My Very Intelligent 17-Year Old is an Isolationist

"Dad, the more I study American history, I can't figure out why America has not been more isolationist," my daughter, exasperated, exclaimed to me yesterday. She cited as examples of baffling U.S. perfidy the Korean and Vietnam wars. I could only say to her that I wish I had been that intelligent at age 17.

The rollout of daily events makes it increasingly more easy to see how America could have dramatically benefited both the world and itself had it been politically and militarily isolationist for the last 100 years. Because we weren't isolationist, much of American patriotism now hinges on the hundreds of thousands of U.S. military servicemen and women who have died for their country. It didn't need to be that way. Real American patriotism should have been the stuff of a shining city on a hill in the attitude of beckoning to all to choose the same liberty that America had come to stand for. Instead, "isolationist" became almost overnight a filthy word in the American vernacular, and, rather than liberty, modern American patriotism has come to mean global empire.

Taken in isolation, a logical reason seems to exist for each war that America has become involved in. Taken in context, however, our participation in very few of these wars makes any sense at all. Over dinner last night, I talked with my daughter about how the U.S. sins committed in Korea and Vietnam had been going on for several decades longer than that.

The only two dogs that the United States ever had in World War I were (1) Woodrow Wilson's desire to be revered by future generations, and (2) the lust for economic and

Taken in isolation, a logical reason seems to exist for each war that America has become involved in. Taken in context, however, our participation in very few of these wars makes any sense at all.

political domination by war profiteers such as Bernard Baruch. WW I led to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers. WW I set the stage for world economic malaise, the most acute manifestation of which became the Great Depression. It also provided a fertile breeding ground for a surreptitious form of population control; the Swine Flu epidemic of 1918 would never have been so virulent had the war not brought so many men into such close proximity with each other on the septic battlefield.

The nearly impossible reparations forced upon Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, which brought fighting between Germany and the Allied Powers to an end, led to hyperinflation in Germany. Hyperinflation led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Hitler became the eventual impetus for the entry of the United States into World War II in Europe, and for the United States' bizarre alliance with Communist Russia. During World War II, the United States supplied the Soviets with vast amounts of weaponry under the "Lend-Lease" program, which helped enable the Soviets to later become a large military thorn in America's

the worst of the non-isolationist chickens that came home to roost is the one that plagues us the most today--our continuing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. This tar pit had its genesis in our enmity with our erstwhile WW II ally, the Soviet Union. And it began in Iran.

side. From this untoward alliance, a rather "convenient" Cold War was born.

Under the shadow of this Cold War, America's Establishment drew its finest men and women into counterproductive "police actions" in Korea and Vietnam.

Because of this Cold War, American presidents of both the Democrat and Republican stripe meddled unnecessarily in Latin American business that should have been their own, which meddling has earned us far more enemies in the Western Hemisphere than we otherwise would have deserved.

But the worst of the non-isolationist chickens that came home to roost is the one that plagues us the most today--our continuing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. This tar pit had its genesis in our enmity with our erstwhile WW II ally, the Soviet Union. And it began in Iran.

The Shah of Iran was the friend of American bureaucrats because he was a known-- albeit dictatorial--quantity. When freely elected member of Iranian parliament Mohammed Mossadegh became enormously popular, Shah Reza Pahlavi felt compelled to appoint him as prime minister. Mossadegh's continued rise in popularity became a threat to the Shah, who left the country. The United States Central Intelligence Agency became inordinately fearful that Mossadegh would join in league with Iran's Soviet neighbors to the north. Using this flimsy pretext, in a carefully crafted and financed coup, the CIA caused Mossadegh to be deposed and the Shah to be placed back on the throne of his vile dictatorship.

In 1979, the Iranian masses revolted, and the Shah, in fear of his life, left the country. In perhaps the stupidest of his litany of stupid decisions while U.S. President, Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States. A powder keg exploded.

In fear that the United States was concocting yet another coup attempt to return the Shah to power, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking several dozen Americans hostage, most for up to 444 days. The Ayatollah Khomeini was swept through the vacuum of unrest into his own brand of diabolical power.

