Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

January 18, 2000

The Podhoretz Treatment

"A strong strain of isolationism has run through this country at least since the end of World War I." This conventional opinion launches Norman Podhoretz’s lengthy essay on US foreign policy in the December 1999 issue of Commentary. Entitled "Strange Bedfellows: A Guide to the New Foreign-Policy Debates," it is less a guide and more—as is always the way with Podhoretz—an advertisement for the "neo-conservatives." His reading of recent history is bizarre and tendentious. And his account of today’s debate serves one purpose only: to drum out of this debate anyone critical of the emerging American Empire.

Here’s how the method works: Every time Podhoretz says the word "isolationist" he immediately links it to words with negative connotations. For instance, he at one point declares "Isolationism had always been a close cousin to pacifism." Really? Who is a pacifist? Pat Buchanan? Obviously not. Who then? Podhoretz mentions George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic Party Presidential nominee. But McGovern was a decorated US Air Force pilot in the Second World War. Moreover, he even supported the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution. The word "pacifism" is being used to insult.

Podhoretz never lets facts get in the way of a good yarn. Since nothing short of embarking on a crusade to "make the world safe for democracy" will satisfy him, just about everyone turns out to be an "isolationist." He starts off with the most popular culprits of all: the Republicans who rejected the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations Podhoretz is hardly the first to trot out this tired cliché. A. J. P Taylor dismissed it to rest years ago in The Origins of the Second World War. "American membership in the League," he wrote, "would have been far from an asset to the Allied side. Nor did the action of the Senate imply a retreat into isolation. American policy was never more active and never more effective in regard to Europe than in the nineteen-twenties. Reparations were settled; stable finances were restored; Europe was pacified: all mainly due to the United States." But, of course, the United States had not sought to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Russia or the Junkers in Germany. Therefore, its foreign policy was "isolationist."

The Eisenhower Administration comes in for the Podhoretz treatment as well. Though it created anti-Soviet military alliances all over the world and intervened in innumerable countries to overthrow allegedly "anti-American" leaders, it too was essentially "isolationist." "All the brave rhetoric about a bolder and more heroic ‘rollback’ of Communism and the ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe was exposed as mere bravado," writes Podhoretz, "when the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower stood idly by in 1956 while the Hungarian revolution was being brutally suppressed by Soviet troops." What was Eisenhower supposed to do? Start a nuclear war? Nixon and Kissinger were no good either. They came up with the pusillanimous Nixon Doctrine according to which the United States would help countries defend themselves but not do their fighting for them. To Podhoretz this "represented a reluctant and heavy-hearted bow to what they saw as a new political reality: the determination of the American people never to fight again in distant wars that did not self-evidently have something to do with them." Imagine—not wanting to fight in "distant wars" that do not "self-evidently have something to do with them"! The American people are a truly despicable lot.

The story wends along on its familiar way. "The spirit of isolationism and pacifism…hovered over the face of American political culture from the late 1960’s and up until the election of Reagan in 1980." As with all good melodrama, the arrival of the hero in the nick of time saves the heroine from a fate worse than death. Ronald Reagan proposes SDI and almost immediately the Soviet Union crumbles. "American liberals…ridiculed the very idea of SDI so effectively that to this day no defense against missiles has been fully developed. But the Soviets, far from dismissing the feasibility of such a defense, were terrified of it. They had no doubt that it could be successfully deployed by the United States, and that it would render their entire nuclear arsenal obsolete. Recognizing as well that they had neither the resources nor the technological ability to match us, they embarked under Mikhail Gorbachev on a series of reforms…These reforms blew their whole system apart."

This story has been told and retold often enough. It did not make much sense the first time and makes even less sense today. Podhoretz admits that "to this day no defense against missiles has been fully developed." So why were the Soviets so worried about a plan barely at the draft stage? "They had no doubt that it could be successfully deployed." Since just about everyone in the world entertained doubts on this core, how come the Soviets were so omniscient? Besides, why could the Russians not catch up? They never had problems in the past. Besides, why believe what self-serving former Soviet officials junketing in the US say to their grant-proffering hosts?

With the end of the Cold War, "isolationism and "pacifism" made a comeback—not on the Left, but on the Right. Podhoretz professes himself to be pleasantly surprised by Clinton: He "turned out to be less averse to military power than his past attitudes would have suggested. He authorized continued enforcement by American warplanes of the no-fly zone that was one of the few prices Saddam Hussein had had to pay for his defeat in the Gulf war; he intervened in Somalia; he sent American troops into Bosnia and bombers to Kosovo." Wonderful! But why would anyone be surprised? Liberals have always been the most warlike of creatures. They are determined to reorder the world whether it wants it or not. Attitudes like that tend to get you into wars.

