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The Isolationist Red Herring

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The media have picked up a new buzzword: “isolationist.” They jumped on it after Sen. John McCain, who seems to want the United States to be at war everywhere, said after the last Republican presidential debate, “I do want to send a message, and that is that we cannot move into an isolationist party.” He was soon joined by his fellow advocate of empire, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told his party’s critics of President Obama’s Libyan intervention to “shut up.”

Is the GOP going isolationist? Presidential aspirant Jon Huntsman calls for an “aggressive drawdown” from Afghanistan. Mitt Romney wants the troops out “as soon as possible.” That brought rebukes from rivals Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann. Speaking at the establishment Council on Foreign Relations, Pawlenty accused some Republicans — presumably Huntsman and Romney — of “trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments,” while Bachmann said the U.S. government must “finish the job” in Afghanistan.

Pawlenty and Bachmann need not worry. There is no “danger” that Huntsman and Romney will fall into “isolationism.” Calling for bringing the troops home “as soon as possible” is a meaningless statement, and an aggressive drawdown from Afghanistan, when the public is sick of America’s longest war, says nothing about foreign policy in general.

On the other hand, another candidate in the race, Rep. Ron Paul, does want an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and everywhere else the U.S. government maintains troops, including Europe, Japan, and South Korea. He wants the thousand or so U.S. military installations scattered around the world closed.

But is that isolationism?

No, it is not. Why would anyone use that term to describe a program of peace and free trade with the rest of the world? Where’s the isolation? There have indeed been political figures who wished to create a Fortress America, a program that would have included economic self-sufficiency. That is properly called “isolationism.”

But a foreign policy of trade with the world and military nonintervention is as far from isolationism as one could get.

It is telling that the critics of “isolationism” equate engagement in the larger world with invasions, occupations, bombings, drone missile attacks, assassinations, black-site prisons, torture, covert operations, and all the rest of the malign things associated with the so-called war on terror. For them the choice is between empire and isolation.

How absurd! Were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson isolationists when they advised the United States to have commercial relations with all countries and political ties with none, and that it stay clear of foreign quarrels? Was John Quincy Adams an isolationist when he said that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own”?

What those who attack “isolationism” don’t want the public to know is that Washington, Jefferson, and Adams favored a foreign policy of nonintervention because it is best suited to a constitutional republic. As we have seen in recent years, keeping government power in check is impossible when it is free to roam the world imposing its notion of order — and always in a way that turns a profit for special interests. As their counterpart in Great Britain, the free trader and pacifist Richard Cobden, noted, freedom cannot flourish in an empire.

Or as James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”

But aren’t we in danger? If so, it is because of a half-century of U.S. military and political intervention.

So let’s hear no more about isolationism. But if the word must be used, let it be used as the classical liberal William Graham Sumner used it:

“Our ancestors all came here to isolate themselves from the social burdens and inherited errors of the old world…. When the others are crushed under the burden of militarism, who would not be isolated in peace and industry? When the others are all struggling under debt and taxes, who would not be isolated in the enjoyment of his own earnings for the benefit of his own family?”

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.