Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 24, 2010

Isolationism: the Issue that Divides the Right

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:48 pm

Note: This appeared as an article in the March, 2010 print version of The Dakota Beacon.

There really is a Ron Paul revolution.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) won the straw poll for preferred candidate for president, with 31% of the 2,395 ballots cast. He handily beat three-time front-runner Mitt Romney (22%), and smashed conservative darling Sarah Palin (7%), up-and-comer Tim Pawlenty (6%), Mike Pence (Who? 5%), how-are-the-mighty-fallen Newt Gingrich (4%), and FOX News rock star Mike Huckabee (4%).

Ron Paul is known as the one avowed libertarian with a successful career in national politics.

And what a sensational career! He first won a seat in the House of Representatives in a special election in 1976 to fill a vacancy caused by the appointment of Robert R. Casey, who had defeated Paul for the seat in 1974, to the Federal Maritime Commission.

Paul then lost the seat to Democrat Robert Gammage by fewer than 300 votes (about the number of votes Lyndon Johnson once arranged to have “lost” in Texas) but came back to defeat Gammage in 1978. He was reelected in 1980 and 1982.

In 1984 Paul tried to move up to the Senate, but lost the Republican primary to Phil Gramm. He won a seat in the House again in 1997 and has been there ever since.

Paul ran for president as a candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1988, and as a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2008.

I saw Ron Paul in Oklahoma when he was campaigning for the Libertarian Party nomination. Although American Indian Movement activist Russell Means could give a more impassioned speech three sheets to the wind, Paul took the nomination on the strength of his convictions.

Paul actually gets away with speaking his mind. Conservatives love him for taking solid free-market positions most Republicans don’t dare. Libertarians love him for fearlessly advocating recreational drug legalization. (A position William F. Buckley held, but didn’t promote.)

And honest men of all stripes love Paul because walks the talk. He has consistently advocated term limits, and is one of two congressmen (with Howard Coble, R-NC) who have pledged not to receive a congressional pension.

Perhaps it’s because of his, “The heck with you, I’ve got a life outside of politics” attitude. Paul doesn’t need Washington, and that’s why people who love liberty trust him, in spite of a lot of alleged nutty stuff about his past associations.

But then there’s that foreign policy thing.

“If Ron Paul is behind it and has nothing to do with foreign policy, I agree,” acerbic conservative columnist Ann Coulter said in response to a question at CPAC.

Paul is firmly on the isolationist Right. Unfortunately, not the Paul Harvey isolationist Right. Harvey believed alliances of convenience with foreign tyrannies were corrupting America.

Paul finds common ground with the Left, and I mean the Ward Churchill America-hating Left, holding that if we didn’t meddle so much in other countries business, they wouldn’t do things like flying hijacked airliners into our skyscrapers.

This is an attractive belief to many. In a world inhabited by a lot of really scary people, it’s comforting to think we can influence over their attitudes and actions by what we do, or don’t do.

The idea that some people hate for what we are is really scary.

Isolationism has a long history on the Right. Conservative/libertarians during the Woodrow Wilson administration (then called “liberals”) saw America’s entry into World War I as part of Wilson’s drive to expand government way beyond what the constitution allowed, and his megalomaniac desire to play on the world stage.

Nineteenth-century freedom-lovers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau condemned the Mexican War as an imperialist land grab. Many who opposed slavery, nonetheless opposed going to war with the South to end it. Some contemporary isolationists still condemn Lincoln for waging the Civil War.

Patriotic isolationists hold the U.S. should maintain forces adequate to defend our borders, and cease sending and stationing troops abroad entirely, with the possible exception of retaliatory strikes against foreign enemies who attack us first.

I once held this position.

How and why I changed, lies in my experiences living for 13 years in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the revelations by the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and former Warsaw Pact countries after the fall of communism.

And full disclosure, for personal reasons. My wife is Polish, my children have dual citizenship. Some of my closest friends are Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Romanian, Hungarian. What happens to them and their countries, matters to me.

What my position is now is hard for me to label. I still think an awful lot of American intervention abroad has been ham-handedly stupid and counterproductive.

In the 60s for example, I opposed the Vietnam War, not least because of the prospect of being sent to fight it personally at a time the campaign appeared to be circling the drain.

I still think it was an ill-thought out venture, and though fought by men as brave as America has ever sent to war, strategically inept. A position shared by the military academies these days, which have whole courses devoted to the mistakes of Vietnam. In terms of grand strategy, the Soviets kept American forces occupied in a theater remote from their real interests in Europe by supplying North Vietnam with materiel that was cheap compared with the cost of keeping our forces in the field at the end of a long supply line.

