tribune insists, "invest and buy more abroad that anyone." Well, bully for them – but what does any of this have to do with not paying our UN "dues" or refusing to shovel money into some Third World hellhole? The answer: exactly nothing. It is logically consistent, and entirely possible, for an advocate of utterly unfettered trade to espouse the foreign policy of the Founders of this country, that is, peaceful relations with all, entangling alliances with none – oh yes, they too were among the dreaded "isolationists." The intrigues of Europe, said George Washington, "are essentially foreign to our concerns," and therefore "the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." Washington understood the difference between commerce and imperialism, even if the Chicago Tribune does not.


It wasn't always so. The Tribune, once known as "the world's greatest newspaper" – a maxim that for years graced its masthead – under its indomitable publisher, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, was once the fiery "Thunderer of the Prairies," the voice of Midwestern opposition to American involvement in two world wars. The paper's editorial support for the old America First movement to keep us out of World War II provoked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into all kinds of schemes to undermine the Tribune's influence McCormick stood like a rock against the cabal of New Dealers and foreign lobbyists who lied us into war. It is in the files of the old Tribune, ironically enough, that the best answer to the new Tribune's isolationist-bashing is to be found. On September 19, 1943, the Tribune published a very different editorial, Garet Garrett's "The Mortification of History" – a title that perfectly describes the tenor and direction of the current debate about "isolationism" and the origins of World War II.


I often think, in rereading his works, that Garrett – a prolific writer and an editor of the Saturday Evening Post in its heyday – was blessed with a kind of second vision, a prophetic sense that allowed him to see history before it unfolded. As the Russian Mafia squirrels away US taxpayers' dollars in Swiss bank accounts, the Clintonians demand yet more to "safeguard" the old Soviet nuclear arsenal from being sold off to Osama bin Laden – and the "international community" condemns Republican "isolationism" for failing to come up with enough to pay the ransom – these words of Garrett's come to mind:

"If you say, 'I am first of all an American,' you have to be careful. It may be misunderstood. You might have said, 'I am for America first.' And the American who says that will be denounced in his own country and by his own government. That is not enough, He will be denounced also in Great Britain, Russia, and China, all accusing him of being one thing: he is an isolationist."


Who are these isolationists, says the Tribune of today, but "a few extremists" (that's us!) while the rest of the country glories in globalism. But not so fast. The "bipartisan consensus for an active foreign policy to protect vital U.S. interests abroad" the Tribune editorial writers would have us believe is safely ensconced and unchallenged was strangely missing during the Kosovo war, when a Republican Congress refused to go along. The whole post-Cold War trend of conservative thought in the foreign policy realm is away from the aggressive internationalism of the Reagan era and toward something closer to the original vision of the Founders. But what can an editorial writer for the Tribune of the 1990s be expected to know about such an arcane subject? One thing is for sure: they don't make Tribune editorialists the way they used to.


Oh, all right, then, let's get down to brass tacks – and the reality that there are no isolationists in the sense that both Clinton and the Tribune evoke: the US is not the Hermit Kingdom of Japan, and never even came close. As both Garrett and, more recently, Patrick J. Buchanan, have argued, there was never any such creature as an American isolationist, not in the sense of what the word seems to imply. From Manifest Destiny to the Monroe Doctrine to the commercial and cultural expansion that has been a national leitmotif since our nation's birth, the history of America refutes this modern mythology.


The isolationist bogeyman, then, is a straw man. For not paying the world's bills, not carrying the UN on our shoulders, and failing to lift every nation out of poverty and ethnic strife, the Republicans stand accused of being isolationists. "But what is that?" – asked Garrett, all those years ago:

"An isolationist is one who is said to have sinned against the peace and well being of the whole world. He is held responsible for the necessity of now to mortify American history by rewriting it to a theme of guilt and atonement."


Atonement and guilt – for our wealth, our power, our freedom, our very existence: and the burden of Empire is our punishment. We must bail out the Russians, the Mexicans, the East Timorese and the UN, but never think of ourselves. That would be selfish, and so awfully contrary to the aristocratic spirit of noblesse oblige that our elites inherited from their British predecessors. In the era of political correctness, the exhortation to "take up the White Man's burden" has new resonance and a new rationale.


No, there never was anything that could legitimately and fairly be called "isolationism" flourishing on American soil, said Garrett, but "if you say of this history that its intense character has been nationalistic, consistently so from the beginning until now, that is true. Therefore, the word in place of isolationism that would make sense is nationalism. Why is the right word avoided?"


Why, indeed: I think Garrett, a veteran of the ideological wars since the 1920s, knew perfectly well why the coiners of this misbegotten label would rather not define just what is was they were denouncing as the root of all evil in the world. As he put it:

"The explanation must be that the wrong one, for what it is intended to do, is the perfect political word. Since isolationism cannot be defined, those who attack it are not obliged to define themselves. What are they? Anti-isolationists? But if you cannot say what isolationism is neither can you say what anti-isolationism is, whereas nationalism, being definite, has a positive antithesis. One who attacks nationalism is an internationalist."


In the Autumn of 1943, when the Tribune was at the height of its glory as the watchdog of American sovereignty and the voice of the Old Right, the appellation of "internationalist" repelled and even outraged any ordinary person. The word itself had a sinister ring to it, because only the Communists, of one sort or another, used to go around hailing the virtues of "internationalism" and singing their anthem, appropriately entitled "The Internationale." Then, to be called an internationalist was an accusation: today, at least among our elites, it is taken as a high compliment.


