In the past six years, the president has undergone an interesting
metamorphosis: from “isolationist” to muscular unilateralist to advocate
of international engagement.
The root of the president’s change of heart has been a defensive
reaction to the debacle in Iraq. First, taken by surprise even after
being warned about a possible post-invasion insurgency, he has had to
substitute Republican nation-building for the Clinton administration’s
Democratic nation-building, which he so despised for being armed social
Second, his new “internationalist” pose allows him to smear critics
who advocate a withdrawal from Iraq as “isolationists.” But this tactic
is nothing new.
At the turn of the last century (the end of the 1800s and start of
the 1900s), Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval strategist who was pushing for
a large U.S. naval force to dominate the globe, coined the dreaded
I-word to discredit those who supported the traditional, more restrained
foreign policy originally instituted by the nation’s Founders.
Ever since then, interventionists have tried to attach this general
label to critics of any particular overseas military adventure. The
name-calling gets especially intense when interventionists are trapped
in a failed brushfire war, such as Iraq. Critics who see the writing on
the wall and want to cut U.S. losses are accused of “cutting and
running” or of “aiding the enemy.”
These accusations of cowardice and near treason are designed to
deflect the critics’ searing questions about the interventionist policy:
why the ill-advised military action was undertaken in the first place
and how the United States has aided future enemies by showing them how
to fight the United States—using guerrilla tactics—and by providing a
haven and training ground for terrorists in Iraq.
Of course, using the label “isolationist” to describe critics of the
war is inaccurate and says more about the accuser than the accused. Most
critics of the war do not want to cut off the United States from the
world; they simply want the U.S. military out of Iraq. For
interventionists to describe this view as “isolationist” is merely an
indication of how militarized U.S. foreign policy has become since World
The Defense Department and its regional military commanders around
the world have resources that dwarf those of other U.S. departments
engaged abroad—for example, the State Department. And having such a
large and capable military—U.S. security expenditures exceed the
combined defense spending of all the other major world powers—has
increasingly tempted U.S. presidents to use it to solve the world’s
President George W. Bush is not the first recent president to use
military power to intervene in the affairs of other countries, but he
probably has been the most reckless and incompetent.
In terms of numbers of useless military interventions, Bill Clinton
was the modern day champion—intervening or threatening to intervene in
Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—but he was smart enough to have
avoided a large ground invasion that might have led to a quagmire. Even
Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon—who sent large ground
forces into the Vietnam tar baby and persisted in that futile war,
respectively—did not have the potential to inflame radical anti-U.S.
terrorists worldwide by their actions.
Instead of completely neutralizing al-Qaeda after 9/11, President
Bush’s ignorance and lack of understanding of Islam have increased the
threat from radical Islamists against the United States. In Islam, even
moderate Muslims believe that when Islamic lands are invaded by
non-Muslims, every Muslim must do what he or she can to resist.
The fierce Islamist response to the Soviets in Afghanistan, the
Russians in Chechnya, and the Israelis in Palestine should have given
the Bush administration pause about how a foreign invader would be
received in Iraq.
Compounding this difficulty, it didn’t occur to the Bush
administration that Iraq was an artificial country that had always been
held together by brute force and that when that force was removed, it
would descend into anarchy and civil war. Nor did it occur to the
administration that the chaos would create a haven and training ground
for radical jihadists, who could launch future attacks against the
If George W. Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl
Harbor and Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, he would have
attacked Russia, making the problem far worse.
If the president had stuck with his campaign promise to conduct “a
more humble foreign policy”—or “isolationism” as he now pejoratively
labels it—the nation would not be hemorrhaging blood and treasure in a
foreign bog that is undermining U.S. security.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.