Obama's Neo-Isolationism

It's one of the ironies of modern "progressivism" that it looks to the past for so many of its policies: from the state intervention of the Roosevelt through Johnson years in economic policy, to a form of neo-isolationism in foreign policy and a trade protectionism that smacks of the Smoot-Hawley 1930s. 

Both are discredited, but they form a powerful appeal to today's Democratic Party, and a form of neo-isolationism seems likely to emerge -- even if well-disguised -- should an Obama Administration be elected in November.  Not a full-blooded isolationism that at least has the advantage of clarity and consistency but something worse: a halfway house without enough commitment to win through but with enough involvement to get us into trouble.

Obama understands that to win in the post-9/11 environment he must at least appear strong.  So with the exception of trade, he carefully hides isolationist tendencies and tries to make all the right noises, his real thinking only apparent in small and unconscious phenomena; not the sculpted speeches or press releases crafted with an eye to public consumption during the campaign but the offhand and the inadvertent.

The foreign policy id that emerges from behind a scrim of sometimes tough campaign rhetoric is all-too consistent with the values of today's Democrats:  More than just backing down from a foreign challenge, an Obama Administration may back away entirely -- in the belief now current on the left that our mere involvement overseas is provocative; that the hostility the U.S. faces in the world is often entirely understandable, and therefore we should simply stay home.

Obama's ideal would be to walk softly without carrying a big stick.  Like most Democrats, he is most comfortable with a "soft power" that offers cover in the form of a nod to an inevitable international presence, but without the hard, expensive -- and unpopular -- policies required to ensure our national security. 

There's the usual emphasis on education, disease eradication and disaster relief, and treacly nonsense from the candidate about "reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world's forgotten corners."  And always the desire for talk, talk and more talk.

On his signature issue of Iraq, he not only opposed intervention in 2003 but advocated unconditional withdrawal by early 2008, opposed funding our troops, and has ruled out a long-term presence in that crucial and volatile country such as we have had in Germany or South Korea.  

As a campaign necessity, he now pays lip service to the importance of making policy with reference to "facts on the ground"  and has offered assurances that if elected he will consult with military commanders before making decisions.  Yet he continues to insist that he will adhere to his 16 month timetable for withdrawal -- presumably even if the facts on the ground suggest disastrous consequences. 

He will only talk the talk, not walk the walk: This "citizen of the world," as he called himself in Berlin, simply echoes George McGovern's "Come home, America," and damn the consequences.

Ironically, even his emphasis on international organizations and agreements means disengagement.  As always, if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible; and the UN and the other international talk shops Obama favors become convenient black holes for any action more strenuous than a Turtle Bay cocktail party.

Inferences may be drawn from what he hasn't done:  As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Europe, he hasn't called a single policy hearing; important speeches on foreign policy have been few and far between; and until it became a political issue, he hadn't made any plans to visit Iraq in over two years. 

Other clues as to his tendencies appear on his website.  Foreign policy is submerged in a sea of domestic issues; China rates less mention than Darfur or the Congo, while Russia isn't mentioned at all; there is a notable absence of ringing endorsements of allies who depend on U.S. protection unless they are advantageous to his campaign; and, there is scarcely a mention of NATO, South Korea or other important allies and alliances around the world.

Obama may have given away the game by endorsing the classic false dichotomy of isolationism.  More than once he has told crowds that the money we are spending in Iraq would be better invested at home.  Of course there are always trade-offs.  But one does not preclude the other; cannot preclude the other: If we don't protect our national security interests overseas there may not be a homeland in which to invest.

Free trade is where Obama's isolationism becomes explicit.  It's one of the few principles on which most economists from right to left agree.  But in an effort to appeal to activists and unions who dislike globalization and transnational corporations, Obama outbid Hillary in his skepticism about trade liberalization.  He's not about to go back to the high tariffs of the Smoot-Hawley era, but as the Wall Street Journal put it, "On the record so far, Mr. Obama is the most protectionist U.S. Presidential candidate in decades."

He has even gone so far as to suggest that we should renegotiate NAFTA, though he seemed to back down somewhat when Canadians expressed disquiet.  Still, that's an extraordinary stance in this day and age and is consistent with his stated opposition to free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Central American States (CAFTA). 

Jason Furman, a top Obama economic adviser, has said that the candidate is a "free trader" who is "firmly committed to the multilateral trading system," but he has also said that our pact with Canada and Mexico has "cost a significant number of jobs."  Obama claims that he is primarily concerned with environmental and labor issues, but tellingly, he has also repeatedly insisted on "fairness" in trade -- a term so fuzzy that it may mask simple protectionism.   And it probably will, with the support of Congressional Democrats who have been agitating to put a halt to more than half a century of increasing world-wide economic interdependence.

This record suggests a Democratic nominee for President who simply doesn't have his heart and soul in a robust foreign or free trade policy.  The Obama doctrine, if it is lucid enough to be called that, holds that the United States has neither wisdom, right nor economic logic on its side to engage internationally in the ways that have proven necessary for our material well-being, national security and the peace of the world.

Whatever it's called, it is something perilously close to the kind of isolationism that was discredited over 70 years ago.  Only now, in a more fast-paced world, we may not have enough time to change course before evils are upon us.

Douglas Stone is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy
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