Look at how casually Strobe Talbott announces that "nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority.'' These people look forward to the day that America is a relic of the past, in the same category as the horse-and-buggy, the hoop skirt, and the Constitution. (This last will still be preserved under glass, but deemed a dead letter formally as well as de facto.)


Unfortunately, this is not an aberration confined exclusively to the Clintonistas and the Democratic party. The fruits of our great "victory" over Communism are that, today, the leadership of both parties is now engaged in a contest to see who is the most internationalist. As the Investor's Business Daily [October 21, 1999] recently informed us, "Clinton's brand of internationalism isn't the only kind. Voters next year may have a choice between two types."


Oh, for joy! A "choice" between two varieties of the same poison: isn't democracy wonderful? The IBD piece also perceptively notes that the Anti-Buchanan Brigade in the Republican Party "did their best to convince voters that 'isolationism' is bad. Now the White House is using the same brush to tar the GOP." Oh no, not us, the Republicans cry. We have our own brand of internationalism that is far superior to the Clintonian concept. More hardheaded, more realistic and tough-minded, theirs is internationalism absent the vapid sentimentalism so typical of the "we are the world" generation. George W. Bush is likened by one advisor to be "Reaganeseque" in his foreign policy views, and avers that "''he is the true inheritor of a vigorous, pro-defense, internationalist Reagan position. He is the person to build on that legacy."


But John McCain is also vying for the prize of Mr. Internationalist. As the chief antagonist of the Buchananite heresy, he has become the poster boy of the "strategic interest" internationalists. As Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, put it, McCain "takes a much less messianic, a much less broad and promiscuous definition of American security interests than the Clinton administration." A former McCain advisor describes him as "somebody who focuses on America's strategic interests rather than on some highly idealistic view of what the world should be." But what does it matter if McCain and Clinton came to the same conclusion, in Kosovo, via different routes? McCain supported Clinton's war, and indeed was more royalist than the king. his critique of the Clintonian war strategy – and McCain was, you remember, given hours upon hours of prime time television to express it – was that the President should have unleashed the ground troops and gone in there with guns blazing.


But this vague invocation of the "national interest" covers a lot of bases, and as we veer away from what is alleged to be the "pragmatic" and "moderate" center, represented by McCain, we come to the ostensibly "conservative" view, articulated, in the IBD article, by John Lenczowski, director of the Institute for World Politics, who addresses the question of what are our national interests directly: "It shouldn't simply be commerce uber alles," he opines. "However important commerce is, it's not the highest national interest." Well, then, what is? We never get an answer to this perfectly reasonable question, however, as Lenczowski veers off in another direction, warning of "the neutralization of traditional Republican business constituencies" by China. "One of the great challenges for national leadership is to be able to put the national interest above the particular commercial interests that have been harnessed into the pro-Communist lobby in Washington."


Again, we see the appeal to noblesse oblige – a sentiment that sank the British Empire and will eventually topple our own with the sheer weight of its overweening hubris. But the conservatives are impatient with tin-pot dictators like Slobodan Milosevic: they long for a real enemy, one that requires a massive military buildup – and the subsequent enrichment of the arms industry, certain financial institutions, and a news media that thrives on perpetual war and constant "crisis." In lieu of the old Soviet Union, Lenczowski and the "right" wing of the War Party have been somewhat at a loss, but now seem to have decided that, at least for the moment, China will just have to do.


And so we have a "choice": between two versions of internationalism, between two sets of enemies, between two visions of Empire. One is an "idealistic," "democratic" and "multicultural" imperium that nonetheless is ready to strike out at those who defy its moral authority, as the Serbian people can attest. The other is a frankly imperial world order, dominated by the US and its "national interests" – as defined by a "President" with more power than any Roman Emperor.


This is the extent of the "choice" we are given in a political game in which the rules are rigged and the special interests rule. The bipartisan foreign policy "consensus" celebrated by the Tribune of the 1990s has been in the driver's seat since the end of World War II. Now, with the end of the Cold War, it may be that, finally, the American people will have a choice, or at least be allowed to give voice to the true spirit of their history – not isolationism but an authentic American nationalism.


Pat Buchanan has been the most eloquent and certainly the most audible, spokesman for this view, – but he is far from alone. Opposition to internationalism run amok, and the desire to return, at long last, to the foreign policy of the Founders, is the inevitable result of the end of the Cold War. It is not isolationism, but a new nationalism which is sweeping the country That it is threatening the hegemony of the two-party monopoly is cause for celebration, and hope. Yet, it is vitally important for antiwar activists to understand that political candidates and movements will come and go, but the forging of a real rebellion against both wings of the War Party requires a long-term perspective. Can we build a movement that has the support, the leadership, and the strategy to beat the War Party and secure the future of our liberties?


Education is the key – and that is our mission, after all, the reason we work on Antiwar.com day and night to bring you news of the war plans of our rulers each morning. We are building a movement that is truly nonpartisan in that it goes way beyond the existing parties, and will ultimately transcend the traditional categories of "left" and "right" – which, unlike the concept of national sovereignty, really is outdated. But we'll leave that subject for a future column.

Check out Justin Raimondo's article, “China and the New Cold War”

“Behind the Headlines” appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with special editions as events warrant.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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