Months and months of deficit panic and out-of-proportion media hype set up what Greg Sargent likes to refer to as the "Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop," which has been a huge help to lawmakers, if "allowing them to cease all effort to ameliorate the nation's unemployment crisis" constitutes "help" in your imagination. Now, it seems that a brand new situation is ramping up on the pages of newspapers and Sunday morning television: the "Isolationism Panic Feedback Loop."
Very recently, the United States joined up with a bunch of allies to do some stuff in Libya that very definitely constituted "inflicting collateral damage upon people and places and things in Libya through 'kinetic' action," but somehow does not rise to the level of "hostilities." We don't mean to be hostile, but some dudes in this place called Benghazi have been persecuted! Many lawmakers are confused by this mission. A few of them don't believe President Barack Obama has adequately made the case for this "kinetic action" on policy grounds, or has done enough to abide by whatever just-short-of-a-total-rubber-stamp oversight authority that Congress is willing to apply on our endless, budget-gutting wars.
And some of these lawmakers have decided, "You know, I don't particularly like the way France seems to be in charge of all this bombing, so I will modestly propose we do something about it." And where there are usually war pom-poms popping off all over the place, there are now some concerned faces.
From my perspective, I think this development is many years late and many billions of dollars short. But for a few people, this is actually a sign of creeping "isolationism."
Now, way back in the day, we used to define "isolationism" as a policy of total withdrawal from foreign entanglements, up to and including power alliances and trade agreements. The most renowned proponent of isolationist foreign policy in our lifetimes is probably Pat Buchanan (who wouldn't call it that, but still), and today, Ron Paul more or less carries that mantle. (UPDATE: In his own words, here's how Paul characterizes the limitations of his "isolationism," while scoffing at the over-hyped concerns roiling the Beltway.)
Thing is, those people mean it in the old-school sense of the term. To call someone an "isolationist" because they question the strategic importance of the Libya intervention or the legal authority under which it's being waged is like calling someone who wants to cut Chateaubriand out of their diet a "vegan."
This week's isolationism fear-mongers basically define the term as "questioning the wisdom of being involved in dodgy wars." And they're coming to your Sunday morning political chat shows to engage in their high-tech concern-trolling:
McCain said if former President Ronald Reagan were still alive he would have been disappointed in last week's Republican presidential debate in which candidates voiced impatience with U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.
"He would be saying: That's not the Republican Party of the 20th century, and now the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world," McCain said.
McCain made the comments in an interview with ABC's "This Week" program that was broadcast on Sunday.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who was one of McCain's top advisers in the 2008 campaign, echoed McCain's concerns.
Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" if he's fearful "that there is an isolationist streak now running now through the Republican Party, Graham said, "Yes."
Graham went on to say, "If you think the pathway to the GOP (Republican) nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama's left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you are going to meet a lot of headwinds."
It makes you wonder what Republican debate he was watching! The one I saw featured precisely one candidate who could be reasonably considered an "isolationist": Texas Representative Ron Paul. The most credible candidates didn't strike me as the sort of people who would bring an end to the war in Afghanistan anytime soon. Here, for example, is what Mitt Romney said:
"It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they're able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That's an important distinction."
I'm guessing that Graham stopped listening after the fifteenth word, before Romney essentially realigned himself with the conventional take on Afghanistan. As for Libya, it's not hard to understand why the candidates might question it: first, it's something their opponent -- President Barack Obama -- did, and second, let's face it, perfectly reasonable people have concerns about it.
But you can see what Graham did there, right? The "isolationism" cow is out of the barn, and it's now stretched from Tripoli to Kandahar and beyond. So we now have people like Tim Pawlenty saying, "I don't like the drift of the Republican Party toward what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism,” all because John Boehner wants to assert Congress' role under the War Powers Act, and neoconservatives are said to be "fighting back against the isolationism wing of the GOP," which, we remind you, doesn't really exist.
So as hyperactive conflict continues to percolate, newspapers will slowly drop the quotation marks from around the word "isolationism," and we'll be discussing the matter as if it's a foreign policy that some significant figure has actually proposed. Then the age-old "unserious" tag will be applied to anyone who doubts that our involvement in Libya is anything but astoundingly wise. This conversation will eventually creep to Afghanistan and accelerate once the media narrative starts to address whatever nominal drawdown the White House proposes.
And with a field of GOP candidates shining up their brickbats (with the exception of Ron Paul and, it seems, Jon Huntsman) the climate for that drawdown proposal will probably be intensely hostile, and further conversation on ending these budget-wrecking foreign engagements will be off the table.
In that way, the "Isolationism Panic Feedback Loop" and the "Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop" will interact at cross-purposes with one another in hilarious ways that won't be appreciable by the proponents of either. But they share one thing in common, and that is a mutual disinterest in serving the legitimate needs of ordinary Americans.