YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 26, 2012

Responding to neo-isolationists

Illustrated: Theo Van Gogh, assassinated filmmaker, as seen in Amsterdam Museum slide show

What follows is a guest blog by Phillip Smyth,  journalist and researcher. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, Haaretz, Middle East Review of International Affairs, and PJ Media.

Phillip Smyth

Lately, the terms “noninterventionism” and “isolationism” have been thrown around like a baby seal between two rambunctious orcas. The roots of these two terms finding their way back into American political discourse have much to do with the rise and spread of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and his quasi-libertarian ideology.

Often, Paul’s foreign policy is termed “noninterventionism”— A policy that encourages free trade but also encourages the U.S. to abandon military engagements, bases, and engage in a policy of noninterference with any foreign state’s affairs.

However, noninterventionism is little more than a rehashing of isolationist principles. Instead of the promised prosperity and peace, the policy would result in little more than further problems for the United States.

Over a small period of time, I’ve noticed that those followers of what could be termed, neo-isolationism have developed a number of arguments defending their views. They range from the benefits of their strategy for trade, reasons why their ideological belief is not isolationism, attempts to connect “noninterventionism” with America’s founding fathers, together with a revisionist view, supportive of neo-isolationism when dealing with enemies we face today. It’s my hope that through this writing some of these neo-isolationist’s myths will be dispelled.

Isolationism By Any Other Name

Noninterventionism actually finds its roots in libertarian ideology—Namely the work of John Stuart Mill and latter day anarchists operating under the banner of libertarianism–called anarcho-capitalists. Far from being, in the words of Ron Paul, “The Original American Foreign Policy”, this form of isolationism was simply an anarcho-capitalist ideological concept rebranded as “noninterventionism”.

Serving as the ideological godfather for anarcho-capitalist thought, Murray Rothbard was–even before Ron Paul stood on the political stage–an ardent advocate for isolationism. In terms of influence, Rothbard was the most important element in developing the contemporary push for isolationism-as-noninterventionism in the United States.

Rothbard’s influence was particularly heavy on Ron Paul and the set of ideologues that would later come to push neo-isolationism. Rothbard described Paul as, “that rare American, and still rarer politician, who deeply understands and battles for the principles of liberty.” In an obituary Paul wrote for the late Rothbard, Paul felt that, “With his death, all who cherish individual rights and oppose the welfare -warfare state, are  the  poorer…one of the most fascinating human beings I’ve ever met…[A] down-to-earth genius.”

Even today, Paul is proud of his protégé status vis a vis Rothard; hanging  Rothbard’s photograph on his congressional office’s wall and posting quotes from him on his official congressional website.

In 1959 Rothbard wrote an unpublished piece for the National Review entitled, “For A New Isolationism”. In the piece Rothbard proudly proclaims the need for the United States to re-adopt isolationism (especially in military and foreign affairs) but still trade with friend and foe alike:

The basis of all trade is benefit to both parties. There is no need for the traders to like each other for each to gain by the trade. There is no reason, therefore, why the Communists, even if in charge of most of the world, would not be willing to trade with us, just as they are willing and eager to trade now.

Rothbard expanded on this further in a 1973 interview:

“[Isolationism is] [i]n other words, complete abstinence from any kind of American military intervention and political and economic intervention… abstinence from government intervention. It was the idea of isolationism. The sneer against isolationism always was that isolationists were parochial, narrow-minded characters who don’t know that there is a world out there and want to hide their heads in the sand. In fact it’s the opposite – the true principle of isolationism is that the government should be isolated, the government should do nothing abroad and people who trade, interchange, and engage in voluntary travel, migration, and so forth should be allowed to peacefully do so. The idea is to isolate the government, not to isolate the country.

By the early 1980s, Rothbard started placing isolationism in quotes and instead utilized the term “noninterventionism”. Even Rothbard’s wiki-entry for the Ludwig von Mises Institute (the primary think-tank for anarcho-capitalists) sidelines his fervent isolationism, placing it under the header of “noninterventionism”. This tactic was followed up by a number of articles by his ideological allies attempting to disassociate isolationism from noninterventionism. Nevertheless, despite the change of terminology, the main ideas originally set forth by Rothbard were retained.

In essence, Rothbardian isolationism is the same exact policy Ron Paul and other so-called “noninterventionists” propose; A policy of “free trade with all” but sans any form of foreign engagement. Paul states:

Noninterventionism is not isolationism. Nonintervention simply means America does not interfere militarily, financially, or covertly in the internal affairs of other nations. It does not mean that we isolate ourselves; on the contrary, our founders advocated open trade, travel, communication, and diplomacy with other nations.”

The Founder’s Interventionism

For many neo-isolationists, they believe that America must “return” to a “noninterventionist” foreign policy. Only then will the United States be free from attack, confusing overseas engagements, and see a new prosperity.