During this period of unrest and vulnerability, Saddam Hussein developed a hatred of the virulent brand

The true isolationist is at the same time the true American patriot. How my daughter read that between the lines of her public school history text book, I'm not sure. But I'm grateful.

of Iranian Shia Islam, and he sensed an opening and ordered his Iraqi military to attack Iran. An eight-year war ensued. Because of its new-found hatred for the Iranian Ayatollah and hostage takers, the American government put its money, training, tanks, artillery and other means of support behind Saddam Hussein in the Iran/Iraq war.

As a result of United States help and perceived friendship, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, his neighbor to the south in 1990. Using this ironically-sanctioned-behind-the-scenes attack, as well as fabricated stories of Iraqi soldiers bayoneting babies in Kuwaiti hospitals, George H. W. Bush roused the American rabble into a firestorm of demand for justice, and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were hatched.

After the Iraq military was ejected from Kuwait, President Bush encouraged the Kurds and Shia to rise up in rebellion against Saddam, with explicit promise of support for their undertakings. When the Kurds and Shia took Bush at his word and rose up in rebellion, Bush required the U.S. military to stand down as an unwilling witness to wholesale slaughter at the hands of Saddam's armies.

Using Saddam's slaughter of his countrymen as a pretext, massive economic sanctions were placed against Iraq by the United States and the world. Throughout the sanctions, Saddam continued to build palaces, but water systems became less and less tenable, exacerbating the spread of disease and squalor. Saddam continued to live large while hospitals could get neither the medicines nor the regular supply of energy that they needed to treat their patients, and tens of thousands suffered and died.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalist Islamic leaders warned us that if the military left behind by the first President Bush were not removed from "the land of the two holy [Muslim] places [Mecca and Medina]" there would be hell to pay.

When George W. Bush came to power, the primary focus from nearly day one of his administration was to finish what his father had not. Iraq became yet again a killing field, under the ostensible but laughably-transparent purpose of bringing democracy. Careful ignorance regarding troves of intelligence allowed the second Bush administration an excuse, in the form of the attacks on 9/11/2001, to attack not only Iraq, but to occupy Afghanistan as well. Because al Qaeda and Taliban fighters cross easily from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan, and because Pakistan was, years ago, given enough nuclear secrets that it now possesses a nuclear arsenal, the Barack Obama administration is stepping up air strikes inside Pakistan, with contemplation of doing whatever it takes to stop the terrorists from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

And that brings us to Thursday, May 7, 2009. Now you know, in a nutshell, how we got here.

I suppose, in a way, "isolationist" should be a dirty word. The word can correctly be applied as an epithet to those who look at events in history in their isolation, without any interest in how they became that way. Using this definition, "isolationism" is the height of ignorance and the invitation of great danger.

Using the traditional sense of the term, the true isolationist is at the same time the true American patriot. How my daughter read that between the lines of her public school history text book, I'm not sure. But I'm grateful that she was able to decipher it with relative ease. She is much more intelligent than I was at her age.

Perhaps the rising American generation will save us after all.

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Comments

  1. There are whole books written about U.S. foreign policy from all points of view-- I hope your 17-year-old reads a variety of them.

    Basically, the USA has swung unpredictably between three poles: isolationism (no foreign entanglements), idealism (let's try to spread democracy & freedom), and pragmatism (look out for concrete national interests).

    Under all three of these paradigms, as you point out, special interests often call the shots. Most Americans don't know enough to have informed opinions about foreign policy, so it ends up in the hands of elites-- for better or worse.

    Plenty to worry about these days, but it was worse during the Cold War and the World Wars.

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  2. Isolationism makes me very uncomfortable. I don't think that we can, in a position of strength, allow those weaker souls around us be squeezed by evil regimes. I know we don't have the means or strength to help everyone everywhere. But we have the strength to help some, and I believe we must.

