A born-again isolationist

By trying to rule the world, we open ourselves to the world's madness. America should let go of its empire and set its own house in order.

Published November 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

In my younger days we used to hear of ships being put in "mothballs." The phrase always brought to my mind a wonderful image of silent, dark hulls, mysteriously made proof against rust and rot, anchored row on row, in some still, twilight harbor; taken, like King Arthur or Charlemagne, out of common time and space, to sleep until the day of need.

Except for the romance of the thing, it turns out that we might as well have scrapped the ships. No use for them was ever found, and rust proved an enemy more resourceful, and unrelenting, than the troops of Hitler and Hirohito. Arthur and Charlemagne haven't been heard from either, and one can hardly blame them. But ideas, now -- ideas are more rust-resistant than the best shipbuilder's steel. And they come back more easily, and more often, than the heroes of epic and romance.

Perhaps we should start thinking of unused ideas as being in mothballs, rather than discarded. Turn the ash heap of history into a recycling center. And every so often, take a look in the closet, along the racks of mothballed ideas, to see whether something that was old might not be new again.

What idea could be moldier, fustier, more thoroughly foxed and blown-upon, than isolationism? Discredited almost 60 years ago, wasn't it? Consigned to the ash heap by Pearl Harbor? Didn't the Second World War thrust upon the United States a global mandate that it cannot now put down? I wonder. No, that's uncandid. I don't wonder. I'm quite convinced that it's time to take isolationism out of mothballs, give it a quick touch of the iron, maybe take it in a little here and there to suit our new athletic physique and wear it with pride.

This notion has been growing on me for some time. But as with so many things, it took the events of Sept. 11 to crystallize it. Two questions have been asked, with great urgency, in the weeks since the Trade Center fell. The first question is, Why? Why us? Why do they hate us so? And the second question is, What do we do about it?

To neither of these questions has a satisfactory answer been given by our leaders. We are told that they hate us because we are free. Or perhaps, because we are modern. Maybe they envy our wealth? Or despise our loose morals?

The Swedes are at least as free as we are, and as modern -- perhaps more so, in some ways. They are certainly well-off, though our very, very rich are probably richer than theirs. As for their morals -- well, I remember all those racy movies from some years back. Where there's smoke there's fire. Yet the free, modern, rich, racy Swedes seem to have little to fear from the likes of Osama bin Laden.

The real answer to the "why" question is quite simple, though perhaps a bit embarrassing: "They" hate us because "we" -- or, more accurately, some of us -- rule the world. We have assumed responsibility for the political order of the oil states. We have undertaken to referee the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians -- and, as if that weren't foolish enough, exhibited something less than evenhandedness in discharging this self-imposed duty. We are the arbiters of the Balkans, the hegemon of Central America, the dissolver of trade barriers, the enforcer of patents. Is there any matter on earth that we consider outside our competence, and privilege, to make or mar?

Scuba divers relish a song parody that begins,

There's a hole in the reef
With a mouth full of teeth --
That's a moray.
Put your hand in the crack,
And you won't get it back
From a moray.

The world is full of fierce and formidable creatures, but for the most part they will not bother you if you don't bother them. If, on the other hand, you persist in putting your hand into all the dark crevices in all the rocks in the world, you will sooner or later be bitten.

The second question asked so urgently since Sept. 11 -- What do we do? -- can perhaps be answered a bit more intelligently now. Let's try a couple of thought experiments.

We have jammed our hand, once more, into the dark and narrow crack of Afghanistan. The stated goal was to "get" Osama bin Laden. That goal has not yet been achieved, and we seem instead to be stuck now with the problem of building an Afghan political order, using some very unpromising raw material. Nevertheless, the News From The Front is good. War, considered as a spectator sport, soon becomes an end in itself, like baseball, and the home team is putting some numbers on the board. So a certain groundless giddiness seems to be the order of the day.

One, two three, what're we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Pakistan!

Well. Nobody likes a Grinch. Let's go with it, and anticipate Osama's capture. He is tried, condemned, and executed on the same gurney that carried Timothy McVeigh into the next world. Do we imagine that there won't be another? Do we think that bin Laden is the only man in the Middle East filled with a murderous hatred of us? Do we believe that he is the only man gifted enough to pull off attacks like those of Sept. 11? Do we doubt that any war to destroy bin Laden will fail to engender more of his kind?

How then do we protect ourselves against Osama II, and III, and so on?

