SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the United States has damaged its reputation and national security by lurching from one war to the next. Afghanistan, which began triumphantly for the Bush administration, has devolved into a protracted and inconclusive war in which the Taliban is making fresh inroads as American and allied forces hand over security to the Afghan army. Then there is Iraq. It was purveyed by the Bush administration to the American public as a mission that could be accomplished swiftly and smoothly. Neither occurred. Since then, President Obama’s self-styled humanitarian intervention in Libya has led to instability, allowing local militias, among other things, to pretty much bring the oil industry to a standstill by disrupting major export terminals. Most recently, it looked as though Syria might be Libya all over again—an American president embarks on an uncertain crusade, and Britain and France join to provide the necessary diplomatic persiflage for justifying a bombing campaign.
But this time a funny thing happened on the familiar path to war. The British parliament, scarred by memories of Tony Blair’s bogus campaign for war in Iraq, just said no. A similar development occurred on Capitol Hill. Though Secretary of State John Kerry declared that this was a “Munich moment,” no conversion on the road to Damascus took place in the House and Senate. Instead, antiwar Democrats and conservative Republicans made common cause. Faced with a congressional vote in the House and Senate that likely would have been the most humiliating presidential rebuff since Woodrow Wilson lost the League of Nations vote in 1919, Obama pivoted. He acceded to a Russian proposal for a diplomatic solution that may have preserved not only the peace, but also his presidency.
So habituated have America’s media and foreign-affairs elites become to intervening abroad, however, that a chorus of liberal hawks and neoconservatives is decrying what it sees as a resurgence of nasty isolationist sentiments. The New York Times’ Bill Keller, who previously championed the Iraq War, wrote, “America is again in a deep isolationist mood.” After Obama signed off on the agreement with Russia, Richard Cohen fumed in the Washington Post, “Because of Obama’s fecklessness—abetted by a Congress that has turned darkly isolationist—the world is now a less safe place.” And in the Wall Street Journal, the neoconservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote: “The Syria debate is also exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple.”
Actually, it isn’t. Questioning intervention in Syria is not tantamount to a reversion to the most blinkered isolationist sentiments that percolated on both the right and left before Pearl Harbor. Rather, it represents something else—a healthy and sensible and overdue embrace of prudent foreign-policy principles that have, more often than not, been scanted in recent decades.
A GLANCE back at the history of isolationism helps to clarify what is not at stake today. For likening the contemporary controversy over Syria to the one over World War II obscures more than it reveals. Though there were undoubtedly anti-Semitic conservatives on the isolationist side, its adherents, as both Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn show in recent books, ranged across the political spectrum, with such future liberal stalwarts as Kingman Brewster and Sargent Shriver joining the movement. The debate over intervention was not always as irrational as it might seem in retrospect. The burden of proof, given America’s long-standing detachment, was on those who wanted to make the case for intervention. Nor is this all. Though it often tends to be forgotten, the ferocious debate over entering World War II did serve a valuable purpose. Absent that debate Franklin Roosevelt would not have had a unified country behind him as he battled the Germans and Japanese.
The antipathy toward intervention was largely rooted in bitter disappointment with the outcome of World War I, when the punitive Treaty of Versailles flouted the idealistic principles that Woodrow Wilson had enunciated in his Fourteen Points. Instead of ending conflict, the Great War, as it was known, only seemed to prepare the ground for the next one. There was thus vigorous opposition to entry on both the left and right. Many worried that U.S. participation in yet another war would transform the country itself into a dictatorship. As Sidney Hook observed in his memoir Out of Step, Wilson’s own draconian restrictions on civil liberties during World War I, which included the imprisonment of socialist leader Norman Thomas and the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 that the Obama administration is currently exploiting to silence government whistle-blowers, left a lasting mark:
The recollection of the reign of terror against political dissenters and radical aliens . . . swept the country in the wake of World War I. Members of the Socialist Party, which had heroically resisted giving support to that war, had very vivid memories of the mob action and official lawlessness of those years. Thoroughly exposed and denounced in the twenties and thirties, the terror was fresh in everyone’s memory.