    When choosing those whom we should assist, it seems logical that we should try to select strategically important locations that will help to bolster our own strength--thereby allowing us to continue to help the disadvantaged where we can.

    This is an idealistic view, and I know there are many people with impure motives pulling the levers of power. Such idealism may get us into more trouble than it will prevent. However, I don't think we can just sweep away such sentiments with a wave of the hand, either. Making the decision to be isolationist will leave many people in painful situations that we'd never choose for our own families.

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  3. Richard,

    Good point. I try to set the example by reading all sorts of points of view in front of my kids. Two of them (the 17-year-old in the story, plus the 12-year-old) seem to "get it" that we need to inform ourselves about the world in a broad way.

    Bradley,

    I'm not sure what it is about isolationism that makes you uncomfortable. Hopefully you at least lean isolationist when it comes to the United States cramming democracy down other countries' throats with shock and awe. I don't think, though, that Americans themselves have ever been isolationist when it comes to charity.

    I agree that we should "bolster our own strength". I'm not sure if we agree on what that strength is, though. I believe our strength is in our example and not in our military might. I'd be curious if the "painful situations that we'd never choose for our own families" that you refer to include military engagement. Are there any of the examples that I listed in my article that you feel were worthwhile? Any that you feel weren't?

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  4. Let me explain my concern with isolationism with an analogy. A few years ago, my five-year-old neighbor showed up at my front door and asked my wife to call 911 because his father was beating his mother and his mother was pleading for help.

    The isolationist would say, "Well kid, it sounds like a rough situation, but I'm not going to poke my nose into the business of another family."

    That isolationist might ask if I want to cram domestic tranquility down another family's throats with a little police-action shock and awe. In this case, I would say, "YES!"

    I know that matters get a lot more complicated in international affairs. Sometimes trying to intervene on behalf of the defenseless causes unforeseen side effects which are worse than the original situation. But should the fear of those possible side effects prevent us from trying to help? Can we ignore cries for help with a clean conscience?

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  5. Bradley, you're making excellent points here.

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  6. D. Sirmize:

    I agree. Bradley has made an excellent point. In some cases it makes sense to protect someone from their aggressor. Rwanda is one place that comes to mind. Clinton and Madeleine Albright made a mistake by not sending protecting forces there. Darfur is likely a current case in point.

    However, Iraq was not one such case. That's not why we went there in the first place. Bush claimed untruthfully that Saddam had WMD and was in league from al Qaeda. It was only later that he used the "democracy" smokescreen.

    My main point in the article is that our foreign policy breeds situations in which others need our protection. That would be, to extend Bradley's example, akin to provoking the man into beating his wife before calling 911. Hopefully you see that that's an excellent point as well.

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  7. Frank, you make a valid point. But your argument for isolationism isn't as strong as Bradley's argument against it.

    Heck, I'd almost be ok with going isolationist if only to deprive the 'blame America for everything' crowd of their prime fodder.

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  8. George Washington wasn't part of the "blame America crowd". He was part of the "stay out of other people's business crowd". That's what I'm advocating.

    Wondering whether the Iraqi husband (or Soviet) is beating the Kuwaiti wife (or South Korean or South Vietnamese) is much more complicated than knowing whether my next door neighbor is beating his wife.

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  9. I don't recall accusing George Washington of blaming America for the world's ills. My point was that so many Americans (including you on some issues) seem almost delighted to point the finger of blame at some past U.S. foreign policy.

    Were we to have no foreign policy, at some point the self-flagellators would have nothing to gripe about, right?

    The fact that non-isolationist foreign policy is indeed more complicated than trying to figure out whether your neighbor is beating his wife isn't a reason not to engage in it.

    And the fact that it is so complicated perhaps explains why we sometimes make mistakes that come back to bite us down the road.

    I'm not sure I have a dog in this fight. My primary interest is the security of the U.S. and the bolstering of its interests. If isolationism truly is the way to achieve this, sign me up.

    I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that it's not.