Our leaders tell us that we will have to give up some of our freedoms. We may, for example, need to start carrying a national identity card -- a thing rather like the much-maligned internal passport of the old Soviet regime, but much smarter. It will be equipped with a tiny microprocessor and memory, and linked to a database with our fingerprints. So we are told by a former civil libertarian, writing in favor of this initiative on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Every I.D. check -- and if you think there are plenty of them now, you ain't seen nothin' yet -- will create an entry in an hour-by-hour account of our movements and activities.

Perhaps we will need to crack down on this Internet thing, too. The I.D. card can double as a "smart card." Computer manufacturers can be required by law to equip their machines with smart-card readers, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to mandate a smart-card log-on before enabling access to the public Internet. Now all the pieces are in place to monitor everything we do in cyberspace, without the expense even of a human security agent to bark, "Papers, please."

Awful, yes. But if it makes us safer?

It won't. The Trade Center and Pentagon hijackers had I.D., and presented it, as all airline passengers are compelled to do. Knowing who they were could never have told us what they would do. At best it can assist the police in catching (or at least identifying) them after the fact. But these are people who are not, for one reason or another, concerned about being caught.

The fact is that modern society is simply quite defenseless against attacks like these. We may be able to prevent an exact repetition of the Sept. 11 attacks, by, say, welding shut the cockpit doors of aircraft. But the attackers will think of something else, as any of us could do with 10 minutes' reflection.

Imperial headquarters just aren't as invulnerable as they were in the days when Rome ruled the world. The Gauls and the Picts couldn't carry their wars into the sacred precincts of the Forum. But modern transport and communications have given their present-day successors undreamed-of capabilities.

Do we then have a choice? Or are we irretrievably committed to this cycle of intervention and retaliation, of terror and repression? Are we riding the proverbial tiger, and dare not dismount? How did we get into this mess anyway?

America's sense of its imperial mission -- or rather, our leaders' sense of that mission -- goes back a long way. But to a very great degree, our actual pursuit of it has often been accomplished in the face of considerable, if ultimately unsuccessful, resistance from the citizenry. It is this spontaneous, unideological reluctance to be embroiled abroad that I am now coming to value more highly.

Before both World Wars, an interventionist American leadership found it very difficult to persuade a reluctant, largely "isolationist" public to assume a global role. But after each of these wars, those leaders were able to use the wartime political momentum to pick up imperial assets that had been dropped during the struggle by the established empires. Among these ultimately troublesome acquisitions were properties in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It is the latter, of course, where the sitting tenants are vexing the landlord at the moment, though some of us remember very well the headaches of Indochina.

There are, of course, other imperial and quasi-imperial holdings in the portfolio. There is NATO --an alliance in search of an enemy. There is Taiwan, and South Korea. We have dabbled in the Balkans, and made occasional spasmodic gestures in the direction of Africa. But let's concentrate for the moment on the Middle East, since that's the main source of pain just now.

The value of the Mideast properties is not difficult to discover: the three-letter word "oil" covers most of it. There are other elements, of course. The Israel connection owes something to the vagaries of our electoral system and to a skillful and determined network of lobbying groups. But even Israel derives much of its support among our policy elites from the sense that a junior partner in the region -- a sort of Wilmer to our Fat Man -- is somehow helpful in the primary task, which is to keep the pumps and pipelines under our control. Even Afghanistan has been eyed recently as a pipeline route to new fields in Central Asia, which may explain the not-so-subtle shift in our war aims there.

Let's try another thought experiment. What would happen to us if we simply put our imperial burdens down in the Middle East, and walked away from them? If we pulled our troops out of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and the other tottering, ramshackle petro-Ruritanias? If somebody else, or nobody, built and operated that Afghan pipeline? No doubt it would be bad news for the sheikhs, emirs, sultans, pashas and whatnot -- all those neo-feudal Shriners in their colorful costumes and gaudy palaces whom we currently keep in the catbird seat. A good many of these people would end up residing permanently in London and L.A.'s Bel Air, which would admittedly constitute a purgatory for sales clerks at Harrods and Rodeo Drive. Kuwait -- a particularly contrived state-oid carved from the Ottoman Empire by Britain in the 19th century to serve as a naval port and entrepot -- might be incorporated into the more substantial, if unsavory, state of Iraq. Saudi Arabia would probably retain a nominal independence by virtue of its religious significance, but would have to adjust itself to the realities of a modern state system, as the popes had to do in Europe when its state system emerged.

