'Neo-Isolationist' Is a Useless Label

April 23, 2013 Topic: DefenseHumanitarian InterventionSecurity Blog Brand: The Buzz

'Neo-Isolationist' Is a Useless Label


Victor Davis Hanson’s latest National Review column blasts President Obama for pursuing what he calls a “neo-isolationist foreign policy.” The charges he levels are familiar ones in hawkish critiques of the president: Obama is “leading from behind” and “outsourcing formerly American responsibilities.” His actions “send signals that there is no privilege to be derived from being a supporter of America or its values.”

What is most odd about the piece, however, is how poorly the “neo-isolationist” label appears to fit Obama’s foreign policy—even as Hanson describes it. Consider a few of the events that Hanson covers in his overview of Obama’s first term:


●  The surge in Afghanistan, in which Obama sent an additional thirty thousand troops to that country, temporarily escalating the war with the goal of reversing the Taliban’s momentum.

●  The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, in which “the Obama administration helped to remove the monster in rehabilitation Muammar Qaddafi.”

●  The dramatic escalation of drone strikes across Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, in which “Obama, in one term, may have expanded targeted assassinations by drones tenfold over the tally of the eight-year Bush presidency.”

To state the obvious, this is hardly a record of “neo-isolationism.” That label doesn’t apply even if one grants Hanson all of his other criticisms of Obama—on Syria, Iran, defense spending and so on. It only begins to make sense if your default assumption is that the United States can and should be intervening everywhere, all the time.

The fact is that almost no significant political figure within America’s two major parties holds any views that can fairly be described as “isolationist” or “neo-isolationist.” Democrats and Republicans alike want the United States to have the world’s most powerful military, maintain its alliances and trade with other nations. As I wrote last December, “Hawks and neoconservatives have reduced the term ‘isolationist’ to meaninglessness by applying it to anyone who doesn’t reflexively support using military force to solve every problem around the world.” It may be a convenient rhetorical club for some to beat their opponents with. But as an analytical category, it has become practically useless.