The Stupid Isolationist Right. Yes, that is still a legitimate and meaningful category. Patrick Buchanan perfectly captures it in his latest column. It is a response to William Kristol in the Weekly Standard, where Kristol suggests that the Israel-Hezbollah/Iran/Lebanon conflict is also “our war.” Buchanan replies that, no, this is not “our war,” and it is wrong and immoral to treat it as such.
Those inclined to Buchanan’s isolationist policy prescriptions sometimes dress them up in the language of the social contract, and distort the tired but nevertheless sound maxim from John Quincy Adams, that it is not the true policy of the U.S. to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” John Quincy Adams’s inescapable logic keeps actions like war tethered to our national interest. If one is going abroad in search of monsters not because it is in your interest but precisely because it is not, this is an error from which there is no recovery. This is true as far as it goes, but the question here is whether it goes very far.
One does not have to be a democratization zealot, or to say things like "we are all Israelis today," or to walk around with the purple thumb of Iraqi solidarity, to see that America does indeed have a powerful interest in preventing monsters abroad the freedom to rampage, hurt our allies, and gather strength and organization—before coming to search after us. This is monster-slaying which John Quincy Adams would sanction, indeed require. Buchanan suggests that we have no dog in this fight. When Hezbollah has pushed Israel into the sea, will they then become America’s new ally in the region?
Buchanan says that neither “Hamas, Hezbollah nor Iran has attacked our country.” Except that in October 1983, Hezbollah drove 12,000 lbs of TNT into U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. Even if one had forgotten about that, it is not unreasonable to think that they would do something like that again if they have their druthers. Then there were those 444 days a while back, when American hostages were made uncomfortable. Buchanan even trots out Iran’s signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as if it were worth more than the paper on which it is printed. The lengths to which one will go, to keep oneself isolated from reality!
How blind must one be to not realize that the Israel-Lebanon conflict is of a piece with everything else going on in the Middle East? Anyone with eyes can see that there are dots to be connected. Buchanan writes as though the Hezbollah-Israel conflict takes place in a vacuum, completely unrelated to everything else going on in the region.
All this does not mean that we must bomb Iran and Hezbollah tomorrow, but it does mean that we cannot foreclose the possibility. Buchanan's all-too-easy solution is President Bush should pick up a phone to Syria, and get them to squash the terrorists. It is incredible—in the literal sense of inspiring disbelief—that neither Bush nor Buchanan can figure out that such a response is exactly what Syria and Iran and Hezbollah want. Following this sort of advice ensures that America is outmaneuvered by cheap acts of statecraft so transparent that even the New York Times can describe it with decent clarity.
This whole line of reasoning begins with the categorical premise that the U.S. does not have vital interests abroad, and that one may simply sit back and watch, cozy with our dual ocean security. The logic continues—perverting John Quincy Adams along the way—that going abroad to destroy monsters must therefore mean that we are acting against our interest, and that such policies must be the result of pie-in-the-sky Wilsonianism. But neither oceans nor wishful thinking were enough to protect us in WWI, WWII, the Cold War, or in the current war. As the premise is false, so is the conclusion.
If one were to adopt a detached philosophical view of the problem, one might try to defend Buchanan, saying that such silly thinking derives from the most profound and basic of human delusions: that one can escape necessity, that one can be left in peace, that all one has to do is not live by the sword in order not to die by the sword of an enemy. But human affairs being in motion as they are, such detachment is impossible. Indeed, such detachment makes for bad philosophy.
We have enemies whether or not we admit it, and whether or not we wish it. We must face necessity whether or not we like it. Rarely in the history of man does one get to choose war before it becomes “yours.” Some things we get to choose of pure free will—but much is thrust upon us by a combination of accident and force. Sometimes you just get war, whether you ask for it or not.
As it turns out, we do have interests abroad, pretty important ones. For this reason we could not sit back and let Europe be lost to a hostile German or Soviet power during WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, for the very simple reason that they would be in a very good position to come after us next. Nor could we permit it today, even if the Europeans say nasty things about us now and again.
Buchanan's argument is not only idiotic and childish, but dangerous. Any adult should be able to figure out that we do not have the luxury to merely hope monsters abroad leave us alone. Buchanan is either the witting or unwitting dupe of bad ideas, but either way, it is indefensible. That he has to clarify that this piece is not a defense of Hezbollah and Hamas or Iran is truly remarkable, but that is the effectual truth of what he is doing. I say this as an "American first, last, and always," a category upon which Buchanan does not have a monopoly, if he has any title to the phrase. We should renounce these empty promises once and for all.