Thursday, January 9, 2020

Responding to Trumpian Pseudo-Isolationism

Isolationism - a go-it-alone and/or stay-out-of-it attitude toward the rest of the world - has always plagued American politics. Pearl Harbor and the inevitability of World War II dealt traditional isolationism a severe blow and led to the U.S. definitively becoming the dominant world power, assuming its rightful role in world affairs, supported at home by a bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy. Vietnam cracked that consensus and gave rise to a new left-wing variant of pseudo-isolationism, a soft version of which was, for example, George McGovern's campaign plea, "Come home, America." The debacle unleashed by the 2003 neo-conservative Iraq war empowered the pseudo-isolationist wing of the Democratic party to push for Barack Obama over Hilary Clinton in 2008. It also empowered right-wing pseudo-isolationism, which eventually found its victorious spokesperson in Donald Trump.

Democratic pseudo-isolationism has sometimes seemed dangerously close to certain left-leaning, unpatriotic, anti-American attitudes which instinctively seem to blame the US for the world's problems. On the other side, Republican isolationism has sometimes seemed to coexist with a sense of grievance that thinks the US has been taken advantage of by others (including our own Allies) and to coexist even more oddly with a reflexively aggressive, militaristic, approach to international threats. The Trump Administration's subversion of NATO and other alliances reflects this obsession that the US has somehow been taken advantage of (a win-or-lose mindset that cannot appreciate common shared interests and outcomes where everybody can "win"). This stupid outlook has obviously been intrinsic to the Trump Administration's aversion to accommodation with Iran and its rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) which the Obama Administration had successfully negotiated - an admittedly imperfect agreement in that it did not end all Iranian misbehavior, but a very good one in that it accomplished something very important which benefited all parties to the agreement and left the region and the world at least moderately better off.

The current crisis  if, of course, a direct consequence of the Trump Administration's ill-advised withdrawal from that Iranian Agreement, sacrificing the limited but real benefits of the agreement while getting absolutely nothing in return other than than the superficial satisfaction of sounding bellicose.

Consistent with his politics of grievance, Trump campaigned successfully on the idea that the US is ill-served by its international alliances and commitments - an argument rendered significantly more plausible by the abysmal failure and human cost of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment's commitment to "endless wars." Obviously Trump had a point which resonated - and still resonates - with a lot of Americans, especially those whose sons and daughters have borne and will bear the principal burden of such adventures. His position - like all pseudo-isolationist positions - is, however, also potentially problematic because dangerously unrealistic. The dangers of Trump's approach are exacerbated further by his simultaneous personal attraction (and a significant segment of his political base's attraction) to an aggressive, bellicose,  militaristic posture, which coexists uncomfortably with the perennial isolationist impulse to stop the world and try to get off.

Both sides of Trump's pseudo-isolationism have been on conspicuous display in the recent crisis Given that the Republican party is hopelessly compromised by its reflexive subservience to the President and by its own very evident division between bellicose neo-conservative types and more isolationist types, it will really fall to the Democrats to surface some serious alternatives that respect both the inevitability of American involvement in managing world conflicts and the realistic limits of both actual American power and what actual Americans are willing to undertake and endure. Asking such questions at Tuesday's debate would serve the country better than the probably predictable silly sound-bite questions about whether Trump has been right or wrong in his Iran policy (the answers to which we already know without the need for asking the questions).

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