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Have We Turned Into A Nation Of Isolationists?

Being more vigilant about interceding in every problem spot in the world doesn’t make you an isolationist, it makes you a realist.

Earlier this week, an irascible Peter King told NBC’s “Meet The Press” that Senator Rand Paul’s “isolationist positions” were appealing to the “lowest common denominator” of Republicans. Nothing, he alleged, would make the world a more dangerous place than an American foreign policy driven by Charles Lindbergh-like insularity. (Boy, that Lindbergh’s never gonna live it down is he?)

Paul isn’t alone, of course. There’s been an outbreak of imagined “isolationism” across the United States over the past few years. Truth is, Americans have adjusted their expectations. They’re less inclined to support dropping Marines into the Crimean peninsula, the Syrian civil war, or the Libyan whatchamacallit (which we inserted ourselves into militarily, anyway). This obviously means Republicans are also moving towards a more rational and traditional position. Or what Jennifer Rubin incorrectly refers to – a lot — as “the isolationist” right.

This turn should not have been unelected post Iraq. In 2009, we were already hearing that “Isolationism soars among Americans”:

Almost half, 49 percent, told the polling organization that the United States should “mind its own business” internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own, the Pew Research Center survey found. That’s up from 30 percent who said that in December 2002.

In 2013, “Poll Shows Isolationist Streak in Americans”:

Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

In a Washington Post piece last year, focusing on a Pew poll of American global attitudes, claiming that “American isolationism just hit a 50-year high. Why that matters.”

But that’s wrong, as well. Actually, the Pew survey unambiguously points out that Americans aren’t isolationists as much as they are increasingly wary interventionists. “The reticence,” Pew writes, “is not an expression of across-the-board isolationism. Even as doubts grow about the United States’ geopolitical role, most Americans say the benefits from U.S. participation in the global economy outweigh the risks. And support for closer trade and business ties with other nations stands at its highest point in more than a decade.”

For the record, Merriman-Webster defines an isolationism as a:

belief that a country should not be involved with other countries : a policy of not making agreements or working with other countries.

Considering the libertarian strain Rubin and others object to is heavily pro trade, it’s seems odd to throw around the term.  Of course, “non-interventionist” lacks the rhetorical punch of “isolationist.”

So not only is it misleading, we’re doing a real disservice to Charles Lindbergh’s actual ideological progeny –Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan being the two most prominent members. Not only are they reluctant to engage bad characters in geopolitical spats, they have distasteful habit of sounding like they’re supporting the bad characters — sometimes retroactively. But conflating Ted Cruz’s vigilant foreign policy position with Ron Paul’s rigid ideological one is the point, isn’t it?

The bigger problem, as my colleague Ben Domenech points out, is that the Republican debate as presently formulated is a false choice. Do Republicans have to pick between perpetual war or never war? The media focuses on an intra-party squabble between isolationists and neocons, when the more useful fight would pit realists against isolationists and neocons.

What’s achievable in the Ukraine and how far should the United State be willing to go? Have we had this debate? Because I feel like I’ve missed it. Seems to me there’s little if anything we can do about the Russia’s impending annexation of Crimea. Economic sanctions? Offering missile defense to Eastern European nations? Seizing the assets of Putin’s plutocratic buddies? Giving the Ukrainians (who aren’t exactly innocent in this entire affair) more foreign aid? OK. Go for it. The reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea.  That view, it seems, is enough to make me an isolationist. Here’s McCain ripping the GOP for being bad Republicans this week for not moving fast enough to implement sanctions in the Senate:

I will say to my friends who were objecting to this – and there are a number of them on my side – you can call yourself Republicans; that’s fine because that’s your voter registration. Don’t call yourself Reagan Republicans. Ronald Reagan would never – would never – let this kind of aggression go responded to by the American people.

Well, Dan Drezner demolishes McCain’s contention about Reagan.  That’s important. But it’s also important to debunk the idea that conservatives (or even libertarians) have a definitive view on foreign policy. Or that our foreign policy aims look the same today as they did ten years ago. And you don’t have to believe that our post-9/11 interventionism in the Middle East was for oil or that the Bush Administration was plotting to build Empire to believe it was largely a mistake in the end. Readjusting your expectations about American military power doesn’t make you an isolationist; it makes you a realist.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.

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