Is Obama an Isolationist?

THINKING CLEARLY ABOUT A SLOGAN & A SLUR

President Barack Obama’s June 22 speech announcing his plans for eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted debate about troop numbers and timetables. But beyond those specific judgments, there was in the speech an implicit challenge to the reigning logic of America’s post–Cold War foreign policy. In declaring, “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama has reintroduced a line of reasoning that has for decades been misrepresented as isolationism and protectionism.

Since the end of the Cold War a bipartisan consensus has guided American foreign policy. Regardless of the president in power or the majority party in Congress, a series of broad assumptions drawn from a narrow view of American history has informed all major decisions. The defining incident in this narrative is the supposed isolationism of the American public in the 1920s and ’30s. In this telling, American isolationism played a decisive role in causing the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, and it was only Roosevelt’s internationalist leanings that saved us from the error of our ways. There is more than a little truth to this characterization of our past. What should concern us, however, is the simplistic way this period of history is used to marginalize dissent.

In every major debate of the post–Cold War era, the overwhelming majority of our foreign policy elite, be they in the media, think tanks, or government, have painted their critics as modern-day isolationists and protectionists repeating the ignorant policies of the past, and presented themselves as the heroic “internationalists” standing against this isolationist tide. Regardless of the president or the party in control of Congress, the justification has been the same. The expansion of NATO, the first Iraq War, NAFTA, Kosovo, the second Iraq War, “surges” in Iraq—in each and every case polls indicating opposition to these policies were described as indicative of the isolationist instinct of the American public. Politicians and activists who dared to question the ever-expanding burden inherent in each of these policies were branded isolationists or protectionists and consigned to the margins of acceptable political discourse.

Consider, for instance, the way President Bill Clinton talked about the NAFTA treaty in 1993. During the heat of the debate over that trade agreement, on the anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, Clinton spoke at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. After World War I, he said, “we turned our backs on the rest of the world.... We succumbed to the siren’s song of protectionism.” The result, he went on, was the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War. Now the United States had to decide “whether we will swell the global tide of freedom by promoting democracy and open world markets, or neglect the duty of our leadership” and “diminish hope and prosperity” around the world.

When President George W. Bush made the case for his plan to “seek the end of tyranny in our world,” he said:

The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil. America rejects the false comfort of isolationism. We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe and liberated death camps and helped raise up democracies and faced down an evil empire. Once again we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace.

In March, media outlets from Time to AOL News featured headlines reporting on the “isolationism” of today’s youth. The stories referred to a study from the Brookings Institution on the foreign-policy views of millennials (born after 1980). In fact, the survey gave evidence of clear internationalist leanings among the “young leaders” surveyed: Franklin Roosevelt was rated as their ideal historical model of leadership, and strengthening the international economic system ranked as the second most important foreign policy. Yet Brookings concluded that millennials are “eerily” similar to the isolationists of the 1920s and ’30s because a majority agreed that “the United States is too involved in global affairs and should focus on more issues at home.”

From the beginning of his political career, Barack Obama has challenged the logic of these accepted definitions of “isolationist” and “internationalist.” His emergence as a national figure stemmed in large part from his opposition to the second Iraq War. He risked being labeled an isolationist with his passionate denunciations of that conflict, and in so doing he animated his supporters in his race for the Senate through his grueling presidential primary and on to the general election. Throughout these campaigns Obama gave voice to the concerns of nonisolationist critics of America’s post–Cold War militarism, and he helped legitimize debate over the direction of American foreign policy.

It is certainly true that, from his initial expansion of the war in Afghanistan to his support for the intervention in Libya, Obama has done much to strain his relationship with his antiwar base. Still, he has resisted the simplistic framework that would label any opposition to military intervention “isolationism.” In that way, his speech on the drawdown in Afghanistan was an important step forward. Instead of framing his decision to withdraw troops as simply the consequence of a successful military effort, he chose to emphasize precisely the kind of reasoning that the Brookings report characterized as “isolationist.” By announcing that “it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” the president has, like no other president in the post–Cold War era, sided with the desires of the majority of Americans to rein in our global commitments in order to strengthen our own country.

It would be absurd to characterize Obama as an isolationist in any historically genuine way, given the overall narrative of his life and his presidency, but in his speech the president anticipated exactly that criticism and skillfully positioned his own foreign policy as the antidote to both isolationism and unsustainable interventionism:

Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad. We must chart a more centered course.

If the president can redefine the center to include the large numbers of Americans uneasy about the financial, moral, and human costs of our post–Cold War expansionism, it would be a significant gain for progressives and a significant political challenge to Republicans. That explains why some Republican observers were quick to label Obama’s speech isolationist. In a blog post titled “The President’s Isolationist Turn,” Noam Neusner, once a speechwriter for George W. Bush, quoted Obama’s statement that, following a decade of expensive war, we “must invest in America’s greatest resource—our people” and focus on restoring the economy. “Those words,” Neusner wrote, “could have been written by an isolationist of the early twentieth century.” Look for more charges like that in the future if Obama continues to press what should be the obvious truth: it is time to focus on nation building here at home.


Related: Exit Strategy, by David Cortright
Stuck, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
Absurd or Worse, by David Kaiser

Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: 

Gregory Metzger received a master’s degree in international relations from Boston University. His work has appeared in the Christian Century, Books & Culture, and Touchstone.

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