The mainstream meme emerging from the CNN/Union Leader Republican presidential debate is apparently that everyone went easy on Romney, which makes him, somehow, the “front runner.” Less noticed but more credible – and much more interesting – was what one post-debate analysis by Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl expressed in the form of a question: “Will the GOP nominate a dove?” That was the title, no doubt the work of a relatively fair-minded editor, but Diehl’s take is more ideological:
“Is the Republican party turning isolationist for 2012? No doubt it’s too soon to know–but the responses of GOP presidential candidates to questions about Libya and Afghanistan in Monday night’s debate were striking. None supported President Obama’s decision to join NATO’s military intervention against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. ‘There was no vital national interest,” said Rep. Michelle Bachmann, summing up what appeared to be the prevailing view.”
The term “Isolationism” was originally coined as an epithet, and the word certainly has about it a troglodytic air: one imagines a cranky old man yelling “get off my lawn” to children passing in the street. Yet that’s an image which surely fits the mood of the American public these days, and certainly they have much to be cranky about – especially when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy.
During the Bush era, they were subjected to a regime of constant and costly warfare, with US policymakers determined to “democratize” and otherwise “liberate” the Middle East – “draining the swamp,” as neocon ideologues so blithely described their war aims. Having discovered that the swamp was, instead, draining the US, the American public has turned – albeit not on a dime – and now opposes all foreign adventurism with a stubbornness that our elites disdainfully refer to with the “i”-word – as if they were doctors diagnosing the foreign policy equivalent of gout.
Yet, in reality, there is no such thing as “isolationism,” and no such creature as an “isolationist”: it is a fiction manufactured by the interventionist politicians of both parties to characterize any and all opposition to aggressive and unnecessary wars. No one, not even the hardcore protectionists in the labor unions and on the paleoconservative right, wants to isolate America from the rest of the world, and Diehl’s use of the term is particularly egregious: after all, if ever there was a “war of choice,” then it is the Libyan adventure, which the US officially describes as a “humanitarian” effort launched (initially at least) in order to “save countless lives.” As Glenn Greenwald and others have pointed out, it’s more likely pressure from oil companies locked out of lucrative Libyan contracts – Libya has the richest oil reserves in North Africa – that motivated US intervention in what is essentially a civil war.
In any case, the official explanation for the Libyan war is an ideological one, one that abjures any concept of national self interest, and indeed this appears to be Diehl’s litmus test indicating the presence of the “isolationist” virus. If you believe, like Bachmann and the rest of the GOP candidates, that self-interest must determine our actions abroad, then you’re an isolationist, but this is obviously nonsense, as most of the candidates at the debate – with the lone exception of Ron Paul – have at one time or another endorsed some form of foreign intervention, whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever.