Isolationists tend to be rotten at historical analogies, in part because there are few, if any, real examples of isolationism’s success. Their attempts to legitimize their own views, therefore, fall flat.
We’ve heard that “Ronald Reagan talked to the Soviets” as justification for everything from the Russian “reset” to the Iran nuclear talks. But Reagan also continued to condemn the Soviet empire as evil, supported freedom fighters around the globe, bolstered our military and opposed detente.
David Adesnik of the American Enterprise Institute, who is a scholar on American isolationism, tells Right Turn, “For Reagan, the Cold War was fundamentally a moral conflict. There was one side fighting for freedom and another for oppression. Reagan believed in winning the Cold War, not just managing the conflict. Both of these notions – freedom and victory – were anathema to realists. Many thought Reagan was dangerous and ignorant.” He says Reagan was more than an anti-communist: “Toward the end [of his presidency], his administration helped push out anti-Communist dictators in the Philippines, South Korea and Chile. His public commitment to the cause of freedom was a clear as George W. Bush’s.” And he scoffs at the idea that those railing against foreign entanglements now are heirs to the Reagan tradition. “It’s true that Reagan was ahead of many hawks in his willingness to negotiate with the Soviets. Today’s anti-interventionists cite this as an example that Reagan was much more committed to diplomacy than the supposed cowboys running the Bush administration,” he argues. “But Reagan negotiated after he built up a position of strength that gave him the leverage he needed.”
We’ve heard that the Soviet empire fell “without a shot being fired.” In fact, as Elliott Abrams details, lots of shots were fired in lots of places:
Throughout the Cold War we fired shots. The greatest number of American casualties came in Korea and Vietnam, but on many other battlegrounds our soldiers and CIA agents, and our proxy forces, killed and died. Containment was not a series of speeches but a military strategy designed to impose costs on the Soviets and to constrain their behavior. Moreover, defeat on those foreign battlefields weakened the USSR and its alliance system—and perhaps more importantly weakened the party’s hold at home. There is no better example of this than the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. For we understood that the way a tyranny keeps power is by tyrannizing, which defeat lessens its ability to do. It shows the populace that the rulers are not invincible, have been beaten, and may be beaten again.
Flocks of anti-interventionists claim President Dwight D. Eisenhower as their leader. But as I and many others have pointed out, that’s just daft. Victor Davis Hanson masterfully debunks that one, recalling that “it was Ike who ordered the CIA intervention that helped to lead to the ouster of Mossadegh and to bring the Shah to absolute power. … Ike likewise ordered the CIA-orchestrated removal of the leaders of Guatemala and the Congo. … Ike ordered 15,000 troops into Lebanon to prevent a coup and the establishment of an anti-Western government — precisely those anti-American forces that had been emboldened by the recent Suez victory of the pan-Arabist Nasser. We forget that Ike was nominated not just in opposition to the non-interventionist policies of Robert Taft, but also as an antidote to the purportedly milk-toast Truman administration, which had supposedly failed to confront global Communism and thereby ‘lost’ much of Asia.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) considers himself, he has said, in the mold of George H.W. Bush, who, until President Obama, had the rockiest relationship with Israel of any U.S. president. But to give Bush 41 his due, he interceded in Europe, ensured that Germany and Europe remained whole and free and, of course, attacked Iraq to free Kuwait. Not exactly a model for retrenchment.
One can also see the disinclination to project force, the fierce determination to cut the defense budget (and claim that a military buildup begets war), the insistence on the reasonableness of our foes, suspicion of the motives of our own government and other habits of 21st-century anti-interventionists in George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, in Jimmy Carter’s pre-Afghanistan invasion foreign policy and rhetoric and in the American Firsters of the pre-WWII era. Adesnik explains that in the 1930s “the GOP was increasingly seduced by isolationism because it was an effective vehicle for attacking Roosevelt, whom Republicans despised more and more. Soon, conservative Republicans like Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg had become as isolationist as their progressive counterparts.” And like Hanson, he observes, “Not surprisingly, Pearl Harbor killed isolationism. … When the GOP nominated Eisenhower instead of Taft in 1952, GOP isolationism was forced out of the mainstream until the end of the Cold War.”
You can understand why the most accurate analogies for isolationism are so distasteful. None of these figures found enduring favor with the American people; none was had a successful model for foreign policy. The stars of the GOP — Eisenhower and Reagan — were on the other side and, not coincidentally, were each elected twice.
I don’t mean to suggest that the isolationists are all lying or that they harbor all the prejudices of previous isolationists. As those embracing a fantastical vision of the world and intent on focusing at home, the new isolationists perhaps don’t have all the facts down on the people they invoke, nor do they fully appreciate the lousy track record of anti-interventionism (although you’d think Obama would be sufficient to alert them to the danger). Still, it’s no excuse for falsifying history.