The Isolationism Label

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lately I have found the internet awash in accusations that those who are opposed to US intervention in Syria are isolationists. These columnists are routinely comparing the Assad regime to the Third Reich and skeptical citizens to the members of the American isolationist movement of the late 30’s and early 40’s. This is a bad analogy. Here’s why.

There are two principal problems with the use of the isolationism label as a pejorative to attack opponents of intervention in Syria:

  1. Sweeping Generalization–isolationism implies universal opposition to foreign entanglement. Opposing a specific intervention does not necessarily imply a generally isolationist worldview.
  2. Assad is Not Hitler–the critique of isolationism rests on premises that are not true in the Assad case.

I’ll elaborate on each argument in turn.

Sweeping Generalization

In order for the “isolationism” label to be appropriate, opponents of Syrian intervention need to be justifying their opposition on the general principle that entanglement in foreign affairs is always or almost always wrong. The fact that proponents of intervention generally believe this to be the only reason opponents have for their opposition is indicative of how misunderstood the anti-intervention position is by intervention’s supporters.

There are prominent, widely shared non-isolationist reasons for being anti-intervention in the Syrian case:

  1. Liberal humanitarian reasons–intervening harms the Syrian people because it merely serves to replace the oppression of Assad with the oppression of the Al-Nursa Front and the other dominant extremist rebel groups.
  2. Realist national interest reasons–intervening harms the United States because it merely serves to replace the anti-American Assad regime with a possibly even more anti-American state, one that might provide a safe haven for terrorist groups like the Al-Nursa Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, etc.
  3. Self-Determination/Sovereignty reasons–an intervention determines the kind of government Syrians have. It does not allow them to work out their dispute organically and leaves issues unresolved.
  4. Skeptical reasons–doubt that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, that the use of chemical weapons is worse than the use of conventional weapons such that use by the regime justifies intervention, or both.

Some of these reasons are better than others, and some opponents of intervention hold more than one of these views concurrently. Supporters of intervention may disagree with all of them, but they are manifestly not exclusively isolationist reasons. There are some people making isolationist arguments, appealing exclusively to past unpleasant outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but generally the appeal to the Iraq/Afghan cases accompanies one or more of these other reasons.

Furthermore, each of these reasons (with perhaps the exception of self-determination) is falsifiable–there is a clear mechanism by which the opponent of intervention would change his mind. The first and second reasons both require that the Obama administration provide a plan for ensuring a benevolent government be the result of intervention, rather than merely a non-Assad government, with the primary difference between holders of the two views being the target of that benevolence (liberals want a benign government for Syrians, realists want a benign government for the United States). The fourth reason requires that the Obama administration well and truly convince skeptics that Assad or a similarly high-ranking official in the regime deployed these chemical weapons. It also requires that the Obama administration present convincing reasons as to why it is in the American interest to take issue with the use of chemical weapons specifically despite past US support for their use by regional autocrats (e.g. Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War). To this point, the administration has not been successful in persuading skeptics, liberals, or realists of any of the relevant premises each group needs to believe to support intervention.

Isolationism is a blanket theory, it does not have room for nuanced views about foreign intervention in which the for/against position turns on premises like “will we able to replace this government with a better one?” or “was a high-ranking member of the regime responsible for the chemical attack, or was it a rogue commander?” These are questions asked not by those who oppose all foreign entanglement all the time, but by those who doubt that this specific intervention is a good intervention. The isolation label is dismissive and slanderous.

Assad is Not Hitler

Even if opponents of intervention are not isolationists, it is conceivable that they could be subject to the same criticisms that isolationists were open to. There are two principal indictments of the pre-war isolationists:

  1. Appeasers–by failing to confront Hitler earlier, isolationists allowed Hitler to become a larger threat to the allies, leading to a more destructive war.
  2. Genocide Enablers–by failing to confront Hitler earlier, isolationists were complicit in the Holocaust.

Are opponents of intervention appeasers or genocide enablers? I argue they are neither.

Opponents of intervention are not guilty of appeasing Syria because Syria is not a great power. It is not capable of waging war successfully against the United States. Aside from permitting Syria to acquire a nuclear deterrent, there is nothing the United States could allow Syria to do that would cause it to become anything like the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Even nuclear proliferation does not result in an equivalent scenario–nuclear weapons make war prohibitively costly, discouraging conflict, while in the German case, the Nazi regime was put in a position in which it could actually wage successful aggressive war against its neighbors. In any case, the Assad regime is not presently pursuing nuclear weapons, it is attempting to fight a civil war against an estimated 1,200 rebel factions. Permitting it to fight that war does not strengthen Syria–a prolonged conflict is much more likely to reduce its industrial capacity, economic potential, and population, making it even more inferior militarily to the United States.

Opponents of intervention are also not enabling genocide, because the Assad regime is not involved in “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” (the UN’s definition). The Nazi regime rounded up and killed 17 million people on the basis of these modifiers, including Slavs, Jews, Poles, Roma, the disabled, non-whites, homosexuals, and leftists. In the Syrian case, 100,000 have been killed, the overwhelming majority of which are combatants fighting either for the regime for for armed rebel factions (and while it is often assumed that the 100,000 were all victims of the regime, approximately 46,000 of the dead were actually soldiers fighting for Assad). Small numbers of civilians have been periodically targeted with the intent to coerce a rebel surrender, a tactic that, while grisly, is much more similar to allied terror bombings during World War II than it is to the Nazi genocide. It is also often forgotten that the rebels also execute the unarmed from time to time. The analogy simply doesn’t hold. Assad is not Hitler, Syria is not the Third Reich, the Syrian Civil War is not the Holocaust or the beginning of a series of Syrian wars of conquest.

With all of this in mind, let’s remember to see the isolationism labeling for what it is–a propaganda tactic by supporters of intervention whose purpose is to slander and shame opponents of intervention into dismissing valid concerns on the basis of deeply flawed analogies to dissimilar circumstances.