The Corner

Stop With The Isolationism Stuff Already

Maybe it’s just another one of my obsessions, but I do wish allegedly objective reporters would stop using the word “isolationist.” I’d also like pundits and politicians to stop using it, it too. But that may be a lost cause.

Some reporters say that they’re using isolationist as a descriptive label, not as a pejorative term. This is nonsense. First of all, it simply is a pejorative term. But, if it’s not a pejorative term, how come nobody ever uses it to describe liberals who often want to intervene far less than conservatives do?

Here’s the Washington Post yesterday in a front page news story about Obama’s tough sell on Capital Hill:

Aware of the growing bloc of Republican isolationists, senior GOP aides warned Sunday that a large number of Democrats will have to support the use-of-force resolution for it to have any chance. Advisers in both parties described the measure as a “vote of conscience” that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will not be lobbying lawmakers to support.

What about the equally, and often far more passionate non-interventionists and doves among the Democrats? Are they not isolationists? Why not? If you say it’s because historically isolationism is a purely right-wing phenomenon, then you’re admitting you don’t know what you are talking about. Also, why is isolationism only about military strikes? What about trade? Immigration? If you throw that stuff into the mix, libertarians are far less isolationist than most Americans, and yet libertarians are supposedly the heart of this new isolationism. How strange.

I covered a lot of this in a column last month (and in the magazine years ago) before the Syria controversy exploded. But in the context of the Syria debate, the term is particularly absurd. There are a great many hawks, interventionists, internationalists – pick a term that means something other than isolationist – who don’t want to attack Syria at all or certainly not on the terms being offered by this White House. Are, say, John Bolton, Don Rumsfeld, or Charles Krauthammer now isolationists? Marc Thiessen makes a good argument today that a feckless strike on Syria that is just serious enough not to be mocked would be a disaster. Is Thiessen an isolationist? If so, we are now in Crazy Pants Land.

Timothy Carney’s sarcastic definition comes to mind: “Isolationist: n. Someone who, on occasion, opposes bombing foreigners.” I’d phrase it slightly different. An isolationist is someone who doesn’t want to bomb foreigners when I do.

That at least is the way it’s used in Washington these days by a lot of pundits, politicians and reporters in favor of striking Syria. The problem with this kind of argument is that it leaves no room for disagreement about tactics, policy, etc.  Can’t you just think it’s a bad idea without being an “isolationist”?

Oh and for what it’s worth, I’m actually in favor of striking Syria – if it’s a serious effort rather than just an exercise in face-saving for Obama that will arouse even more contempt from our friends and enemies alike. If that makes me an isolationist, I guess I’m an isolationist too.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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