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On Isolationism and the Drawdown in Iraq
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The following comes from part of a facebook discussion (an appropriate venue for such polemics, I know!) that resulted from one of my status updates (FB’s response to tweets). For better or worse, I’m heavily indebted to Pat Buchanan for the tack I take in my approach to US history. Comments and corrections in my understanding will be much appreciated.

Status: Fewer than 50,000 military personnel left in Iraq, something I’m proud of my President for. Now just 100,000 in Afghanistan, 66,000 in Germany, 54,000 in Japan, 30,000 in Kuwait, and 30,000 in South Korea to go. A republic, not an empire.

[Keenan wrote: Would we risk further instability in the world by returning to an isolationist foreign policy?]


Prior to our entry into WWI, Jefferson doubled the size of the US by buying up over 800,000 square miles of land from the French (who, had we have been more meddlesome in European affairs, would’ve been more hostile towards us than they were following the naval Quasi-War we’d had with them from 1798-1800) at less than $20 a square mile. Jefferson also oversaw the creation of the US Navy in response to the plundering of merchant ships by Barbary corsairs in the Atlantic and Mediterranean that had been going on for centuries.

James Madison took much of contemporary Florida from the hands of the Spanish empire and attempted to invade and conquer Canada.

The war hero and future President Andrew Jackson invaded what was left of Florida and kicked the Spanish governor across the water into Cuba. The result was complete US control of what became the sunshine state.

James Monroe, who sent Jackson to take Florida, declared during his Presidency the Monroe Doctrine, essentially telling the rest of the world to butt out of US affairs in the Western Hemisphere.

John Tyler annexed Texas. Instead of implicitly ceding the American Southwest to the Mexicans as we are apt to do today, he explicitly took its greatest part from them.

James Polk followed that up by chopping off the northern half of what was then Mexico (the California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico of today) at a bargain-basement price in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Commodore Perry is probably more famous in the annals of Japanese history than in US history for forcing open trade between that formerly cloistered country and the West. He didn’t remain stationed in Okinawa for six decades, though–he was back home in the US a year later.

In 1853, President Franklin bought up the remainder of Mexican-controlled territory (including modern-day Tucson) that would eventually become part of the US.

The US, under Andrew Johnson, supported Mexico’s struggle for self-rule in opposing the French suzerainty that had been installed there by Napolean’s nephew.

William Seward bought Alaska. He was less successful in acquiring Hawaii, British Columbia, Greenland, and the Virgin Islands. But he tried for those, too.

During Rutherford Hayes’ administration, we almost went to war with Germany over questions over the status of the Samoan Islands.

William McKinley went to war with Spain, invaded Cuba, gave the US control of Puerto Rico, maintained US influence in the Philippines, used American troops to put down the Boxer Rebellion, and forced open trade between China and the rest of the West as Millard Fillmore had done in Japan half a century before.

Teddy Roosevelt made sure the Panama Canal was completed and mediated the treaty following Japan’s surprising victory over Russia in 1904.

All that during the so-called period of US isolationism. We didn’t isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead, we acted on the world stage when it was in our best interests, not on behalf of some entangling alliance or in defence of some universal proposition about the equality and civil rights of all man(and woman!)kind

My amateurish understanding of history freely admitted, I am not of the opinion that what the US has done since then–exported messianic liberal democracy on the barrel of a gun–has done us much good. World War I is widely regarded as a pointless bloodletting (Western Civilization’s first Civil War, really). The Korean War? Vietnam? The Balkans? The war in Iraq? A decade in Afghanistan?

More controversial is criticism of our entry into WWII, but by starving the Japanese of energy while they were at war with China was a primary reason for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitler honored his alliance with Japan and declared war on us a couple days later, but had we not sent American troops into Europe, it’s questionable as to how and where any military confrontations between the US and Germany would’ve commenced. Instead, at great cost in blood and treasure, we knocked out the Nazis before they’d done all they could’ve done to the Soviets. As a result, we got Stalin, who murdered millions more people than Hitler did, and a Cold War that lasted over four decades and ensconced in our economic fabric the military-industrial-congressional complex that underlies the countless “defense” boondoggles taxpayer dollars have been squandered on ever since.

That rebuttal to the derogatory “isolationist” charge aside, US military personnel constitute almost 70% of all foreign deployments worldwide. We have nearly 400,000 boots on the ground outside of the US. The rest of the world combined, by contrast, has a total of about 175,000 spread across the entire globe. If our soldiers come home from their extended vacations in Germany, the US embassy in Berlin will not be closed down. The Germans will still export BMWs to us. We will still export jets to them.

Instead of establishing permanent military bases throughout Europe and Asia, why not maintain a foreign policy stating that if you attack us or facilitate those who do, we’re going to strike back an order of magnitude more ferociously (and then some), reducing your domestic military installations to rubble, killing your leaders, and aiming our nuclear arsenal at you just in case that response isn’t enough to set you straight–then we’re going to get out and leave the cleanup to you and your despondent citizenry?

As Landon rightly points out, China is establishing soft influence all over the place–in the Middle East, Africa, South America, the rest of Asia–without any overseas military bases or deployed soldiers to speak of. I don’t even think they have an outpost in North Korea (although I could be off on that).

[Evan wrote: I’m sure South Korea wouldn’t appreciate our departure.]


Polls show that most South Koreans–by about a 55%-45% margin–want the US to extirpate itself militarily from their country (there is a generational divide on the issue, with older Koreans being more amenable to our presence than younger Koreans are). South Korea’s economy is 20-30 times the size of the North’s. Its military expenditures are four times the North’s, and its population is more than twice that of its northern neighbor. Why are we footing the bill and putting our guys at risk on behalf of an ungrateful nation that can (and should!) defend itself?