Nonetheless, I am not the isolationist I once was. What I am now, I’m not sure. When I was young, I had all the answers. Now all I seem to have is a lot of disturbing observations and questions.

I miss those answers.

So what I’d like to do is present some of those observations and questions. Please understand I am not trying to score rhetorical points on anyone. I don’t think I know the answers beyond doubt.

But, I don’t think you do either. I think this issue is an unsolved problem. I think it’s important we start defining those problems before we can approach a solution.

As an old Yellow Dog Republican once said to me, “If you make a mistake in domestic policy, you could wind up hurting a lot of people. If you make a mistake in foreign policy – you could lose your country.”

Charge: we meddle.

Yes we do. Iran is still pissed off about the CIA-supported coup against their Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950s. No Mexican ever forgets what few Americans ever remember, that the southwest quarter of the U.S. was once the northern half of Mexico. Many Latin Americans resent the presence of U.S. forces in their countries, “assisting” in a war fuelled by the drug habits of rich gringos.

But something overlooked here is, everybody meddles.

The USSR had a cabinet-level department, the Comintern, devoted to spreading world revolution, with the U.S. as a primary target.

The Mexican government actively and openly promotes illegal immigration to the U.S., with comic books and DVDs explaining how to sneak in and blend in. Mexican politicians and intellectuals boast about the ongoing reconquista of the Southwest.

During the Bush-Gore election the Chinese secret police got caught trying to funnel money into the Gore campaign. Public outrage was underwhelming.

Saudi Arabian bought-and-paid-for influence in Washington is a scandal waiting to break – that never does, because it’s bipartisan, equal opportunity corruption. Saudi princes boast how they’ve bought this country.
Could a decision not to meddle anymore be akin to unilaterally deciding to disarm?

Question: What constitutes “meddling”?

Sending troops abroad, for sure.

How about supporting dissidents in foreign tyrannies with covert aid? Economic sanctions against countries with appalling human rights abuses? Was establishing Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America meddling?

Ron Paul might think so.

Paul was the one “nay” vote on a bipartisan House of Representatives resolution asking the government of Bangladesh to drop capital charges against Bangladeshi journalist Saleh Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

Choudhury it seems, was arrested for treason, sedition and whatever else they could throw at him, for the crime of attempting to board a plane to Israel to talk peace.

It was a resolution for God’s sake! Not a threat or a declaration of war. It wasn’t even a hint that we’d reconsider the $60 million gift the US bestows on them every year. Resolutions don’t mean anything but a gesture of moral disapproval, everybody knows that. Except that sometimes they means a lot to the people in those appalling countries.

Charge: The U.S. keeps troops garrisoned in more than a hundred other countries.

Yes we do. And the question of whether we’ll continue to do so may be moot. Troops and gear are expensive, and if our economy declines below a certain level the argument may be settled for us. We’ll draw down our forces because we can’t afford not to.

And more than sixty years of garrisoning Europe have taught us a bitter lesson. The NATO alliance, minus the U.S., is a military pygmy. The Western Europeans accepted the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and conventional forces. Then instead of building up their own forces, they used the savings to build the comfortable social-welfare states they sneer at us for not having.

Now it is questionable if Old Europe could build up their militaries if they had to. Would their citizens accept diversion of resources that subsidize four-week vacations, 30-hour work weeks, and retirement at 50? Can a continent of one-child families even contemplate sending their sons to war?

As allies, they leave something to be desired.

But to the east of them, in many small countries recently free of Soviet domination, are peoples who look to us for the preservation of their new independence. Peoples who are willing to be allies, not dependents, and carry their share of the load.

They, like the West Europeans, are part of Western Civilization, our kin. Are we ready to say we don’t need friends? That they aren’t worth the trouble of saving if it comes to that?

But is Lithuania, a little bigger than West Virginia, worth going to war for? How about Poland, the size of New Mexico? World War II started in Poland.

Some suggest we might take in refugees from humanitarian crises such as another holocaust, rather than send troops abroad to try and stop it. This could someday include Europe refugees from a resurgent Russian Empire, indigenous Europeans fleeing the Islamization of the continent, white South Africans and Zimbabweans fleeing genocide.

What if Israel is overrun? Does anyone doubt the first war Israel loses will be the last war it ever fights? We could wind up taking a lot of these peoples in, or stand by watching as they’re slaughtered. We could get a lot of fine new Americans, but how long could we keep that up? How many could we take in?

Observation: every country capable of projecting power beyond its borders, on occasion does so.