To Podhoretz a new enemy appeared on the scene—Pat Buchanan. He contrasts him unfavorably with Joe McCarthy. "A good deal of the support attracted by Senator Joseph McCarthy," he writes, "was based on the lingering and resentful conviction that, in allying ourselves with Stalin against Hitler in World War II, we had chosen the wrong enemy. In the 50's, after the Holocaust had made the open expression of anti-Semitism taboo in America, McCarthy went out of his way to avoid blaming the Jews along with the Wasps as many right-wing isolationists of the 30's had done. But in the run-up to the Gulf war, some 40 years later, the taboo having by then been weakened, Patrick J. Buchanan suffered from no such inhibition. He all but explicitly accused American Jews of acting on the orders of Israel in trying to drag us into a war against our own interests." This is a typical piece of Podhoretzian dishonesty. Who believed that "we had chosen the wrong enemy"? Lindbergh? He fought against Hitler. As for the preoccupation with the Holocaust, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not an issue in the 1950s. No one in his right mind—certainly not Pat Buchanan—has ever argued that the United States went to war against Hitler on behalf of the Jews! And Buchanan has, of course, never said that "American Jews are acting on the orders of Israel." Podhoretz is very tiresome on this issue. Let us repeat it one more time: Buchanan did not oppose the use of force against Saddam Hussein in 1990. He favored sanctions and the deployment of troops to protect Saudi Arabia.

Podhoretz boasts, that "such magazines as Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and National Review—with daily booster shots from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post" have pressed the case for a "neo-Reaganite" foreign policy. Super! But what is this foreign policy? Podhoretz quotes approvingly an editorial in the New York Post (doubtless written by his son John) which explained "that when a petty thug like Milosevic is told by the United States to ‘cut that out’ and then refuses, the maintenance of our power depends on forcing him to change his mind. This is one of the things we mean when we assert that the proper strategic objective of the United States is ‘to make the world safe for democracy’." So humorless is Podhoretz that he does not even see the absurdity of what he is saying here. A "world safe for democracy," according to him, is one in which the United States tells the elected leader of a country what to do. And if he refuses to follow orders he gets bombed. 

After the publication of Podhoretz’s essay, Commentary solicited a number of responses. They appeared in the magazine the following month. Entitled "American Power—For What?" the symposium was the usual round of "neo-conservative" self-congratulation. Pat Buchanan was, of course, not asked to respond. Critics like Samuel Huntington were noticeably absent. The views expressed were standard fare. To Elliott Abrams, the big problem is China: The "rule by a Communist elite whose interests contradict those of its own people—and ours… items at issue in the ‘possible collision course’ between Washington and Beijing include the survival of Taiwan, the fate of North Korea, the U.S. alliance with Japan, the American naval and troop presence in East Asia, the prospect of a missile-defense umbrella over Japan and Taiwan, and PRC human-rights violations, not least in Tibet." That is a pretty tall order. Interestingly enough, in typically neo-conservative myopic fashion Abrams does not see that on almost all of these issues it is the United States that is forcing the "collision."

To Jeane Kirkpatrick, the big problem is that America is not assertive enough: "Because the United States is the strongest country in the world, more than a few foreign governments and their leaders, and more than a few activists here at home, seek to constrain and control American power by means of elaborate multilateral processes, global arrangements, and UN treaties that limit our capacity both to govern ourselves and to act abroad." Really? Does Rwanda tell the United States what to do?

Charles Krauthammer makes a great show of disagreement by declaring that he has no interest in piddly little interventions: "In an era of relative quiet, you do not run around putting out small fires just because they are the only ones burning. You save your resources for the real strategic threats." And what are these threats? It turns out that they are the old standbys. "First, containing, deterring, and, if necessary, disarming rogue states that are acquiring weapons of mass destruction…Second, containing a rising China…Third, maintaining vigilance against the possibility of a resurgent, revanchist Russia. Fourth, maintaining order as the ultimate guarantor of international peace and stability." In other words, the usual American hegemony.

There is a bigger problem here. The "neo-conservative" dominance is so strong that it really makes no difference who wins the election in November. Bush, McCain, Bradley, Gore—they all see the world merely as a backdrop for American power.

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