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  10. I'm not delighted to point a finger. The "blame-America-first" mantra seems to be a very disingenuous right-wing talking point. It is not blaming America. It's pointing out that now's a good time to change course if we ever really want to enjoy peace and prosperity.

    Sure, we help the Rwandas and Darfurs when they ask for help, but we don't dive into WWI when we have absolutely no interest in it or Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq, when our involvement only made matters worse.

    Muslims who hate us don't hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because our foreign policy has consistently been to coddle predictable dictators. They hate us because apparently to us genuine freedom isn't good enough for them.

    I and several other Americans believe that we would be experiencing far fewer problems today had we adhered to a sensible foreign policy.

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  11. A quote from George Washington's farewell address:

    "There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard."

    There may be extreme situations, once in a while, where it may be appropriate to ask another nation to help with one's own problems (Franklin certainly requested assistance from the French in the Revolutionary War). But our alliance with France was meant to be a TEMPORARY agreement.

    He also said that our nation:

    "should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favours or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of Commerce, but forcing nothing."

    What were Washington's personal feelings about the French Revolution? Why was he against our government joining the cause to help them?

    Here's what he wrote to the French Minister in 1796:

    "my anxious recollections, my sympathetic feelings, and my best wishes are irresistibly excited, whensoever in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of Freedom."

    Certainly he wasn't uncaring or indifferent to their outcome.

    Here's an interesting quote by Edmund Burke (he's the one who said- all it takes for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing):

    "Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take one precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. . . . It is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men, we shall never wish to aggrandize ourselves in some way or other . . . we may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin."

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  12. We have examples of what happens when the United States is strictly isolationist. The examples are fairly numerous, but one in particular is Hungary in 1956.

    The people rose up and threw the Soviet Union out of their country. They then asked for help from the world community, specifically from us. The UN deliberated and ultimately did nothing. Neither did we. There is an audio recording out there of a final radio broadcast coming from Hungary pleading for help as the tanks rolled into the city. None came. The Soviets came back in force and overwhelmed the Hungarians, executing everyone involved in the uprising. It was another 50 years or so before they got a taste of freedom again.

    This is just one example of the very real consequences of inaction. Perhaps we should consider those consequences as forcefully as we do those from when we did choose to act.

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  13. Hungary is a great example of where the United States should have helped. Considered in the light of the entirety of world history, however, Hungary would never have been in need of help had a long string of involvement in foreign intrigue not eventually caused us to give aid and comfort to the Soviet Union before, during, and after World War II.

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  14. Yet there are countless ways that a military action in Hungary could have gone very wrong. It easily could have been included in the list you've made in your post.

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  15. I agree.

    But please try not to miss my main point. Hungary would never have gotten that way if the U.S. had been more attentive to the isolationist policies of George Washington (and not gotten into World War I, etc.)

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  16. I suppose I don't entirely disagree with the main point of your post. A case can be made for a domino affect caused by not being isolationist years ago.

    But the cat's out of the bag. We were faced with a decision to make in Hungary, and we chose to remain isolationist in that instance. And Hungarians paid the price. Those making the decisions in the here and now very well may agree with Washington & Staheli, but reality is reality. It's not so simple to say we're staying out of everything. If every single US misadventure you list had ended up like Hungary, what would the world look like?

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  19. (Dang, I can't get the html tags to work with me today!)

    Cameron, "It's not so simple to say we're staying out of everything"

    As I understand him, Washington wasn't advocating we NEVER get involved in ANYTHING. He was saying we should stay as neutral and as impartial as possible when it comes to the affairs of other countries (so as not to show any favoritism).

    If we deem it appropriate to create an alliance or respond to the request of aid from another country, these things should be temporary in nature so we don't become entangled or obligated to do something which would not be in our best interest. His primary warning was against "PERMANENT alliances".

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  20. Sometimes things we'd like to be temporary don't turn out that way, depending on your definition of temporary that is.

    Any action in Hungary would definitely have hoped to be temporary, but easily could have been just as bloody and long lasting as Vietnam, or any of the other conflicts listed in this post.

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