The Syria debacle sheds light on the thinking of both interventionists and isolationists. The former are furious with President Obama for stalling, evading a burgeoning crisis and then coming up with half-measures coupled with a punt to Congress. The isolationists don’t want him to take action no matter how “limited” and “narrow” he says his action will be.
We should fully understand what the isolationist right and left contemplate as ideal national security policy. According to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), we have no national security interests in Syria. When Bashar al-Assad began slaughtering his own people, if we said anything at all (and really what business is it of ours?) we should not have demanded Assad leave or face the consequences. When rebels asked for aid or arms or gas masks we should have denied them any support. When Assad used chemical weapons we might have said something, in the Rand Paul (R-Ky.)/Sarah Palin/Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) world view, but there should be no red lines threatening robust retaliation. After Assad killed over 1,400 people by chemical weapons we should take no action. In fact Paul seems sympathetic to Assad, saying Christians will be better off with him. (Why 1,400 gassed victims of unknown religious identity don’t concern him is puzzling.)
In short, for isolationists, there is no amount of dead Syrians, refugees and WMD deaths that would justify us doing anything effective.
Is that the world we want to live in? Once Assad used chemical weapons, then all despots will feel free to do the same. And the green light would not entice merely rogue regimes in Syria and North Korea.
As for Iran, it isn’t clear whether hard-core isolationists would think sanctions and resolutions are in order. (When a former senator, Chuck Hagel, didn’t think so.) In any case, sanctions haven’t worked. So, in their view, now we would do nothing of consequence to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? Paul, after all, has said containment may work.
Then there is Russia. Currently, Russia occupies part of Georgia. If Russia uses chemical weapons and/or takes over the rest of that country, I suppose we should stay out of it if you follow the isolationists’ reasoning. Really, what national security interest is there in Georgia? If we don’t have any national security interest in Syria, why would we intervene in Georgia?
This is the isolationist vision, one in which whoever has the nerve to commit mass atrocities, acquire or use WMD’s and invade other countries wins by default. No intervention in Libya, in Syria or Kuwait (in the first Gulf War). You see, isolationism only works in a world in which despots pay attention to the U.N., rogue states show restraint and every country honors human rights. In other words, it never works for very long, at least not in our universe.
And if one says, well at some point in these scenarios even a Rand Paul or Ted Cruz would be forced to act, then one supposes meaningful action should only be taken when the costs are high and the options few. That makes no sense.
The isolationist vision put forth by Paul, Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would lead to perverse results in other arenas as well. Paul says we should dump the National Security Agency program, end permanent detention at Gitmo (even for those terrorists who cannot be tried), get warrants for drone attacks on terrorists at cafes and applaud characters like Edward Snowden who take it upon themselves to give national security secrets to China, Russia and anyone else with access to U.S. media. Do we think we’d be safer if we followed that advice? Or do you think after the next domestic terror attack we’d be enraged that the government didn’t “connect the dots”?
Isolationism sounds appealing until you see it in practice. Even Obama has given up the infantile view that the exercise or the credible threat of force is worse than inaction in the face of challenges like Assad’s bloodbath, at least I think he has. (Those arguing that after the British Parliament’s vote and seeing some polling that he lost nerve, undercut Kerry, shocked his aides and is now begging Congress to stop him may not be wrong.)
If we ever attempt to adopt the Paul/Cruz worldview, we would soon find we’ve compromised our humanity and our security. Every “ally” (and what reason would they have to remain our ally?) would be a sitting duck. This would include Eastern Europe, neighbors of Venezuela and Israel.
If and when someone with this world view runs for president, he or she should face exacting scrutiny. (Frankly, every candidate after this president should be grilled on national security.) I suspect when pinned down on specifics, the self-described non-interventionists candidate will appear either nuts like Rand Paul’s dad or suddenly (and insincerely) not so opposed after all to American intervention — when circumstances are right, of course.
It may be maddening for both interventionists and isolationists to watch the president bob and weave, confound allies, try to split the difference and ask Congress to respond to his mother-may-I request. Worse, however, would be the election of a president determined to tell the world we’ve checked out.