But the question was, what would happen to us -- apart from the aforementioned sales clerks? The new owners of the oil couldn't eat it; they would have to sell it. Maybe they could put the world price up a bit. They couldn't put it up much. The result, for us, would be costlier gasoline, heating oil and electricity. Would this be a disaster? Quite the contrary: It would be a blessing.

The wasteful and destructive transportation and housing patterns of contemporary America are built on cheap oil. When the oil becomes more costly -- as it certainly will do, one way or another, sooner or later -- such habits will become unsupportable, and with more or less inconvenience and discomfort we will have to reorganize the way we provide these social needs. The longer we are able to continue driving, at top speed, down the strip-mall and McMansion route we have taken over the last half-century and more, the greater that discomfort and inconvenience will be when we finally have to reverse course. By the same token, the sooner the price of oil begins its climb, the sooner we can begin a process that will have to be undertaken in any case.

Even so, wouldn't it be very selfish of us to abandon the people of the oil states to the tender mercies of people like Saddam Hussein? And what about Israel?

The capacity for altruistic self-sacrifice is a potent force among individuals, and indeed the integrity of the social fabric depends on it. We New Yorkers know this vividly now. For those who lived through Sept. 11 in this city, the hundreds of men and women of the uniformed services who died while seeking to aid their fellow townsmen revealed what human solidarity can sometimes require -- and what shining moral heights human beings can sometimes climb.

But we must understand that this capacity for self-sacrifice can't, and shouldn't, be depended on to operate between nations. An entire people, given the choice, will not sacrifice their own sons and daughters, wives and husbands, for the well-being of another people on the far side of the world; nor should they be asked to do so. As moral individuals, we may someday be called upon to sacrifice ourselves for family, or community, or country; and let us hope that if it should come to that, we will rise to the occasion, as those New Yorkers of immortal memory did on the 11th of September. But no nation should ever be called upon to sacrifice itself for another. The moral equation is different on that scale of magnitude.

The demand for such sacrifice would be misplaced even if the good to be done were certain; but it is not certain. Rather the reverse: If there is one thing of which we can be quite sure, it's that our national interventions generally do far more harm than good to the people who are the involuntary targets of these unasked-for initiatives. This is not an accident. High-minded excuses are usually given for our interventions, but seldom if ever do they constitute a real motive. Morality is not in fact much of a force in international relations, nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. The option of a national life as a moral intervener really isn't open -- it's a Utopian idea. But from a moral point of view, leaving people alone would be a considerable improvement on what we actually do now.

We have not delivered the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, but we have killed a good many of them fighting him. Even if we had succeeded in killing him, can we really imagine that a Periclean efflorescence of Iraqi civil society would have ensued? Closer to our immediate concerns, the devastation of Afghanistan is very largely of our making. Another thought experiment: Would the people of Afghanistan be better off now, or worse, if we had not armed and organized a surrogate army there for one of the skirmishes in our global rivalry with the former Other Superpower? When the Soviets finally admitted defeat and pulled out, our clients took over, and quickly showed themselves so brutal, corrupt and incompetent that the Taliban -- the Taliban! -- was able to overthrow them. Other portions of the Soviet empire, however -- Poland, say -- had to do without the benefit of a made-in-Washington insurrection. Poland was not well off under the Soviets; but it is better off now than Afghanistan.

The "what if" question is probably unanswerable. But to ask it is to shed some light on an important meta-question, a question of method: On whom, in this debate, does the burden of proof fall? Primum non nocere, runs the ancient Hippocratic maxim: First do no harm. Surely nonintervention is the unmarked alternative, the null hypothesis? Mustn't the burden of proof fall on those who seek to justify intervention, rather than those who seek to avoid it? The idea may seem strange, but if so, it is only because intervention has become such a habit, and the need for it such an unexamined and indeed unconscious assumption of our collective thinking.

In the case of Afghanistan, the advocates of intervention would face a very heavy burden indeed, since it is difficult to imagine how that nation could possibly be worse off than our efforts have already left it. The burden would be all the more difficult as we look forward rather than back; retrospective justifications would turn, no doubt, on the wickedness of the Other Superpower, but for some time now there has been no Other Superpower to give us an excuse. So we have ginned up another narrative to replace the anti-Communist crusade: this new myth is a tale about "nation-building." Unfortunately, it seems particularly implausible in contemporary Afghanistan, where the people we are restoring to power are very much a known quantity -- known to be thugs of the worst kind.

