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Are We Facing a Dangerous Return to Isolationism?

Ronald Radosh

In this strange pre-election season, when the Republican Party is trying to sort out to which candidate it might turn for the 2012 election, it seems that the Republicans and some conservatives are contemplating a dangerous return to the old pre-World War II isolationism, as well as to the Robert A. Taft neo-isolationism of the early Cold War years.

The result is hypocrisy on all sides. A group of Republicans has been condemning the president for violation of the War Powers Act — a law put into effect in the waning days of Vietnam, and which the Nixon administration argued was unconstitutional and an attempt to limit presidential power. Last week, Speaker John Boehner — who actually voted for repeal of the Act — criticized President Obama for making the argument that his actions in Libya were not a violation of the Act’s statutes, since it was only a limited skirmish and not a war.

As defense expert Max Book argues, “The hypocrisy of Democrats who once damned Bush for his supposed misuse of presidential powers — in spite of the fact Bush won Congressional approval for his wars — while now defending Obama’s flagrant power grab is stunning. But no more disturbing than the hypocrisy of Republicans like Speaker John Boehner who in the past called the War Powers Act unconstitutional and voted to repeal it, but are now blasting Obama for refusing to abide by its terms.”

The speaker once understood how our constitutional system works. He said:

A strong presidency is a key pillar of the American system of government — the same system of government our military men and women are prepared to give their lives to defend. Just as good intentions alone are not enough to justify sending American troops into harm’s way, good intentions alone are not enough to justify tampering with the underpinnings of American democracy.

Now the speaker tells the president:

You took an oath before the American people on January 20, 2009, in which you swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The Constitution requires the President to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” and one of those laws is the War Powers Resolution, which requires an approving action by Congress or withdrawal within 90 days from the notification of a military operation. … I sincerely hope the administration will faithfully comply with the War Powers Resolution and the requests made by the House of Representatives, and that you will use your unique authority as our President to engage the American people regarding our mission in Libya.

So the man who once decried “tying the hands of future presidents” and favored a strong executive who could act decisively to implement our nation’s foreign policy is speaking in the manner of left-wing Democrats in the Vietnam era.

On the other side, the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative convened a group of foreign policy experts, who urged House Republicans to not only support the NATO operation in Libya, but who argued that the action should be waged relentlessly and without hesitation. As they put it,

The United States should be leading in this effort, not trailing behind our allies. We should be doing more to help the Libyan opposition, which deserves our support. We should not be allowing ourselves to be held hostage to U.N. Security Council resolutions and irresolute allies.

The problem, they said, “is not that the president has done too much, however, but that he has done too little to achieve the goal of removing Qaddafi from power.” Their conclusion is sharp:

For the United States and NATO to be defeated by Muammar al-Qaddafi would suggest that American leadership and resolution were now gravely in doubt — a conclusion that would undermine American influence and embolden our nation’s enemies.

The statement includes the names of experts who are Republicans and Democrats, and thus harks back to the kind of bipartisan foreign policy that helped win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The signers include William Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Tod Lindberg on the Republican side, and Robert Lieber, R. James Woolsey and Martin Peretz on the Democratic side.

The statement does not address the president’s pointed silence on Syria, where we have daily evidence of the Assad regime’s growing terror against its own people, and where floods of refugees are attempting to flee to the sanctuary of the Turkish side of the border. Syria is the ally of Iran and an enabler of Hamas and Hezbollah, and yet, the administration seems reluctant to turn on the screws and depart from its earlier policy of seeking to work with Assad, whom it at first deemed to be a “reformer.”

When even the liberal New York Times editorializes that the president is showing both ineptness and weakness in dealing with Syria, and argues that “Washington needs to mount an all-out campaign to pass a tough United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria and imposing sanctions,” then it is obviously apparent to all how the Obama administration is floundering.

For conservatives and Republicans at a moment like this to be calling for cutting back spending on defense and withdrawing from the world, and using the old liberal-left argument that “spending for the military means less money for use at home,” is more than shameful. Writing in the Washington Post, editorial writer Jackson Diehl notes that Obama is timid on Syria, a real enemy of the West and the United States, while at the same time is tough on an ally, Israel. He writes:

He has spoken in public on Syria just twice since its massacres began three months ago. But he chose to spell out U.S. terms for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without the agreement of Israel’s prime minister, on the eve of meeting him at the White House and with only a few hours’ notice — arguably the most high-handed presidential act in U.S.-Israeli relations since the Eisenhower administration.

Now, I can understand the sensibilities of those who feel that what is now our longest war, that in Afghanistan, is more than problematic, and that it could drift into an endless battle with no end in sight, costing scores of lives as well as billions of dollars that we cannot afford in perpetuity. But there is another argument here as well, that presented most recently by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan. The Kagans, who have spent most of the previous year in Afghanistan working with General David Petraeus, make the case that our effort in Afghanistan is directly tied to success in Pakistan. “Simply put,” the Kagans write, “if the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives President Obama announced at West Point, the ‘counter-terrorism’ operations in Pakistan will also fail.” They warn of the major dangers awaiting us if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to leave his post and years of government service this week, he issued the following caveat in his Newsweek interview:

To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.

As the magazine comments, “Such a statement — rather astonishing for the leader of the world’s preeminent fighting force — may open the administration to charges of not believing in American exceptionalism, an opening the GOP is already trying to exploit.”

Most serious, the article continues, is that “[in] Afghanistan, Gates leaves behind a difficult, unfinished piece of business: to convince Congress and war-weary Americans that any major U.S. withdrawal should be delayed by a year — a deferment sought by military commanders on the ground.”

This indeed is precisely the dilemma. For Republicans and conservatives to argue at such a critical moment that withdrawal should be advanced rather than delayed is both irresponsible and tactically wrong.

Do we really want to see a new liberal-conservative alliance against the exercise of American power at a historic moment when it is needed more than ever? This is something the current crop of candidates seeking the Republican nomination should seriously consider more carefully before their next debate.

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