So it's come to this: If you are against a militarily pointless act of "symbolic killing" that has arisen due to an ad-libbed line by Barack Obama, you're part of the "new isolationism." That's according to Bill Keller, former executve editor of The New York Times and current op-ed columnist there.
His recent essay on the matter is filled with more buts than a X-rated fetish film and enough "to be sures" to fill a coffin, but come on, he argues, if you're against intervening in Syria by lobbing a few cruise missiles specifically designed (according to the Obama administration that would do the lobbing!) not to depose the Assad regime, you're Charles Lindbergh's bastard child (and sorta-kinda anti-Semitic or at least a rube because "isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces").
Keller doesn't make an argument for what American interests are at stake in Syria. Instead he refers to
two engrossing new histories of [America's entry into World War II] — "Those Angry Days" by Lynne Olson and "1940" by Susan Dunn — both focused on the ferocious and now largely forgotten resistance Franklin D. Roosevelt had to navigate in order to stand with our allies against Hitler.
Because the parallels are ominous, right, between a world increasingly under the thumb of expansionary totalitarian states in Europe and Asia and…the current government in Damascus? Even Keller can't fake his way through that analogy, so he instead rambles through an argument-in-form-only by tossing off as many non-sequiturs as possible to gloss over the emptiness at the heart of his piece. Snippets:
Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood….
To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration….
Isolationism is strong in the Tea Party…
Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit…
…can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism…
I hope the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy….
Even one of the historians he cites finds his argument thoroughly unconvincing:
Olson told me she was startled to hear Secretary of State John Kerry inveighing against "armchair isolationism" last week in his testimony on Syria. "I think to be skeptical now does not mean you're an isolationist," said Olson, who is herself skeptical about taking sides in Syria. "It's become a dirty word."
What is it that Obama is always saying? "Let us be clear," right?
Well, let us be clear: There is no useful comparison between the situation in 1940 and the current day. Period. The attempt to do so is a transparent and unpersuasive ploy to gloss over the absolute lack of a go-it-alone cause of action on the part of America.
the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy. And I hope Americans will listen with an open mind.
Where have you been for the past several weeks, Bill (his whole column is here)?
Some of the people against Syrian intervention are no doubt true isolationists (though not necessarily latter-day American Firsters, eschewing all sorts of interactions with the wider world). But most certainly are not, and they include non-interventionists (who are rightly slow to action, though not categorically opposed to it) and even many war hawks.
Indeed, most of the people opposing Obama's action are thoughtful people who recognize the Syrian gambit for what it is: a sad, ill-conceived, and desperate ploy by a president who has assiduously destroyed whatever good will he had at home and abroad through a series of blunders, missteps, and brazen acts of incompetence and dissembling.
The choice is not between attack on Syria and withdrawal from the world, which virtually no American wants. The choice is between kick-starting America's war machine to defend a glib politician and a more thoughtful response not just to this crisis but all the crises around us now and down the road. If Keller wants a thoughtful alternative, he would do well to read Victor Davis Hanson (no isolationist, he) on the matter:
If the congressional vote is, as I hope, no, Obama should quietly (i.e., don't blame Congress, the world, the public, etc.) back out of the bombing mode, more quietly continue the belated work of promoting a pro-Western resistance to Assad, mend fences with allies most quietly, and prepare very carefully (but without the bombast) for a real crisis on the near horizon that will need the public, the Congress, our allies, and the president's full attention and response. In our new Vienna-summit-to-Cuban-missile-crisis era of danger, I fear our enemies and rivals are digesting the Syrian misadventure and calibrating to what degree they might soon turn our present psychodrama into a real American tragedy.
And assuming that a Syrian intervention happens (Obama has pointedly refused to say whether he would abide a congressional vote to stand down), then the only thing to do is start the clock on Bill Keller's apology for supporting the action. Which is exactly what he did with Iraq, where, as Matt Welch, noted earlier this year, Keller displayed his bona fides as a charter member of the "I-can't-believe-I'm-a-hawk-club" for baby boomers.