The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Isolating isolationalism

January 23, 2006

Peter Beinart writes in the Washington Post (hat tip: Marc Schulman) about cycles of isolationalism. I tend to cringe whenever I read invocations of “political cycles” in American history, so I was pleasantly surprised to read Beinart’s comment that:

Such theories, of course, lack social scientific rigor; American foreign policy cannot be set to a clock. But cyclical thinking still subtly frames much public discussion. For President Bush, the pendulum swung on Sept. 11, 2001, when a decade of introversion ended and the war on terrorism began. “After the shipwreck of communism,” Bush declared in his second inaugural address, “came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical — and then there came a day of fire.”

It’s not hard to see why this framework appeals to Bush. It equates Bill Clinton with the head-in-the-sand isolationists of the 1930s and demoralized post-Vietnam leaders such as Jimmy Carter. And it makes Bush the heir of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. But over four years after Sept. 11 and almost three years after the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s framework looks increasingly flawed. Historians glancing back at this period of American history will most likely see Sept. 11 not as the beginning of a new foreign policy cycle but as the apex of an old one. And it will be Iraq that marks the turning point — ushering in exactly the isolationist mood that Bush thinks disappeared on that “day of fire.”

Nevertheless, Beinart engages in his own questionable interpretation of empirical evidence. Beinart’s basic problem is that he conflates “isolationalism” with skepticism towards military intervention in peripheries. Thus, he argues that the US is swinging back towards the “isolationalism” that marked the periods after World War I and Vietnam.

Public isolationism has jumped sharply since 2002. Even more striking is the change in elite opinion. According to a recent Pew study, the percentage of security experts who say the United States should be highly assertive around the world has dropped from 75 percent in 1993 to 53 percent today. Among leading scientists and engineers, it has dropped from 55 percent to 32 percent. Among top religious leaders, it has fallen from 57 percent to 36 percent.

It’s not just that a growing number of politicians and commentators want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Even beyond Iraq, the two hottest foreign policy issues of the moment are energy independence and a crackdown on immigration — both efforts to protect America from the world, not to transform it.

And there’s another telltale sign that the pendulum has swung. From the Senate’s defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the attack on the “imperial” presidency in the midst of Watergate and Vietnam, isolationist phases are marked by a reassertion of legislative prerogative. Dick Cheney picked up his mania for executive power in the mid-1970s, when Congress was feeling its oats — passing the War Powers Act, investigating the intelligence community and passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When Bush and Cheney came to power, they aggressively reasserted executive authority. And after Sept. 11, Congress acted more like the Bush administration’s junior partner than an equal branch of government. Cabinet agencies brazenly ignored congressional requests for information, and in 2002 the White House virtually anointed Bill Frist as Senate majority leader.

But in the past six months, as both the country and Washington have grown more isolationist, Congress has come back to life. Disgruntled Republicans forced the White House to withdraw Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Disgruntled Democrats successfully filibustered renewal of the USA Patriot Act. And after giving the Bush administration huge legislative victories in its first four years in office, the House and Senate in 2005 spurned Social Security privatization, the centerpiece of Bush’s second-term domestic agenda. In the words of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, “what you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet.” For Cheney, who began his political career during the last assertion of congressional power, it must be an unhappy case of deja vu.

A quick glance at the history of US intervention in Latin America belies Beinart’s understanding of isolationalism. During the “heyday” of the isolationalism in the inter-war period, the US intervened in Latin America six times. It continued at least three earlier occupations well into the post-war period. In fact, the “isolationalist” sentiments found in the public today are nothing like those that existed in the United States prior to the Second World War. True American isolationalism calls for a near total withdrawal of the United States from international politics outside, at a minimum, the American hemisphere. Whether the US adopts more or less aggressive use-of-force doctrines abroad, favors the use of American troops or proxies, or implements prudent policies designed to secure greater energy independence doesn’t indicate a whole lot about any sort of a “pendulum swing” towards isolationalism. Beinart’s semantic sleight-of-hand becomes obvious when he talks about the Carter and Reagan Presidencies as if they marked an “isolationalist” period.

In many ways the 1980s are better understood as a continuation of the introverted post-Vietnam spirit. It’s true that Reagan sharply boosted defense spending. But when it came to military intervention, the Vietnam hangover severely curtailed his actions. During the Central America fights of the 1980s, Reagan repeatedly promised not to send American troops to Nicaragua or El Salvador, because the public remained viscerally hostile to any significant Third World intervention. He briefly sent Marines to Lebanon in 1982, but withdrew them soon after terrorists attacked their barracks. In fact, by the end of Reagan’s first term, prominent conservatives were despairing over his timidity. He may have talked a good game, noted Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz in 1984, but “in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained . . . in the face of serious opposition, he would usually back down.”

The real pendulum swing came not in 1981 but in 1991, with the Persian Gulf War. America’s war for Kuwait had little in common with its war for South Vietnam: In the Gulf, the world was mostly on America’s side, the objective was clear and the terrain was favorable. Still, Vietnam dominated public debate in the months leading up to the war, far more than it would in 2003, when America again clashed with Saddam Hussein. And in Congress, the vote to authorize the war was far closer. In many ways the Gulf War perfectly illustrated the cyclical foreign policy theory: Only when the case for intervention grew overwhelmingly strong — as it had in the early 1940s and as it did again in the Gulf — did Americans close the door on an isolationist age.

Under no reasonable understanding of the term could Reagan’s Presidency be characterized as “isolationalist.”

Beinart also neglects some rather significant changes in the character of international relations between the middle and late 1980s. The end of the Cold War led to significant changes in the cost-benefit calculous for direct US military intervention abroad. The end of geostrategic competition with the Soviet Union also altered the fundamental stakes of many Third World conflicts for the United States: away from zero-sum competition and towards humanitarian and international public order concerns.

A US invasion of Iraq (a Soviet client), for instance, would’ve been virtually unthinkable in 1985… even if Hussein had attempted to annex Kuwait.

Why does all of this matter? We should, for some of these reasons, be highly skeptical of Beinart’s comparisons between legislative assertiveness (i) after the end of World War I, (ii) after Watergate, and (ii) in the face of growing evidence of Executive neo-imperialism today. We’re probably looking at a lot of loose correlations with very little general causal significance. Alternatively, we may be seeing the unfolding of a general set of underlying processes related to the expansion of Executive power during wartime that have little relation to the kind of “pendulum swings” Beinart identifies.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.