Politics & Policy

“Isolationism!” They Cried

Mainstream journalists misunderstand conservatives (big surprise)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 10, 2006, issue of National Review.

It was a typical New York Times article. Among the themes: Iraq is a disaster; it’s the neocons’ fault; the GOP is flirting once more with its dark addiction to “isolationism”; proof that George W. Bush is growing in office can be found in his realization that Bill Clinton’s policies were right; and so on. There was only one problem with the page-one story by David E. Sanger titled “A Bush Alarm: Shun Isolation”: It was a pile of nonsense.

#ad#According to Sanger, Bush has been blindsided by an “unexpected uprising” among newly isolationist neoconservatives. This “rising chorus of neo-conservatives, who urged Mr. Bush to topple Mr. Hussein, say that, having liberated Iraq, the rest is up to the Iraqis.” What neoconservatives did Sanger have in mind? Well, he names only one, presumably the ringleader: William F. Buckley Jr. But the inconvenient fact is that WFB isn’t a neoconservative and never urged Bush to topple Saddam Hussein. Moreover, there is no “uprising.” Of the major neoconservatives who “urged” the Iraq war–Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Reuel Mark Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Eliot Cohen, Paul Wolfowitz, Fouad Ajami–none has called for bugging out. They’ve offered criticisms, to be sure, but not of an isolationist flavor. Nor have the more traditional or mainstream conservative outlets, including this magazine, offered such an opinion. In other words, WFB was ascribed to a rebellious movement he never belonged to–and which isn’t rebelling. But other than that Sanger got it just right.

Well, not really. The flaw in Sanger’s analysis runs deeper than an error in ideological taxonomy. Here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind when studying the history of American foreign-policy debates in the 20th and 21st centuries. When liberals don’t want to do something on the international scene that conservatives favor, it’s because liberals are any of the following: prudent, pragmatic, realistic, idealistic, peace-loving, clear-eyed, moral, restrained, or all of the above. When conservatives don’t want to commit to a liberal foreign-policy agenda, there’s one catchall word: isolationist. And even when conservatives subscribe to the same foreign-policy agenda as liberals, they’re doing it for isolationist reasons…

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