But the problem is not limited to Afghanistan. Nation-building is not something that one people can do for another. Every people has to struggle for and win its own social order. In the wreckage of Afghanistan, gangsters and fanatics took over, as always, just as poison ivy takes over in disturbed ground. Such regimes have little staying power, historically speaking. Ultimately, if left alone by outside forces, ordinary people find that what they want is simply to live quietly; to marry and have children; to work and grow comfortable; to eat and drink and have fun with their friends. Either the regime evolves to one in which these things are possible, or it is replaced. If the Franco and Salazar regimes gave way to free and modern societies -- without the assistance of the U.S. Air Force -- who is to say that the same couldn't happen in Afghanistan and Iraq?

This process does not happen overnight; it may take a generation, or two. But it cannot be artificially accelerated. The growth of nations is by nature a slow process, and airstrikes and cruise missiles do not enhance it.

Another narrative, offered to justify intervention nowadays in the echoing absence of the Evil Empire, is a tale about keeping the peace. Where do we do that, I wonder? Israel/Palestine? If so, then "peace" has taken on a splendidly Orwellian new meaning. It would be more nearly correct to say that our role in the Israel/Palestine conflict has been to keep the pot boiling. Our essentially unqualified (and quite expensive) support for Israel, no matter what, has encouraged that country to take a very high hand in its dealings both with its neighbors, and with the Palestinians. Among other unfortunate effects, this has strengthened the most extreme and intransigent elements among the Palestinians -- since the only thing that the "moderates" can deliver is thinly veiled surrender.

What would happen if our unconditional, extravagant support for Israel were withdrawn -- or even circumscribed in a significant way? The conventional answer is that those terrible, fanatical Arab states would drive the Israelis into the sea. Is this plausible?

Half a century ago, the "confrontation states" took an understandably dim view of Israel. In the first fine flush of worldwide decolonization, the establishment of what was, let's be candid, a settler-colonist state in their midst sat very badly indeed with them. The tide of history then appeared, to many people, to be running strongly in the other direction. In the intervening decades, the tides of history have turned out to ebb and flow in unexpectedly complex patterns. Israel has not been defeated or destroyed, and has indeed established itself as one of the real (if sometimes unsavory) states of the Levant.

Now the leaders of the other modern -- also sometimes unsavory -- Levantine states are nothing if not realists. They have their ambitions, but those ambitions are considerably less world-historical than those of Nasser and the young Hafez al-Assad. And they have little if any greater love for the Palestinians than Israel itself has, though they pay a great deal of lip service to the Palestinian cause. Israel is a tough nut to crack, even without Uncle Sugar backing it up -- and what would be the point anyway?

A partial, but illuminating, analogy for Israel is South Africa before the end of apartheid. Like South Africa, Israel has institutionalized the dominance of one ethnic group over another. Like South Africa, it is unloved by the neighboring states. But also like South Africa, it is much richer and stronger than these states. This condition of strategic advantage continued to operate, for South Africa, even after moral pressure had forced the Western powers to distance themselves, at least in public, from the apartheid regime.

Ultimately, that regime proved unsustainable, and South Africa had to abandon it. But South Africa, the state, continues to exist; and while many South African whites may be nostalgic about the good old days, they have not been driven into the sea -- far from it.

History provides a number of parallels. Consider Ireland, back when the whole island was under British rule. The Protestant ascendancy certainly depended on Britain in order to maintain itself atop the social pyramid; with the withdrawal of Britain from what is now independent Ireland, the Protestants had to yield ascendancy. But they remain, generations later, an integral, respected and important element in Irish society. Indeed, it is safe to say that in independent Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have found their way to a mutual accommodation; while in that sad corner of Ireland where Britain still clings to the pathetic remnants of its imperial glory, Catholics and Protestants still bomb each other's pubs.

The kind of evolution we see in Ireland could reasonably be hoped for in a truly independent Israel -- an Israel forced to deal with its own internal social conflicts, and find an accommodation with its neighbors, without the dubious benefit of superpower sponsorship. The kind of moral pressure that South Africa faced to end institutionalized white dominance would no doubt also be brought to bear on Israel; the playing field would need to be leveled between Jews and Palestinians. It is very difficult to imagine that the Israelis would allow themselves to be bulldozed. This is a very capable and resourceful group of people, and not the kind of minority, demographically speaking, that Protestants are in the Irish Republic. But they would certainly have to relinquish the ascendancy that, at present, with our help, they maintain. Can any fair-minded person doubt that this would be a good thing?