Yet, this belief is predicated on a mistaken belief that America’s founding fathers only practiced this foreign policy. Normally, these assertions are backed-up by cherry-picked quotations by the founders.  Perennial favorites include a line from George Washington’s farewell address, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world” and another line from Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none.”

Writing for The Future of Freedom Foundation, neo-isolationist Gregory Bresiger noted when, “Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1801, he, too, paid homage to Washington’s foreign-policy advice. Jefferson, despite his differences with the Federalists, promised no ‘entangling alliances.’ Isolationism, or non-interventionism, was, for a short time, the established policy of the United States.”

However, Bresiger’s view, along with those of his ideological allies, is largely a myth.

George Washington was hardly a noninterventionist. During the Revolution, Washington and the Continental Congress attempted to incorporate Canada into the United States. When French Canadians didn’t respond to congressional invitations to join the thirteen colonies, Washington opted to militarily conquer the entity.[1]

As president, speaking to his understanding of protecting what were considered American interests (e.g. fear of wide scale slave revolts in the United States), Washington “advanced France $726 million in debt payments and sold arms to the planters” in the French colony of Saint Dominigue (Haiti) in 1791.  Both Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton supported the decision to “interfere” in what many a neo-isolationist would consider a French problem.

In 1823, Founding father James Monroe along with John Quincy Adams, son of founding father and second president John Adams, conceived of The Monroe Doctrine. The Doctrine restricted European powers from influencing or attempting to recolonize either North or South America. To the doctrinaire neo-isolationist, America setting policy for, or extending a security umbrella to South America would be unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson’s war against Barbary pirates in North Africa is another regularly cited example regarding the anti-isolationism of the founding fathers. Of course, the attack against the Barbary pirates subverted the recognized Ottoman authority over these states, thus breaking a cardinal rule of “nonintervention” for many a neo-isolationist. It also involved America entering into an alliance with Sweden.

However, the additional gritty details of how this war was executed and the very “interventionist” nature of the campaign against the pirates, is often forgotten. Not only did Jefferson go against adopting the isolationist position, he instead opted for a tactic many would ascribe to modern-day leaders: A military coup to gain a strategic ally. Historian John Carter notes Jefferson’s “interventionist” approach:

“…in the summer of 1801 James Cathcart, the U.S. consul to Tripoli, presented Secretary of State James Madison with a proposal to attempt to overthrow the Pasha’s government. As Cathcart explained, his plan called for enlisting the assistance of the Pasha’s older brother and rival for political power, Hamet Karamanli. Hamet was living in exile in the neighboring Barbary State of Tunisia. Cathcart proposed that an American military effort could be masked by Hamet’s participation to appear to be merely a local political uprising. If the action succeeded in replacing the Pasha with his brother, then America would gain an important ally in the Mediterranean region. Cathcart had already instructed the American consul at Tunis, an adventurer named William Eaton, to explore the depth of Hamet Karamanli’s political ambition for the throne of Tripoli as well as to make an assessment of the sort of resources that might be necessary to mount a coup…the administration paid Hamet a stipend of $2000 in 1802…In the end Jefferson settled on a two track diplomatic initiative that employed both a limited use of American naval force in the region and Cathcart’s covert plan for a coup to put Hamet Karamali on the throne.”[2]

Now juxtapose Jefferson’s (and the Seventh U.S. Congress’s) 1801 strategy with comments by Ron Paul about current situations.

Regarding Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, an American ally hardly “installed” by Washington, but supported for the sake of regional stability and furthering American interests:

[T]hey’re [the Egyptian people] upset with us for propping up that puppet dictator for all those years. Now to add insult to injury, where do you think the money went? To Swiss bank account, that family, the Mubarak family had $40, 50, 60 billion–nobody knows–stashed away in other countries, other areas of your money and that is true.

In relation to the U.S. War in Afghanistan and the 1953 British and American organized coup in Iran:

We already hear plans to install and guarantee the next government of Afghanistan…nation building is quite another. Some of our trouble in the Middle East started years ago when our CIA put the Shah in charge of Iran.

If anything, it would seem that the neo-isolationists are actually out of step with the pragmatic, interest-based, and at times “interventionist” foreign policy established by the founding fathers.

Isolationism & America’s Interests

Pulling American forces out of our numerous overseas bases and engagements is another policy goal for neo-isolationists. Many of these isolationists speculate that if the United States suddenly pulled its forces back from every foreign base and slashed defense budget costs, the global engine of trade would not only keep running, but would actually be kicked into high gear. [3]

However, this ignores historical and contemporary reality. In an piece covering the importance of a strong American military and need for power projection to protect American trade interests, Marion Smith notes, “Their [the neo-isolationists] mistake lies in thinking that commerce and security are separate issues. Nothing could be more at odds with the experience of American statecraft.”