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Though this is a very leftist tactic, we really need a new word for isolationism. Apart from the negative connotations surrounding WWII (and I seriously doubt much of the public will ever buy into the Buchananite view of the war), it's just a bit, I dunno, weak and naive sounding. As if we can just take our ball and go home and assume that nothing that happens in the rest of the world will ever matter. Which is, of course, not what an isolationist policy means, but that's irrelevant. Unfortunately, any quasi-isolationist policy, no matter the name, will be slurred as isolationist and, therefore, pro-Nazi.

    We can try and reframe it as saying that government action should be concerned with actual American citizens, but then you'll be racist and nativist. Cause after all, why should the US government be more concerned with the welfare of American citizens than with that of, say, Albanians or Algerians or Laotians or whoever? Can't think of a single reason.

    It occurs to me that leftists should be greatly in favor of further space exploration. Just think of all the alien civilizations that might exist, none of which are getting anything at all from the US government. Xenophobes!

  2. We can certainly remove much of our military "footprint" from the world and still be able to defend whatever is considered "our interest" even if you do not embrace isolationism.

    We can remove our troops from South Korea, Japan, and Germany will little ill effect. The bases in Germany are primarily used for logistical support for our actions in the middle-east. However, these logistical efforts do not require 66,000 soldiers. They could probably be done with 10,000 or maybe 15,000 at the most.

    As you point out, the U.S. has never been an isolationist society. We were quite expansionistic up until the end of the 19th century (Manifest Destiny and the like). However, our interventionism since the Spanish-American war has been more about converting the rest of the world to "Americanism" rather than for outright expansionism. Its not clear to me that it has actually done much good and, contrary to PC myth, much of the world really does not want to become like us.

  3. By the way, "tact" would traditionally be "tack" in that particular usage. "Tact," meaning touch or as shortened version of tactic, makes perfect sense, but this is irrelevant to the usage KGB.

    I don't care about such things myself, but I do enjoy preventing some language freak from receiving unfathomable pleasure in pointing to such a flaw and clucking their tongue before returning to their daily reading of the Chicago Manual of Style.

    I recommend changing it, then deleting this comment, that way they'll never know. Muwuwhaha!

  4. Instead of establishing permanent military bases throughout Europe and Asia, why not maintain a foreign policy stating that if you attack us or facilitate those who do, we're going to strike back an order of magnitude more ferociously (and then some), reducing your domestic military installations to rubble, killing your leaders, and aiming our nuclear arsenal at you just in case that response isn't enough to set you straight–then we're going to get out and leave the cleanup to you and your despondent citizenry?

    This sums up my opinion as well – yet isolationists generally disagree with this.

    As for the notion of American interests vs. exportation of liberal democracy – fully agree.

    Yet I don't think we can simply duck our heads in the sand indiscriminately. If an unprecedented evil arises (i.e. WWII), then we can temper our isolationism somewhat. I guess there's no free lunch though; we got Stalin and Communism instead.

  5. Nick,

    I'm not sure on the semantics question. "Isolationist" has heavy negative connotations, so even if those with an America First-ish approach to US foreign policy try to showcase some other preferred descriptor, the media establishment will still employ the isolationist term.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the typo. I'm not going to make a martyr of you by taking your advice–I bet you have screen shots!


    Complete withdrawal is hyperbolic and impractical. But my impressions from talking to those who've served in Germany and Japan is that they really didn't do much of anything meaningful while they were there. So it seems to me there must be excessive deployments.


    Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. My question is why we need permanent installations to address unprecedented evil when it rears its ugly head in one form or another?

  6. Napoleon III was not Napoleon I' Grandson.

    Better you should think about Neutralism instead of Isolationism.

  7. Complete withdrawal is hyperbolic and impractical.

    I agree. As you say, we don't need to maintain troops in Japan and South Korea. We could reduce our troop levels in Germany down to what is necessary for logistical and medical support for our actions in the Middle-east. This would probably be around 10,000 or so.

    In total, we could probably reduce the number of troops deployed internationally to about half of what they are now and still maintain the interventionism that we need.

    Our future interventions will be in the areas around the Indian Ocean and Africa. Our troop deployments should reflect this fact.

  8. Joseph,

    Oops, thanks. Fixed it.

  9. One small correction – Hitler's treaty with Japan did not require him to declare war on the US unless Japan was attacked. Since Japan attacked the US, Hitler had an out. His declaration of war against the US was a free choice on his part – one that sealed his doom and eventually kept western Europe out of Soviet hands.

    That said, the US has no reason to maintain ANY troops outside our borders. Japan, Germany and South Korea are all prosperous democratic societies, fully capable of defending themselves. Why should the US taxpayers foot the bill? Our armed forces should be large enough to defend our borders and protect our commerce – nothing more.

  10. Isnt it obvious? Koreans are cute. That's why we stay there.

  11. If there is a purpose to keeping US troops in Korea, I expect that it's to do with protecting Japan.

    As for "World War I is widely regarded as a pointless bloodletting", it may be widely regarded as having been pointless, but, as usual, the man in the street is wrong. Professor Fischer, back in the 1950s, showed that its point was that the ruling clique in Germany was desperate to find a pretext to fight a war with Russia, and found that it could contrive one out of the assassination in Sarajevo and the Austro-Hungarian response. If, on the other hand, you were referring only to the American entry into that war, the point was presumably the desire of President Wilson to gain the chance to inflict his views on much of mankind.

  12. Black Death,



    I was referring to everything from a US' perspective. I'm shamefully nationalistic in my historical perspective!

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