But, the argument goes, we needn’t do so. With two wide oceans on either side, and countries to the north and south who are friendly, or at least no military threat, we can stand in proud isolation, espousing “friendly relations with all, entangling alliances with none,” in George Washington’s words.

The example often given is Switzerland’s armed-to-the-teeth neutrality.

The Swiss actually made the Nazis back off of their plans for invading their country, convincing them it wasn’t worth the cost. Quite a trick to pull on the mighty Wehrmact without firing a shot.

It is worth noting an integral part of Switzerland’s defense policy is to destroy the country rather than let it fall into foreign hands. Bridges, tunnels, roads, etc throughout Switzerland are deliberately designed and built to be mined and destroyed in the event of an invasion.

More to the point, Switzerland can do nothing to protect its citizens beyond its own borders. Two Swiss were recently arrested in Libya, apparently in retaliation for a Swiss ban on constructing new minarets.

Do we want to adopt a policy of: beyond our borders you’re on your own? Can we? How long would it last after foreign governments and non-state actors went into the thriving growth industry of “kidnapping citizens of rich and compassionate countries”?

We’ve been there before. Thomas Jefferson launched America’s first foreign war after the U.S. government found itself paying as much as a tenth of its annual budget to ransom our citizens captured on the high seas by the Barbara Pirates based, come to think of it – in Libya.

Question: Much international trade depends on keeping the sea lanes open, particularly in places such as the Panama and Suez Canals, and the Straights of Hormuz, Malacca and Gibraltar. Is this a justifiable projection of American power?

I’ll never forget what a Dutch woman told me during the Iran-Iraq War, when U.S. Navy ships were escorting oil tankers through the Straits of Hormuz.

“YOU’VE got to escort those ships,” she said, “that’s OUR oil!”

Perhaps the rest of the world doesn’t want us to “mind our own business” as much as they want us to use our power in ways they approve.

What I call naïve isolationism makes two claims about the U.S. and its place in the world.
1) Other people hate us because of what we do, not who we are.

We could argue this one back and forth all day. Instead I’ll pose another question.

Our current enemies come from a particularly fanatic sect of Islam. Their soldiers are technically non-state actors, supported covertly by factions within rich states who are ostensibly our friends and allies.

The Islamic jihadists are fighting for values that include:
– Honor killings; the notion that if your wife, mother, sister, or daughter is raped, or just gets uppity, it is your duty to murder her.
– Speaking critically of the Prophet or questioning the divine origin of the Koran is a capital offense.
– Apostasy, converting to another religion, is a capital offense.
– Killing someone who insults your family and clan is praiseworthy.
– Slavery is acceptable to God.

In an increasingly interconnected world, do you think we can share that world in peace with them?

Objection: not all Muslims are Islamic jihadists!

Probably not. So can we tell those Muslms who aren’t jidahists, that the jihadists are their problem – until they win and become our problem whether we like it or not?

2) If you don’t aggress against others, they will not aggress against you.

This flies in the face of history. All experience, over many weary centuries, shows that what most provokes an aggressor is weakness.

During the Cold War, libertarian isolationists argued the Soviet Union, though tyrannical and paranoid in the extreme, had no intention of waging aggressive war against the U.S. or Western Europe, and was largely reacting, perhaps overreacting, to American truculence.

We now know this was false. According to documents released by the Polish government over the past few years, the Soviet Union always intended to invade and conquer Western Europe. The invasion was originally scheduled for the early 1980s. (This is confirmed by in-laws of mine in the Polish military at the time.)
From the testimony of a high-ranking defector, Col. Ryszrad Kuklinski of the Polish Army General Staff, the Russians counted on driving the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Romanian forces ahead of them to take the first bullet, and to remind them which side they were supposed to be on.

What caused Kuklinski to contact the CIA and start feeding information to them, was discovering the Soviets had made the horrific decision that Poland and much of Eastern Europe was expendable if the war went nuclear.

I repeat the question: can you share a world in peace with people who think like this?

Question: It seems sooner of later “no-name nukes” are going to be loose in the world. What if the only thing which can prevent, or at least delay that day, is pre-emptive attacks on rogue states attempting to acquire nuclear weapons?

Question: What happens if a nuke explodes on our territory and we cannot tell for certain who is responsible? What if we have to face the choice of retaliating on mere suspicion of responsibility? On that day might we not look back and decide pre-emptive war was the more moral choice?

In conclusion, American foreign policy sometimes appears to both our enemies and allies, to have an alarming inconsistency. President Barack Obama has given signals to our friends in Eastern Europe, Israel, and Latin American states trying to create stable democracies, that he is either indifferent or actively hostile towards their interests and simpatico to their enemies.