Many neo-isolationists believe American influence on other powers is illegitimate. Yet with the removal of American forces to project power over key players, one of the great checks on stability and conflict would actually be removed.

Take the case of Israel countering Iran’s nuclear program. In the words of Ron Paul, if Israel attacked Iran, “That’s their business, but they should suffer the consequences.” The same concept could be applied to any military action by any state. It’s not America’s business, we should continue trading with both parties, and all will be well.

The fact of the matter is that in our globalized environment with its vast interconnections, it’s not simply “their business”.  Regional actors’ actions would have a direct effect on the U.S. Simply consider the variety of American interests in the Middle East, namely oil. Needless to say, the U.S. is a country reliant on cheap oil and a disruption would be quite costly.

Michael C. Lynch of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, told the NY Times, “If we get some kind of explosion — like an Israeli attack or some local Iranian revolutionary guard decides to take matters in his own hands and attacks a tanker — than we’d see oil prices push up 20 to 25 percent higher and another 50 cents a gallon at the pump”.

The price of oil and gas in the U.S. is often driven by speculation. With the possibility of increased regional war and terrorism, the risk would only grow.  Imagine what a Persian Gulf security vacuum would look like without the American security umbrella, how an empowered OPEC oil cartel might toy with international oil prices, or what emboldened irredentist entities might attempt in the Persian Gulf’s strategic waterways. Certainly, free-trade abroad and economic prosperity at home would be directly altered.

An even bigger question is which powers would take over the U.S. role? Oil starved China? Would there be a litany of small navies often battling one another for hegemony? Anarchic conditions may also exist to the detriment of international trade. One only needs to review how Somali pirates (regularly checked by U.S. and other fleets) plague trade routes.

Many neo-isolationists believe American influence on other powers is illegitimate. Yet with the removal of American forces to project power over key players, one of the great checks on stability and conflict would actually be removed.

Neo-Isolationists & Jihad

Intertwined with the issue of pulling out American forces from many global engagements, is our war against radical Islamism in Afghanistan and across the globe. As witnessed among the Sunni jihadists of al Qaida and the Shia Islamist theocratic regime in Iran, there is no denying that the numerous forms of messianic Islamism exist as coherent ideologies. What is more, is the jihadist worldview, one that it is locked in an existential battle against the United States and the West.[4]

Often, neo-isolationists will pin blame on Islamist attacks against the West by stating they were due to Western occupation. Rothbardian and Ron Paul backer, Professor Walter Block went so far as to say, “Terrorists do not put us in the cross hairs because we have rock music, mini-skirts and freedom.”

Yet time and time again, through Islamist discourse, it can be seen that concerns over military occupation(s) hardly encompass the entire picture. Disgust with Western lifestyles, freedoms, and the denial by many of those living in the West of accepting Islam served as extremely potent motivations for conflict.

In the words of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “So long as the American empire based in the White House has not been overthrown, we have work to do.”

In fact, the very policy of unilateral withdrawal simply emboldens our Islamist enemies. Osama bin Laden himself cited the examples of the U.S. pullout from Beirut (due to a Hizballah bomb attack in 1983) and the Somali “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993 as proof that Americans were cowardly and needed to be attacked more.

When America pulled its Marines out of Lebanon following the bombing by the Iranian backed Shia Islamist Hizballah, a spate of additional bombings, hijackings, and kidnappings of Westerners and Western targets ensued.

In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh wasn’t assassinated in retaliation for Western occupation, but for “insulting Islam”. Danish cartoonists who depicted pictures of Mohammed with a bomb fashioned to his head were threatened with death. This also resulted in radical Islamists targeting Denmark.  In 2008 Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the number two in al-Qaeda threatened Denmark:

“Denmark has done her utmost to demonstrate her hostility towards the Muslims by repeatedly dishonouring our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation. I admonish and incite every Muslim who is able to do so to cause damage to Denmark in order to show your support for our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation, and to defend his esteemed honour. We prefer to live underground [i.e. dead] rather than accepting the limited response of boycotting Danish dairy products and goods.”

One month after the statement, a car bomb exploded outside of Denmark’s embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Eight were killed.

Essentially, the simple and very libertarian exercise of freedom of speech prompted the attacks. These individuals and the very societal norms they embraced were seen as threats by Islamists.

NOTES.


[1]See: Gustave Lanctôt, Canada & the American Revolution, 1774-1783, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1967).

[2] John J. Carter, Covert Operations As A Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy In American History From 1800 To 1920: Foreign Policy In The Shadows, (New York, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), P.23.

[3] Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto, (New York,Grand Central Publishing, 2008), pp. 56-57.

[4] My own article for the Daily Caller has other examples. See: http://dailycaller.com/2011/02/21/ron-pauls-poor-policy-and-poorer-defenders/

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