In defense of interventionism, then, there are two narratives: the narrative of interest ("we need cheap oil") and the narrative of altruism ("we protect the weak"). Both are bogus. We don't need cheap oil -- in fact, cheap oil is a curse -- and we don't protect the weak.

We in the U.S. are almost uniquely blessed by geography and history. Unlike Britain, we have a huge land mass; but like Britain, we are well-insulated from any potential threat. Russia and China are bigger, but have long borders with problematic neighbors. We enjoy the kind of advantages that make it unnecessary for us, with any color of strategic rationality, to assume a forward position around the globe. No, our imperial self-assertion has a different basis. There are people, no doubt, who benefit from it; but the ordinary American does not. Five thousand ordinary Americans, on Sept. 11, paid the price of empire; more than 50,000 paid it in Vietnam. Bombing Afghanistan, executing Osama bin Laden, backing up Ariel Sharon in whatever nightmarish scheme he may hatch -- none of these things will prevent the presentation of such invoices in the future. Indeed, if we go on as we have, we will ensure that they are presented, again and again.

Even those of us who aren't directly hit will pay a price. We will lose our privacy and our freedom of movement. We will have to put up with the sort of high-handed policing that we once despised in our enemies. Our news media are already being called on the carpet by White House "national security" apparatchiks and receiving guidance on what they should report -- receiving guidance, and accepting it. The Pentagon has deprived us of the capacity to see what its "smart" bombs are doing to Afghanistan -- by using our tax money to buy up all the commercial satellite imagery. We have, it seems, a choice between our historic liberties and our more recently acquired empire.

The old, 1930s isolationism was thought of as the property of the Right. I myself am an unrepentant, unreconstructed person of the Left -- one of the two or three remaining specimens roaming wild in North America. As a leftist, I have had much occasion, in recent years, to ask myself, Where did we go wrong? The answer is not a simple one. But a big part of it is surely that we didn't pay enough attention to what ordinary people knew, with immediate certainty, that they wanted. We didn't give sufficient weight, for example, to ordinary people's desire to live their lives without being messed with and dictated to for their own good by intellectuals committed to a social engineering project. In a similar way, our idealistic internationalism regarded as retrograde and philistine the desire that ordinary people have to live peacefully within their own borders: to avoid, as much as possible, entanglement in the affairs of other nations.

But the older I get, the more I myself resent being dictated to by the authorities; the more I understand and share the yearning for autonomy. And Sept. 11, when I watched from my windows as the World Trade Center burned, convinced me, if any further conviction were needed, that there is a lot to be said for the old slogan "America first."

From my point of view, on the Left, that slogan might be glossed like this: Let America set its own house in order first; let it ensure social justice and respect for all at home, first; let it learn to protect its own air, and water, and unspoiled land, first; let it build its industries with a view to substantial common good rather than speculative stock-market gain, first. Other Americans, from different points on the political spectrum, would no doubt frame the national agenda in different terms. But this is a conversation -- no, let's be candid; this is an argument -- we need to have among ourselves. The requirements of empire can only distract us from it.

Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable instruments. We cannot know what the future holds. We would be unwise to assume that we will never face an unprovoked threat -- that we will never have to join with other nations to resist an oppressor. That has happened before and may well happen again. To say that we ought to mind our own business does not mean that we should ignore what is going on in the world, or fail to defend our real, just interests if those should be threatened.

But when you're the biggest guy in the neighborhood, you seldom get picked on gratuitously, even if you speak softly and say "please" and "thank you" and don't run around looking for a fight. Call it fate, or chance, or Providence, but we are the biggest guy in the neighborhood. Rationally, we have little to fear, and ample resources to cope with any threat that may arise.

It's time to mothball the ships, and bombers, and missiles again. Silent and still, unmanned and undeployed, they will speak more eloquently of our nation's strength, both physical and moral, than they can ever do tearing up the skies over pitiable Afghanistan, or poking their sleek bows into Persian Gulf oil ports, like hounds on the scent of some ignoble quarry.

And less exaltedly, but no less importantly, once the peoples of the earth are safe from us, then we, too, will be safe from them.

By Michael J. Smith

Michael J. Smith is a writer in New York City.

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