Alex Massie

Barack Obama, Isolationist!

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Really? Says who? Says Jamie Kirchick in a piece at Standpoint. Kirchick hangs this dubious thesis upon a single shoogly nail:

If the Democrats learned a lesson from their last presidential election defeat, however, it’s that they were not isolationist enough. In a little noticed remark earlier this month, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama expressed exactly the same sentiment as Kerry four years ago, using almost exactly the same language. Outlining his economic agenda delivered at a speech delivered in Raleigh, North Carolina, Obama stated that “Instead of spending $12 billion a month to rebuild Iraq, I think it's time we invested in our roads and schools and bridges and started to rebuild America.”

It would have been one thing had Obama assailed the cost of maintaining America’s military presence in Iraq. After all, he has hardly made a secret of his opposition to the war, and has criticized nearly every aspect of its execution up to and including the successful surge in forces and counterinsurgency plan executed so masterfully by General David Petraeus. But Obama’s slight last week was not directed at the cost of stationing over 100,000 armed men in Iraq – an iteration of his oft-repeated line that there is “no military solution” to the conflict there – but specifically at reconstruction aid. That’s the money that goes to building schools, health clinics, government ministries and the like. In other words, Obama believes we should stop constructing the edifices (literal and figurative) of the sort of liberal society that was impossible under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Criticizing the continuation of an effort that he believes never should have started would at least have had the virtue of being vaguely principled, as opposed to a crude expression of isolationism.

Why stop at Iraq? There is no limit to Obama’s admonition. He happened to choose Iraq reconstruction aid as the target of his ire because anything associated with that poor country has become unpopular with the American electorate. Yet the underlying logic of Obama’s statement is that we shouldn’t spend money on projects overseas if that money could likewise be spent here at home. Why not go after the billions of dollars we spend to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa? Why not attack the programs we spend on democracy promotion in some of the world’s darkest tyrannies? Come to think of it, why is the United States offering so much aid to cyclone-ravaged Burma, when those dollars could be spent on flood relief in the Midwest?

With his call for spending money at home “instead” of abroad, Obama establishes a false choice, creating a dichotomy where none exists.

But of course Obama is not "creating a dichotomy" quite possibly because, as Kirchick admits, "none exists". Why stop at Iraq? Probably because Obama thinks the war has been a terrible blunder and American attention might be better, and more profitably, focsed elsewhere. One may disagree with this analysis but doing so does not render Obama's position "isolationist". Indeed, if Obama were the sort of (terrible!) isolationist Kirchick accuses him of being, he might indeed consider spending American tax-payer's cash on Africans an irresponsible waste of money. In fact he proposes doubling the amount of money the US spends on "foreign assistance". So it seems there is in fact a "limit to Obama's admonition".

Equally, Obama is such an "isolationist" that, last time I checked, he wanted to increase US efforts in Afghanistan, to the point that he has, sensibly or not, promised to attack - and deploy troops to - north-west Pakistan if circumstances warrant. Depending upon your perspective nvading a notional ally may be thought reckless or a necessary evil, but it's hardly the sort of thing Pat Buchanan - to whom Kirchick absurdly compares Obama - is likely to recommend.

Nor, last time I checked, has Obama suggested the US should end its presence in Colombia. Indeed he fully supports Plan Colombia and agrees that the United States must also "take on the Mexican drug cartels". In the middle east he says the US would "never distance itself from Israel", while his ambitions for Africa seem all but limitless. One could go on...

Nor does he believe that the United States should close its military bases around the world and bring the boys home. On the contrary, like everyone else who's won a major party nomination in recent decades he reserves the right to intervene in other countries where he judges it necessary. He may not express this hegemonic view as fiercely as Kirchick might like, but it's fanciful to suppose that Obama wants to "withdraw" from the rest of the world. On the contrary, he often says "We can restore America's leadership in the world." Some isolationism that!

And with regard to Iraq, it's worth noting that Obama's "plan" calls for US troops to be brought home within 16 months of his taking office. In other words, even this scandalously isolationist candidate envisages US troops being in Iraq for another two years. And there seems every possibility that Obama's policy will change and he'll find himself prepared to countenance an American military presence in Iraq for rather longer than his most devoted supporters would like. Thats why some of them are unhappy with his perceived drift to the centre...

But, none of this - nor the all but endless litany of areas for international engagement that are hidden in plain sight on his website - are enough. No, one line in a single speech cofirms that Obama is an "isolationist". Well, if so, he's an isolationist who bears some resemblance to another candidate who plpedged to end an unpopular war: Richard Milhouse Nixon. That being so, Obama is an isolationist only if the word isolationist doesn't mean what it actually means.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalforeign policy