David Greenberg’s War

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The war continues — the war against “isolationism,” that is. This time the latest blows are being struck on the op ed page of the New York Times, where Rutgers historian David Greenberg takes up the cudgels against these hated troglodytes. Bemoaning the sudden Republican turnabout on foreign policy, Professor Greenberg notes his surprise that the all-too-”predictable” response of GOP presidential candidates to President Obama’s Afghanistan speech wasn’t all that predictable after all: several declared his withdrawal announcement “too little, too late.” In the Republican-controlled House, too, some have the nerve to question the President’s legal authority to take us to war without congressional authorization — and, as if all that wasn’t enough, GOP’ers afflicted with “balanced budget mania” have gone on a veritable rampage, and are actually talking about “scaling back defense spending of a sort that Republicans would once have never dared broach.”

So, what does all this add up to, in Greenberg’s view? Well, this:

“Suddenly, after the aggressive, militaristic foreign policy of the Bush years, isolationism — a stance that rejects America’s leadership role in the world — is on the rise among Republicans.”

If you think Congress, rather than the President, has the constitutionally-granted power to declare war, then what are you — a constitutionalist? An anti-monarchist? A believer in the rule of law? Well, no — you’re an “isolationist.”

If you don’t sign on to the idea that America must exercise a “leadership role in the world” — i.e. if you don’t’ think we should be invading countries left and right and footing the bill for all kinds of international welfare schemes — you’re somebody who wants to “isolate” America from the rest of the universe, no doubt by building a crocodile-filled moat on the border and posting a “Keep Out!” sign (in English only) just in case potential interlopers fail to take the hint.

By posing a false choice between a hyperactive foreign policy and an “isolationist” one, the War Party gets to argue as if they are the reasonable ones, and everyone else — in this case, most of the country — are marginal cranks. At this point, they get out their canned history lesson, and lecture us on the evils of our “isolationist” past, as does Professor Greenberg:

“But if this comes as an abrupt break, it is also a return to form: the impulse to retreat from the world stage has a long and hardy pedigree within Republican ranks. And while a dose of caution among conservatives can be refreshing, a Tea Party-led reversion to a dogmatic America First stance could damage both the party and the country.

“Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal — even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again. A pattern emerged, as liberal Democrats, along with Northeastern Republicans, wanted America to actively manage world affairs, while the Republicans’ powerful Midwestern and Western factions viewed cooperative international ventures as dangerously entangling alliances.”

Greenberg’s historical overview is pretty much the Establishment party line: always there have been those “forward-looking” “progressive” leaders, like Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned tirelessly to get the US entangled in Europe’s intrigues and her endless wars: and always, opposing these noble souls, there have been those nasty “Irreconcilables” — even the name sounds unreasonable, fanatic — who somehow doubted mortal men could “actively manage world affairs.” What could possibly motivate these Irreconcilables, other than pure malicious contrarianism?

“The isolationists had complex motives: Congressional vigilance against presidential encroachments on their constitutional powers; a small-town obsession with balanced budgets; and conspiratorial suspicions of foreigners, financiers and — in the case of anti-Semites like Charles A. Lindbergh — Jews. Naturally, isolationism thrived among Congressional Republicans when a Democrat held the White House — as it does again today — but it continued through the Coolidge and Hoover years, too.”

Those mean-minded members of Congress who think the Constitution must be obeyed — they’re just selfish reactionaries, obsessed with maintaining their own power. And as for those who think we need to live within our means and balance the federal budget — they’re just small-town “obsessives,” and probably anti-Semites to boot.

Read the rest of the article

Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.

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