"Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
This almost religious sentiment was already at odds with the American reality of westward expansion, not least in the extra-constitutional purchase of Louisiana from France (1803). Acquiring Louisiana roughly doubled the size of the United States, headed off war with France, and put a territorial wedge between the Spanish holdings in America. The purchase turned the U.S. into one of the largest countries in the world, but it wasn't exactly a boon to the freedom and self-determination the people who lived there, despite their theoretical entitlement by the Laws of Nature and Nature's God. Instead, Louisiana became susceptible to the benign influence of freedom and self-government by being subjected to and by the United States.
Expansionism became more powerful than isolationism
The inherent contradictions in America's expansionist isolationism eventually gave way to a dominant policy of expansionism with such highlights as the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (this is "our" hemisphere, everyone else keep out), the Mexican War of 1846-48 (well, it's our manifest destiny to take what we want, especially California), and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (guaranteeing a free Cuba and establishing our first off-shore empire in Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines -- what some call the beginning of the "American Century").
Insofar as the United States embraced isolationism before and after World War I, it was the odd isolationism of a global empire picking its fights. And when we went into that European war in 1917, Woodrow Wilson drew on the American evangelical freedom tradition, telling the nation, without apparent irony:
"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."
After the Great War, the indispensible nation proclaimed itself dispensible from the world community, resisting further entanglement in European wars until an Asian war came to Hawaii. Since World War II the idea of "American isolationism" has remained an oxymoron -- except perhaps to those who wanted the U.S. to attack the Soviet Union then, or Iran or China now. For most of the time since 1945, governments of both parties have limited American interventionism to relatively limited, stupid, pointless wars like Viet-Nam or to covert attacks on "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle" the people of Iran, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, and so on.
And how does -- or how should -- Syria fit into the "New American Century"?
All that Cold War militarism, with its special justification, came before the "New American Century" crowd took power with the 2000 election in the Supreme Court. Once they got their fervently desired "new Pearl Harbor" on 9/11 the following year, the United States entered a period of chronic, useless, bankrupting war unlike anything in our prior history. The indispensable nation's present willingness to put its useless attack on Syria on hold is hardly enough to signal that the world's only superpower has come to its senses.
And it remains unlikely that the people of the world, and especially the people of Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya see us as indispensible to anything but their continued suffering.
The real isolationism with regard to Syria is the American willingness to go it alone, whatever "it" might turn out to be. Virtually isolated in its willingness to commit acts of war, the U.S. has apparently stumbled into a reprieve offered opportunistically by Russia. In his New York Times op ed column September 12, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said, without apparent irony, "We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law." That's a charade Russians and Americans might enjoy equally, even as it serves the public good.
Some are opposed, of course. Invoking their own version of American exceptionalism, the nattering nabobs of national narcissism continue to babble incoherently about toughness and credibility and sending messages --- all of which require the nation to kill more people or be seen as isolationist, or even dispensable!
What would be truly exceptional would be for the United States to contemplate a complex crisis thoughtfully and patiently, without reflexively assuming that the best and only response should be military.
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