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Thursday, September 12, 2013 

A funny kind of isolationism.

Of those sympathetic towards liberal interventionism, Timothy Garton Ash is usually among the most eloquent and sound in his reasoning, and hardly ever resorts to the glib, emotional arguments of others.  He doesn't do so in his latest piece either, but he does rather misrepresent Democrat and Republican objections to intervention in Syria:

"Isolationism" is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

First off, I don't think the fear of decline has entered into the debate at all, or rather if it has, it's been used by those pushing for intervention as what could happen if they don't act.  Second, while some such as Rand Paul are classical isolationists in modern libertarian clothing, it's hardly the case that the majority of legislators are leaning in that direction.  It has to be remembered that over the past few years America has sent its drones into Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan; has intervened in Libya; withdrew from Iraq; and is in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan, although will most certainly retain a long-term presence in the country.  Obama and the Pentagon have done most of this with barely a murmur of disquiet from either the Senate or the House of Representatives, with the likes of John McCain and other hawks pushing for the military to go further in some instances.

Indeed, Obama has only stepped back in this instance because he faced a humiliation worse than the doing a deal with the Russians: losing the vote.  And again, this wouldn't be down to creeping isolationism or "withdrawalism" as much as the fact that the Obama administration has made a dreadful case for intervention, off the back of a red line that it's clear the president wished he had never drew.  To say it once again, this was never about chemical weapons; it was about politics.  Luckily, the Russians seem to have found a way to get him somewhat off the hook.  As Ash recounts, the real interest for the US is for the war to continue, hence why the rebels have never been put under any pressure to come to the negotiating table.  Letting the jihadis and US-trained rebels fight it out far away from any real strategic US interests makes sense, at least for now. What happens in the years to come we can worry about then.

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