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That Old Isolationist Smear


It doesn’t take much to be smeared as an isolationist by leading Republicans. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who appears to be running for president again, and former vice president Dick Cheney — not to mention Sen. John McCain, Gov. Chris Christie, and other members of the GOP establishment — can always be counted on to drag out that insult whenever they sense a threat from anyone not as hawkish as they are. If they thought that 30,000 U.S. troops should be sent somewhere, and someone recommended sending only 10,000, we could count on Perry, Cheney, et al., to condemn the other person as an appeasing isolationist.

Let’s be clear: Someone who simply doesn’t want Americans draw into foreign conflicts is not an isolationist. The proper word is “noninterventionist.” “Isolationism” suggests withdrawal from the world. But noninterventionists don’t seek that. The most principled noninterventionists — we libertarians — promote the individual’s freedom to trade and move across political boundaries without any government obstruction whatever. The wish to isolate the government from foreign wars does not translate into a desire to isolate the American people from commerce and other peaceful exchange. You’d think more folks would understand that elementary insight. Only someone who thinks government is the be-all and end-all of existence would commit this glaring error.

Perry and Cheney’s target du jour is Sen. Rand Paul, who also may be running for president. Paul’s message on foreign policy is muddier than it ought to be and certainly less clear than that of his father, former U.S. representative Ron Paul. Rand Paul has made welcome criticisms of NSA spying and Barack Obama’s autocratic murder-by-drone, but his message on Iraq is mixed: he says that he “would not rule out air strikes” or sending weapons to be used against the Sunni Muslims of the newly declared Islamic State in western Iraq and eastern Syria. On the other hand, he opposes sending troops. Yet even this is murky. He says, “I think it’s a mistake to put ground troops into Iraq and the main reason is that the people that are taking over large swaths of Iraq are now allied with the people who we were helping in Syria.” In other words, he went on to explain, the mission would be “confusing.” But this implies that if the Obama administration were not opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. deployment to Iraq might be something to consider.

He also says Americans shouldn’t fight for Iraq if the Iraqis themselves won’t fight for it. Doesn’t that  suggest Americans should be willing to fight if the Iraqi army stood its ground? Further, he implicitly endorses massive military aid to Israel by calling on the Obama administration to cut off all aid to the Palestinians without even mentioning the $3 billion that American taxpayers send to Israel every year. Much of that money goes to enforcing Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians in their own Israeli-occupied territory.

That is not noninterventionism — unless you mark on a steep curve. But almost anyone would look like a noninterventionist next to Cheney, Perry, McCain, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the war party. Let’s keep in mind, however, that no one calls for sending U.S. troops back to Iraq.

Rand Paul aside, the critique of “isolationism” is based on a specious argument. Cheney and others caricature the position as one which holds that what happens outside the United States will not affect Americans. That’s not the argument I hear made by those who are at least skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, American intervention.

The war party believes that the 9/11 attacks and Pearl Harbor refute the noninterventionists. Here they display either their historical ignorance or their willingness to engage in demagoguery — I’m betting it’s the latter. No one who knows anything about the al-Qaeda or Japanese attacks could possibly believe that the U.S. government had pursued a noninterventionist foreign policy in the years preceding each event. Look it up. That the war party pretends otherwise shows how scared it is of scrutiny.

The noninterventionist case boils down to this: U.S. aggression abroad makes enemies and provokes blowback. That’s the lesson of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (

Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

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