Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has appeared prominently in the news lately for a number of bellicose statements, including grave warnings to fellow Republicans over their reluctance to join him in advocating military force to defend American ideals around the globe.
Senator McCain has identified a dangerous “isolation strain” stemming from “the Pat Buchanan wing” of the Republican party – the same tendency, he claims, that during the 1930’s led the United States to stand idly by as Germany disregarded its Versailles treaty obligations and prepared to conquer Europe.
If the threats we face today are as overt and credible as the rise of Nazism in Germany, then the implications of the Republican “isolation strain” are truly dangerous to American security.
Of course, isolationism as an American ideology has historically been espoused by policymakers for widely varying reasons: from a continuation of President Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances,” to a rejection of Wilsonian idealism and the League of Nations at the end of World War I, to a repudiation of European balance-of-power politics, to outright xenophobia.
Senator McCain’s accusation recalls a harsh brand of isolationism wielded by public figures like Republican Senators Gerald P. Nye and Henry Cabot Lodge. This doctrine spurned not only military intervention on the side of Great Britain and France but also participation in international bodies and alliances with European nations It ignored an overt and credible German threat to the sovereignty of nations and the existence of an entire people. As a result, American foreign policy undermined the promise of collective security manifested in the League of Nations, and was one factor leading to the highly destructive Second World War where over 60 million people were killed.
Senator McCain’s comparison is problematic. The threats to American security posed by a military withdrawal from Libya or Afghanistan are neither overt nor credible. Analysts indicate that al-Qaeda in its newly decentralized and localized form is no longer able to operate substantially from an Afghani platform. Prior to the recent U.S. military intervention, a combination of sanctions and diplomacy had kept Colonel Qadaffi in his box and induced him to renounce the Libyan nuclear program.
Although Senator McCain sharply accused his colleague Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) of a “lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude” that “seems to be on the rise in America,” he nevertheless does not hesitate to conjure gross historical inaccuracies to support his own position.
Withdrawal from Libya and Afghanistan may very well diverge from our willingness “to stand up for freedom for people all over the world.” Nevertheless, to categorize his opponents as 1930s-style “isolationists” constitutes a flagrant exaggeration that presupposes an overt and credible threat to the sovereignty of nations. As conservative columnist George Will noted,
“Between wishing success to people fighting for freedom and sending in the Marines (or the drones), there is as much middle ground for temperate people as there is between Buchanan, a sort of come-home-America conservative, and McCain, a promiscuous interventionist.”
Senator McCain subscribes loudly to the neo-conservative doctrine that “our interests are our values.” To carry this doctrine to its logical conclusion, the United States should send its military not only to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, but to Bahrain, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere where freedom and democracy threaten to upset the old order.
It is ironic that the politician who once considered himself a proud maverick now finds himself in a corner with a narrow group of neoconservative holdouts. Senator McCain has a right to his own opinion, but deliberately distorting history misinforms the American people and diminishes the human cost that we pay to defend our “interests” around the globe.