On the other hand, Obama has completely adopted the Bush policy on the War on Terror he ran against. He has continued renditions, put off closing Guantanamo, and actually increased Predator drone attacks targeting Taliban leaders. (Not to mention family and bystanders – Bush would have been crucified.)

Obama, like Right isolationists, found it easier to criticize from the outside looking in. Now he’s in the position of having to go with the flow, or make it up as he goes along.

If we want to insure the survival of the United States for a while longer, and of liberty for the future, we’re going to have to address some hard questions. We’re going to have to do some hard thinking that is both idealistic and tough-minded. It’s not going to be easy, or comfortable.


  1. You need not worry.
    All indications are imperialism will continue to be the dominant view, as long as the imperialists have the convenient facade of “Judaeo-Christian ethics” to hide behind &/ can use TWOT to distract the public from the burgeoning debt, growing domestic tyranny, and the equally endless voyeur, welfare and workfare state.
    The left has much more in common with neoconservative, Rockefeller Republicans than it ever will have with Libertarians or the “isolationist” right: Both have an altruism fetish that is spending this nation into oblivious debt, not for its own protection, benefit or survival, but in the vain hope of buying the allegiance of other nations. They are both willing to disarm, detain indefinitely and confiscate all the assets of any dissenters and assassinate citizens abroad or strip them of their citizenship. After all, “we’re such a wealthy nation”, as both the Papists and atheists love to remind U.S. and owe the world so much because of our atrocities/”for the love of JEEEEEEEEEEEEzzus!”
    Congratulations on being on the winning side. I hope you savor your victory when the Obamatons pass another excuse to take everything you have away to pay for it.

    Comment by Ted Amadeus — May 25, 2010 @ 1:18 am

  2. AH Steph(v)e you got a wonderful brain!
    as young turks we see the world in Black and white, evil is obvious and we have all the answers.
    then things get all squishy, what was so is not nearly as so, what was clear is murky.
    Some minds then, as they age, return to the “know it, seen it, understand it clearly” stage.
    I suggest this is at best lazy.
    then her ya come, ready to reconsider all information, question all assumptions and bravely state.
    I don’t quite know what to think.

    that, “I am not sure, or I don’t know” moment , is the gateway to reasoned wisdom.
    once again you have laid it out strait, and once again I am encouraged by such reasonable libertarian thought.
    thanks for the work you are doing for our nation and culture.

    Comment by Louie — May 25, 2010 @ 10:45 am

  3. I certainly understand the desire to pull back, keep to ourselves, and tell the rest of the world to get lost. As far as I see it though, it’s just pure fantasy to believe that that is a reasonable answer to tough questions we face.

    You bring up a lot of good points and I don’t want to be too repetitive, but the idea that a country like China, for example, would leave us alone and not meddle in our affairs just because we decided to keep to ourselves is not realistic. Now I’m not saying that because others do it, it’s ok for us to do it. But we do need to look out for our self interests if we want to continue as a nation. And humanitarian efforts to help others can be a good thing. Now what should be done in our national self interests and for humanitarian reasons is worthy of plenty of debate and probably not something that we can generally be %100 positive about.

    So for me, Isolationism is just a form of denial. We may not need to be, or should not be, involved in everything that we do involve ourselves in, but I think trying to live in isolation is foolish. History has plenty of examples of what happens when you try that.

    Comment by Ken S — May 25, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  4. ‘No Mexican ever forgets what few Americans ever remember, that the southwest quarter of the U.S. was once the northern half of Mexico’

    But what exactly is/was a ‘Mexican’?
    And why worry about the resentments in a failing third world country, as long as you are the strongest? Would you be comfortable with them as your neighbour if they were twice their size?
    And would not they have grabbed what they needed had they been able?

    @ Ted Amadeus: Isn’t imperialism the natural state of things as long as the world is still so lopsided in its development?
    And if so, which empire do you prefer – that of a pretty benevolent American people who do not particularly want to reign supreme, but who naturally protect their rights and finish the greatest threats to their own safety and their livelyhood, or that of powerhungry tyrants who have never even succeeded in keeping the peace inside their own countries? The Chinese? The Russians? The khalifate?

    As for me – the inhabitant of a small, insignificant country which has just been swallowed by the EUSSR: I shudder to think what could happen if there were no United States of America keeping an eye on things..
    God forbid that Obama has his way in doing away with the country he has sworn to defend and paves the idiotarian way to “world government under the aegis of the UN or something like it

    The kingdom of heaven is not about to break out shortly, so I’ll settle for a benevolent empire in the meantime

    Comment by Paardestaart — May 27, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

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